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Texas Could Create Special District for School Turnarounds

A bill from Texas Sen. Royce West that would create a state-run Achievement School District to take the reins for struggling schools is getting consideration in the House, as it faces opposition from teachers' unions.

West, a Democrat, lays out the proposal in Senate Bill 1718, which passed the upper chamber on May 1. The Achievement School District would be run by a superintendent reporting to Texas Commissioner of Education Michael Williams. A school rated "unacceptable" on the state's school accountability system for two consecutive years would be eligible for placement into the Achievement District, unless Williams' office determines the school has subsequently instituted "meaningful change," including the replacement of school leaders and staff. If so, the state would re-evaluate that school in another year. Looking at the 2011 accountability ratings for individual schools, there are dozens if not hundreds of schools with the "unacceptable" label (I could not locate these ratings for 2012), so the potential impact on public schools in the state is vast.

Remember, Williams has said the state will begin grading Texas schools on an A-F basis, but the legislation doesn't delineate how those new rankings will factor into decisions regarding which schools get placed in the special district. Presumably, at least, schools receiving an F for two straight years could be eligible under the bill, which was introduced just under a month before Williams' announcement about A-F school grades.

Among its other powers, an analysis of West's legislation shows, the Achievement District would have the sole power to determine which of the teachers who were working at a school before its transfer to the special state-run district could remain at the school. The superintendent of the Achievement District would then have three years to "turn around" the school, subject to annual reviews. It would also allow Williams to direct charter-school operators to take over management of schools in the special district, and the Achievement District superintendent could also seek out new federal and grant funds.

The model appears similar to what Louisiana has done with its Recovery School District. That's a point the Texas AFT makes, as a criticism, in an April 29 action alert about the bill. And of course, states ranging from New Jersey to Virginia have long or short histories with state takeovers of schools. The AFT does praise the bill for one thing—requiring that only teachers certified in their respective subjects can teach those classes in the Achievement District—but otherwise slams the proposal: "In the process, students, teachers, and parents would lose most of the safeguards of educational quality and fair treatment that they have under the education code."

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