The Recovery School District

Tennessee’s Achievement School District (ASD) is the latest character onstage in the most interesting act of contemporary education reform: structural changes in the governance and operation of public schools.

For eons, the plot was the same: the district owns and operates all public schools in a geographic area. The subplot, at least in urban America, was that most of those schools weren’t delivering on the promise of public education.

Chartering, which crept on stage in 1991, subtly but importantly showed that entities besides districts could run public schools—and often run them better. Soon thereafter, Michigan and Massachusetts, adding dimension to the character, showed that non-district entities could also authorize (approve, monitor, renew, close) public schools.

The district’s monopoly grip on public education was broken.

Over the past two decades, chartered schools got more and more stage time, breaking into nearly every state and growing to capture larger market shares in America’s cities: 10, 15, 20, 30 percent in some areas.

Then the plot added a new twist, as state departments of education were empowered to take over individual schools and even entire districts.

This didn’t go so well. State agencies didn’t know what to do with the schools and districts they took over. Low performance continued, and this character embarrassingly slunk offstage, at least in most performances.

But this role wasn’t a total loss. It provided more evidence that public schools could be operated, monitored, and governed in various ways.

We’ve not reached the end of the play yet (and may never), but so far the high point was swift post-Katrina expansion of Louisiana’s Recovery School District. This state-controlled body has the authority to take over low-performing schools and their facilities and close them, run them, or hand their operations to someone else. But it’s not the state education department. It’s a specialized entity, a sort of virtual district, answerable to the state.

Now the dominant force in New Orleans, with a hand in schools educating four of every five kids in the Crescent City, the RSD has been instrumental in fundamentally—and hopefully forever—changing our understanding of the delivery of public schooling.

No one is better positioned to understand and explain the arc of this story, reveal its complications, pick out its nuances, and suggest its possibilities than Nelson Smith. The original executive director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, former president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, current senior advisor to the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, and much more, Smith understands chartering and school governance inside and out.

So when a new character bounds onto the stage and you need an expert critic at your side to help make sense of it all, Nelson’s your guy.

This is why Fordham asked him to write the story of Tennessee’s relatively new Achievement School District (ASD), a semi-clone of the RSD. In this excellent short paper, Smith offers a combination of history, reporting, and analysis; it is straightforward, sober, but quite hopeful.

The reader walks away understanding not just the ASD’s struggles, vulnerabilities, and potential, but also its context. This is invaluable to those interested in dramatically improving urban schooling, but especially for those, like me, who are convinced that the traditional urban district structure should’ve been banished from the theater a long time ago.

The paper takes us through the history of structural school-improvement strategies, then describes the genesis of the ASD. Created in the Race-to-the-Top-application era to convince federal proposal-scorers that Tennessee was serious about its failing schools, the ASD was charged with, well, doing exactly that.

With powers similar to Louisiana’s RSD but different in important ways, Tennessee’s ASD can take over schools and run them or team up with third-party operators.

If you want details on how schools are made eligible for takeover or how they exit ASD control, you’ll get them.

More interesting to me, though, was learning how Chris Barbic—former superstar charter-network leader and first and current ASD head—shaped the new body through imaginative approaches to growth, operator recruitment, school matching, community engagement, human capital, and more. I’m a big Barbic fan, so I’m probably biased, but his success in landing superb school operators, expanding his portfolio slowly, and avoiding unnecessary fights is quite impressive.

At this point, I’m of the mind that the ASD/RSD model, though it is a giant leap in our evolving understanding of public school governance and operation, is not the long-term solution for what city kids need. Such bodies are designed to have a statewide reach, and their control of schools is meant to be temporary. I believe we need a new school-delivery and governance model that is city-specific and city-driven and that such a system should replace the district, not work around it. The RSD, in practice, is close to that, but the ongoing battle over local recapture of taken-over schools will continue until the district is permanently decommissioned.

But these are arguments at the margins. The RSD is infinitely superior to the failed urban district and, though the ASD is still the understudy, thanks to Barbic’s tutelage, we may soon see its name in lights.

-Andy Smarick

This blog entry first appeared in the Fordham Institute’s Education Gadfly Weekly.

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