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June 26, 2017

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Endgame murky for schools chosen for Nevada’s Achievement School District

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Mikayla Whitmore

Faculty, parents and students attend a rally at Von Tobel Middle School in Las Vegas on Oct. 26, 2016. The rally was to discuss the school’s inclusion on a shortlist to be converted into a charter school.

Assuming Democrats fail to repeal the program next session, Nevada’s controversial Achievement School District is set to take control of its first schools in time for the 2017 academic year. Charter companies will assume leadership of the struggling public institutions chosen for the ASD. But when, if ever, will they give them back?

Though the state-run charter district won't have to answer that question for years, the issue of its endgame is an important one.

The precedent set by similar programs around the country, specifically in Louisiana and Tennessee, suggests that Nevada’s ASD could grow to be much larger than many anticipate.

A key part of Gov. Brian Sandoval’s education reform agenda in 2015, the law allows the ASD to absorb up to six struggling public schools per year, putting them under the management of charter school companies. Schools scooped up in one year are simply added to the ASD’s portfolio. It’s a straightforward concept. But the process by which those schools, if and when they make improvements, transfer back to the public system is a lot more murky.

For starters, the law puts the ultimate decision in the hands of the governing body of each ASD school. If those officials believe a school has made enough progress academically after six years, the local community members on the board can decide whether it stays in the ASD, becomes its own charter school or transitions back under the Clark County School District.

The question is whether families would want to go through the trouble of adapting to an entirely new school structure for a second time. When ASD organizers began putting together a list of struggling schools for possible takeover, hundreds of parents turned out in protest, arguing that a charter company moving in would disrupt learning.

“We asked the question at the Legislative Commission recently about what happens after six years. It wasn’t super-clear,” said state Sen. Mo Denis, the Democratic education committee chairman behind a bill draft to repeal the ASD law later this year.

“The ASD continues to frustrate folks like me, because we keep hearing all these things and we’re not getting answers,” Denis said. “This is something that should really have been done in the legislative process, not after the fact because it was rammed through and we didn’t have a chance to work on it.”

Another concern is whether the inertia of a whole new school bureaucracy would inevitably lead to the transition of more and more schools, and therefore the survival of the agency. The ASD is now the third state agency overseeing charter schools, alongside school districts and the state charter school authority.

That question of inertia is starting to hit Tennessee’s ASD. Schools taken over by the state in Memphis have largely failed to post significant improvements over public school counterparts since the program began in 2011, and a study by Vanderbilt University showed Shelby County’s own in-house school intervention effort — called the Innovation Zone, comparable to CCSD’s Turnaround Zone — actually outperformed the state-run schools. Still, there are around 31 schools still under the control of the Tennessee ASD.

“They can point to successes, but they can also point to failures,” said Jeff Geihs, head of CCSD’s Turnaround Zone, about proponents of the ASD. “If they are so confident about what the ASD can offer schools, the question is not whether at the end of six years the school will go back (to CCSD); the question is, why won’t they allow people to vote on entering the ASD in the first place?”

In Louisiana, which formed its Recovery School District after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, schools performed better on average while under state management. The RSD at its height was the fifth-largest school district in the state. Schools had the option of going back to the public system, but as of last year, only one had done so. They'll have no choice next year, as the RSD is being dissolved.

ASD officials say that Nevada’s program was designed specifically to prevent it from ballooning. Where Tennessee’s ASD and Louisiana’s RSD have authority over day-to-day school operations, Nevada’s ASD does not. It has some oversight regarding whether achievement standards are met, but each charter school will be its own LEA, or local education agency, making decisions mostly independent of the district.

“Even if it grew at its maximum capacity per year, (the ASD) is only ever going to be able to impact less than 1 percent of the state’s student population,” said Jana Wilcox Lavin, superintendent of the Nevada ASD and director of Scholar Academies, a chain of charter schools operating under Tennessee’s ASD. “We’re never going to be that big.”

But "big" depends on your point of view. While 30 schools may only be a fraction of the number CCSD operates, it still adds up to tens of thousands of students.

State education officials are hesitant to predict whether Nevada’s program will resemble the kind of long-term project seen in Tennessee and Louisiana. And ASD deputy director Rebecca Feiden stresses that it's not a fair comparison.

“This is not the Achievement School District in Tennessee, this is not the Recovery School District in Louisiana,” she said. “We need to be thoughtful about what the context is here.”

“It could mean all of a sudden the state does better for the next six years and the ASD goes away, or it could mean the ASD could eventually become 60 or 100 schools,” Feiden added. “But to say that now is premature, because we haven’t seen the impact yet.”

The next step for Nevada’s ASD is the announcement of the schools that have been selected for conversion. The list will be released Feb. 1.

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