Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Charter Takeovers Tennessee Style

If you don't have the good fortune to have a hurricane clear the public school competition out of your path, what other techniques can be used to convert to an all-charter system? Kevin Huffman in Tennessee appears to have an answer.

Kevin Huffman, as the Tennessee Grand High Commissioner of Education, represents a reformster milestone of his own. Huffman's career path took him to Swarthmore, which led to a TFA posting, which led to law school, which led to practicing education law in DC, which led back to TFA, first as general counsel and later as various VP executive titly things. Then, a few years later, Governor Bill Haslam tapped him for Tennessee Educational Poobahdom. Which made him the first TFA temp to get to run an entire state's education system. So congrats on that, Tennessee.

Since taking over that post, Huffman has taken some great reformy steps. For instance, he chimed in with Arne Duncan to claim that low-achieving students, including those with learning disabilities, just needed to be tested harder. And as a super buddy of charter schools, he took $3.4 million dollars away from Nashville city schools because their board didn't approve the charter that he had personally shepherded through the process.

That blew open the giant can of worms that is Nashville metro schools, an ugly mess that I'm still reading up on. But there's more reformster excitement to be found in Tennessee. Let's travel cross-state to Memphis and the Achievement School District.

The ASD is yet another lesson in the kind of money to be made in the business of privatizing schools. It's also a lesson in what can happen when the state stops even pretending to have a commitment to public education.

Most states way back under NCLB had some sort of mechanism for taking over local school districts that were "failing." Most of these were site-specific and theoretically impermanent responses to local issues (eg the SRC in Philadelphia)-- turnaround pro tem operators. But Tennessee has the ASD-- a state-run board that is essentially a state-wide school district composed of Whatever Schools We've Decided To Shut Down This Week. The ASD is part school district, part brokerage firm, deciding which batch of students and real estate will be served up to which charter school operators. If your goal were to simply destroy public education and replace it with a charter system, this would be a genius way to do it.

You can see their genius right there in the big fat mission statement on the ASD site:

The Achievement School District was created to catapult the bottom 5% of schools in Tennessee straight to the to 25% in the state. In doing so, we dramatically expand our students' life and career options, engage parents and community members in new and exciting ways, and ensure a bright future for the state of Tennessee.

This is just brilliant (from a ruthless privatizing takeover standpoint) because there will always be schools in the bottom 5%. Maybe somebody in the state capital is dumb enough to think that eventually ALL the schools in Tennessee will be in the top 25%. But for everyone who is vaguely math literate, the implication here is clear-- if the ASD can just show a little patience, they will eventually be the only school system in Tennessee.

That process is already well under way. The ASD started out with six schools in 2012 and is up to twenty-two this year-- all in Memphis. The state has drawn big red bulls-eyes on twelve more schools in the Memphis area (though the ASD site frames it as "eligible to join ASD, as if that's a nifty prize they've just won) with nine now emerging as likely targets beneficiaries. ASD has already begun the process of deciding which charter operator gets to pick these plums, and the candidates include many of the usual suspects such as KIPP and Green Dot.

ASD is also expanding in Nashville, and I can only imagine that charter operators bidding e-bay style for the chance to snatch these beauties. ASD of course hands the schools over stripped of many of those bothersome rules about teacher certification and job security.

So sit back and relax, schools of Tennessee. You will be assimilated soon enough. Soon every single one of you will be in the top 25%, and you'll be happily wedded to your new charter overlords. In the meantime, other reformsters can just watch and learn as Memphis schools are parceled out to charter privateers.

This new type of system-- the state as a broker between communities and charters-- seems open to all manner of abuse. It seems absolutely built for pay-to-play, and it also seems to have built-in instability, since the state can run a revolving door of charter operators depending on results, ROI, and whatever operator is the flavor of the month. Students, teachers, and community members are just fodder for this giant money-generating machine.


  1. Thanks Peter. Notice how the mission statement for the ASD mentions nothing about education at all? Also, the Charters in TN are not percorming at a higher rate than public schools- according to data at the state BOE. I wrote on this earlier in the month and am trying to keep getting the word out about Memphis and the ASD. Putting TN on the map so the rest of the country knows what is going on MUST happen. Also- Kevin Huffman is Michelle Rhee's ex- husband and their children attend Metro Schools.

  2. Huffman & Milken wonder if TN reforms are happening fast enough. http://www.milkeninstitute.org/blog/view/619

  3. Gary Rubinstein has written some keen analysis of the ASD: http://garyrubinstein.wordpress.com/2014/07/31/underachievement-school-district-2014-edition/

  4. And now they have their own flavor of TFA for Memphis competing with the University of Memphis teacher preparation program to staff these fabulous schools Actually TNTP is doing it. http://tn.chalkbeat.org/2014/10/08/university-of-memphis-teams-up-with-the-new-teacher-project-to-train-recruit-new-teachers/#.VEbQvPl4rYi

  5. Great Job Peter!!! Anybody who is NOT a friend of K-Huff is a friend of mine! I despise Huffman so much, I wrote a song about him entitled "Our Commissioner is a Phallus." http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yytldVPhY0A#action=share