Turnaround School Districts

Recovery, Achievement, Opportunity, Transformation: these are the titles and aspirations of statewide “turnaround” school districts whose mission is to take over failing public schools and move them quickly to an acceptable range of performance. For all their complexity and variation, turnaround districts have two things in common: One, they give impatient state policymakers a potentially powerful new tool for dealing with perennial school dysfunction. Two, they put existing districts on notice that the revered notion of “local control” must give way if it fails to deliver results for students stuck in lousy schools.

As of mid-2015, there are three such districts up and running: the Louisiana Recovery School District (RSD), created in 2003 but expanded dramatically in 2005 to encompass nearly all schools in New Orleans; the Tennessee Achievement School District (ASD), created in 2012; and Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority (EAA), also created in 2012.

While not spreading like wildfire, the idea of turnaround districts has caught the imagination of leaders in a growing list of states. The governors of Georgia, Nevada, and Texas have laid the groundwork for new statewide zones. Policymakers in Mississippi, Wisconsin, Utah, Arkansas, and Missouri have pushed proposals forward with varying levels of success. The notion has recently resurfaced in South Carolina. Variations on the theme keep popping up, either as half-measures in states such as Delaware and Connecticut, or in state-led receivership schemes that stop short of creating an actual “district.” These exist already in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania; at the insistence of Governor Andrew Cuomo, a more locally-centered version of that authority was granted in the New York State budget approved in April 2015.

All of these involve the reshuffling of governance authority between state and local players. While touching lightly on all, this article focuses mainly on state reforms that take over schools, rather than districts, and that assume “LEA” functions for those schools—the mundane routines of oversight, administration, and finance that a local education agency (aka a conventional school district) ordinarily performs.

What’s driving the recent efforts is frustration with longstanding school failure, not the lure of federal grant money that helped push the first three districts into being. To wit:

• The RSD, conceived originally as a modest pilot program that had awarded turnaround charters for just four schools prior to Hurricane Katrina, was dramatically enlarged by Louisiana policymakers as a way to get public schools open after the ensuing floods, and was propelled by more than $20 million in federal charter school funding.

• The Tennessee and Michigan districts were both created in response to the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top program, which required states to take action on their bottom 5 percent of schools. Tennessee won a $22 million, five-year grant in the initial round, which helped pave the way for the ASD’s relatively smooth opening. Michigan proposed to create a state district in its application; when it did not win the grant, then-Governor Jennifer Granholm worked with legislators to authorize the infrastructure for a state district anyway. Without the federal dollars, the EAA required substantial private funding to get off the ground.

The U.S. Department of Education continues to offer School Improvement Grants (SIG) that defray the costs of school turnarounds, and are targeted toward the bottom 5 percent of public schools in each state. But nothing in that program requires a consolidated, statewide approach that clusters low performers into a separate district. (And as Congress limps toward reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or ESEA, political support for continuing the SIG program is ebbing.)

Veterans of state turnaround efforts are playing a Johnny Appleseed role. Former Louisiana State Superintendent Paul Pastorek is advising leaders of several states in the planning stage on the dynamics of setting up recovery districts. Neerav Kingsland, former head of New Schools for New Orleans (NSNO), has also been called in for consultations. Chris Barbic, superintendent of the Tennessee Achievement School District (ASD), has weighed in to support a proposal for a similar district in his former state of Texas. More information about these turnaround districts and others that have been proposed can be found in the text boxes below.

Existing Turnaround Districts

Louisiana Recovery School District

Writing about the RSD as a turnaround district in 2015 is challenging because its age, origins, and scale are so different from those of the other two active districts. The question raised by the RSD today is less “Can a turnaround district work?” than “Can an all-charter district work?”—since that’s what it officially became in May 2014, when it closed the last five of its direct-run campuses. (That move also slimmed the RSD’s staff from 568 employees to just 92, and reduced its central office budget from $306.9 million in the 2012–13 school year to $19.6 million in the 2014–15 school year.)

Tulane University’s Cowen Institute issues annual reports on New Orleans school performance and its most recent edition examines progress over this period. With respect to grades K–8, the Institute says, “the percentage of public school students in Orleans Parish at and above basic has increased 15 percentage points since 2009. RSD schools have been the main driver behind that increase, having grown 20 percentage points.” Doing so has put RSD schools within shooting distance of the statewide average, which has risen just 5 percent in the same period.

A study by analysts from the National Bureau of Economic Research and MIT recently examined student-level gains in “takeover” schools in Boston and New Orleans—in the latter case, eleven direct-run RSD schools that were put under charter management since 2008. The findings were striking: “Charter school takeovers in the New Orleans Recovery School District appear to have generated substantial achievement gains for a highly disadvantaged student population that enrolled in these schools passively.” This study is of particular interest since the students remain in place—so there’s no question of “creaming” or of results being impacted by those legendary “highly motivated parents.” It’s the change in school operation, shepherded by the RSD, which accounts for the difference. 

Tennessee Achievement School District

The great majority of Tennessee schools in the bottom 5 percent are located in Memphis, and each year the ASD selects a few more of them for inclusion in its portfolio. Concurrently, the ASD runs an application process through which potential school operators are vetted, then matched with schools, hewing close to the recommendations of a community-based advisory council.

While the ASD continues to manage five schools directly, it’s moving in the direction of greater independent management: During 2014–15, the ASD portfolio held twenty-three schools, eighteen charters and five direct-run. Six more will be added in the 2015–16 school year in Memphis and one more in Nashville, bringing the ASD student population to 10,000. All of the new schools will be run as charters.

The ASD set out an explicit, ambitious goal: to take schools in the bottom 5 percent and move them to the top 25 percent in proficiency, not growth, within five years. And of course, intense scrutiny has followed. According to the ASD’s own second-year report, three of the six schools in its initial (summer 2012) cohort are on track toward that ambitious goal. The ASD reports modest gains across grades 3–8, and more impressive gains in high school, with ASD students far outpacing state-level gains in algebra, English, and biology. And among the schools using the “phase-in” approach (taking over schools grade-by-grade), schools averaged a twenty-two-point gain in reading proficiency on the state assessment, and a sixteen-point gain in math last year. But that method is in jeopardy since Shelby County Superintendent Dorsey Hopson announced that he would end the shared-space arrangements needed for ”phase-ins.”

Michigan Education Achievement Authority

The EAA was conceived as a statewide turnaround district but operates only in Detroit after failing repeatedly to win legislative permission to expand. In the brief time since we reported on the EAA in autumn 2014, detailing its wobbly start and the disappointing academic results of its fifteen schools (twelve direct-run and three charter), much has transpired. The Authority is still walking on eggshells politically, but vigorous and candid new leadership is giving it a chance at success.

While academic turnarounds take time, efforts to create a healthier school climate seem to be paying off. According to surveys conducted by the nonprofit Excellent Schools Detroit, the percentage of students who reported feeling mostly or very safe in their classrooms increased from 56 percent to 64 percent from 2012–13 to 2013–14.

ACT scores haven’t budged, however. The average ACT composite score at EAA high schools, pre-takeover, was 13.7. It remained the same in 2013–14.

There’s more encouraging news on the graduation front. Graduation rates across the EAA’s six high schools took a significant dip in the first year after takeover, dropping from a four-year average of 64 percent in 2011–12 to 54 percent in 2012–13, its first full year overseeing the schools. But there was significant recovery in the EAA’s second year, with the four-year rate moving back up to 62 percent in 2013–14.

In April, state education superintendent Mike Flanagan announced that two EAA schools (direct-run Brenda Scott Academy for Theatre Arts, and Trix Elementary, a charter school) would be among twenty-seven schools removed from state’s roster of Priority schools in the bottom 5 percent.

But stay tuned. Detroit’s entire school-governance map is up for grabs with competing proposals by the governor, mayor, and a coalition of community leaders.  For now the EAA is not a direct target of these plans, but it may well wind up being folded directly under the state school reform office.

An Idea Spreads

Even without Race to the Top incentives, proposals for new statewide turnaround districts continue to pop up. Six states (Virginia, Texas, Nevada, Georgia, Mississippi, and Arkansas) have taken concrete steps toward establishment of statewide districts, although Virginia’s already-enacted district was struck down by state courts. Legislators and reform groups have floated versions of the idea in Wisconsin, Utah, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, and Missouri. Other states have created what amount to turnaround districts in name only. Still more variations, aimed at individual cities rather than states, have surfaced in York, PA and other places, stirring tremendous local controversy.

In the Works


Governor Nathan Deal floated the idea of a state turnaround district in his first term; following his 2014 re-election, he made it a cornerstone of his education agenda. In his 2015 State of the State address, Deal proposed an “Opportunity School District” (OSD) to help rejuvenate failing public schools and rescue children languishing in them. The new district’s superintendent would report directly to the governor, and the program would be limited to twenty schools per year.

But Deal’s plan must first surmount a high hurdle. Georgia’s constitution is strong on “local control” (which is why the state’s highest court struck down the original version of a statewide charter authorizing body, later reconstituted via a referendum amending the state constitution). Creating a new statewide district will also require a constitutional amendment. On March 27, 2015, Deal narrowly won the two-thirds legislative majority needed to get the measure onto the statewide ballot in 2016. (Its carefully wrought wording should help its chances of passage: “Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow the state to intervene in chronically failing public schools in order to improve student performance?”)


During the 2014 gubernatorial campaign, Texas attorney general Greg Abbott published an education platform that included a statewide turnaround district drawing heavily on the Louisiana and Tennessee models. It drew praise from one prominent education leader, KIPP co-founder Mike Feinberg: “We’ve got to do something with schools that fail year after year,” he said. “It’s insanity for the state to keep wagging its finger, saying, ‘I mean it! One more year!’ That’s the worst thing that a parent can do with a child. So why would we have that as state policy with schools?”

With Abbott’s election as governor, the proposal headed toward legislation as part of a larger reform package, including an A–F grade for individual school campuses and a new teacher evaluation system. In a March 3, 2015 press conference announcing the initiative, Lt. Governor Dan Patrick said that 148,000 Texas students are “trapped” in 297 schools that have been failing for more than two years. Despite his strong advocacy, the measure died in the waning days of the 2015 session, meaning that it cannot resurface until the biennial body reconvenes in 2017.


A better fate awaited the similar measure put forward by Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval. Allowing a new state district to take over six schools a year from among the 78 in the state’s two bottom performance tiers, the legislation passed in late May 2015 and was signed by Sandoval on June 3.

Implications for Governance

The creation of turnaround districts by states, indeed even the serious contemplation of such a move, suggests a real restlessness with the ability of  traditional K–12 governance to act on persistent school failure. These are four of the most notable implications for future governance.

1) The local district has lost the exclusive franchise. This is not exactly news; states have been taking over school districts for years, often for lengthy periods. (New Jersey has been in charge of the Jersey City schools since 1989.) State boards and commissions can often authorize charter schools all over the place. Statewide math and science academies, virtual schools, and entities other than districts all loosen the grip of local officials on the delivery of public education. And since states possess constitutional primacy in K–12 schooling, they have also been able to intervene in individual schools, though historically only under extraordinary circumstances.

What’s different here is that the definition of “extraordinary” is widening, not just to cover the kinds of emergencies caused by bankruptcy or mayhem, but also to include a school’s chronic failure to educate its pupils. Now, the state establishes a separate entity charged with removing from district custody those schools that the district has failed to set right—not as a one-shot intervention but as a routine part of state oversight. This most certainly expands the scope of state jurisdiction at the expense of local.

2) Power shift at the state level. The brief history of turnaround districts also raises new questions about who represents “the state” itself. In matters of K–12 education policy, state boards of education have traditionally been the focal point for policymaking, but recent decades have more often found governors and legislators driving reforms that state boards and state superintendents would not likely have undertaken on their own—and sometimes superseding those boards and superintendents in direct control. This is surely hastening what Columbia’s Jeffrey Henig called “the end of exceptionalism in American education” in his book of that title, where the functions of education policy and management were walled off from, and presumably untainted by, the political figures in charge of general government functions. (There have always been a few exceptions, such as New York, where the state board has what amounts to separate constitutional authority.) The ASD’s superintendent reports to the state superintendent of education, who is appointed by the governor. In Michigan, the EAA’s real governing power is housed in an executive committee dominated by gubernatorial appointees; and now the governor has also taken over the School Reform and Redesign Office, formerly under the state superintendent. In Louisiana, on the other hand, the RSD chancellor reports to the state superintendent, who is appointed by the elected board of elementary and secondary education.

Gubernatorial leadership in these early initiatives has more often followed institutional rather than partisan lines, as vigorous state executives have demanded faster and more effective action than was historically provided by the plodding deliberations of state boards and semi-independent agencies. Michigan’s recent reforms were kicked off by Democrat Jennifer Granholm and accelerated by her successor, Republican Governor Rick Snyder. A similar handoff between parties took place when Tennessee’s Democratic Governor Phil Bredesen’s proposal for the ASD was embraced by his GOP successor, Bill Haslam. The Recovery School District’s origins are somewhat more idiosyncratic. It was conceived in 2003 by then-state board member Leslie Jacobs, but its expansion got a strong push from Democratic governor Kathleen Blanco after the hurricane and floods—and was then championed by her Republican successor, Bobby Jindal.

The most recent crop of kindred efforts displays a somewhat more partisan cast, as Republican Governors Abbott, Deal, and Sandoval are taking the lead in their respective states—although the senate sponsor of Abbott’s legislation is Democrat Royce West, and Deal’s bill has one “D” among its senate co-sponsors, Senator Freddie Powell Sims of Atlanta. Only in Mississippi is the initiative being sponsored by the state education agency.

3) A boost for the “portfolio” concept. With the EAA’s recent turn away from direct management of schools, it’s certain that the three existing districts will provide high-profile test drives for portfolio management. Those sponsoring proposed districts in Nevada, Georgia, and Mississippi also talk in terms of multiple management options. So this experiment may become a compelling argument for creating relatively rapid improvement of very low-performing schools by recruiting skilled operators under an umbrella of tough accountability. (If the results are flawed, of course, this could also puncture a hole in that argument.)

4) The federal question mark. While this article focuses on state policy, Uncle Sam has had a profound catalytic effect. The No Child Left Behind Act prescribed sanctions for schools and districts failing to make “Adequate Yearly Progress,” and even under the waivers that most states have now obtained from NCLB’s accountability provisions they must still show how they will take action on their lowest-performing schools. Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants provided billions to improve the worst-off schools. Even if states could get away with making cosmetic changes under these programs, their combined impact helped to build demand in state capitols to do something serious about failing schools—and supplied resources that states could leverage toward this end.

Given the strong push for devolution of authority back to states in the post-NCLB era—and assuming that no new economic catastrophe hands the U.S. Department of Education more billions to spend at will—it’s hard to imagine more federal programs with such sweeping scope in the foreseeable future.

The turnaround district is a major structural, policy and governance innovation within the world of American public education, but innovations don’t always work. Most of the time, they need fine-tuning and mid-course correcting. Sometimes they need a full reboot. And sometimes they aren’t worth retaining. As with technology, as with accountability, as with charters and teacher certification and so much more, turnaround districts call for close scrutiny and honest reckoning as well as continuing invention and refinement. The children in their schools certainly deserve—and desperately need—a better education than they were getting under the old arrangement. But it’s too soon to say with confidence that the new arrangement is producing the results we seek.

Nelson Smith is a consultant on education policy and public charter schooling. This article is adapted from his paper “Redefining the School District in America,” prepared for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in June 2015.

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