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Expanded School Choice Not in State Ed Plans – So Far

By Lauren Camera, Education Reporter, April 13, 2017

As states begin delivering their proposed school accountability plans to the Department of Education – so far, 10 in total – most seem to be shirking Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ suggestion that they include policies to expand school choice.

Only three of the 10 plans submitted thus far include language aimed at addressing school choice – New Mexico, Tennessee and Washington, D.C. – and none propose anything new related to choice, opting instead to highlight policies already in place.

The submission of plans, which commenced April 3, is a major step toward the implementation of the new federal K-12 law, the Every Student Succeeds Act – a sweeping overhaul of the No Child Left Behind law that returns much of the decision-making authority over education to states and local school districts.

States must deliver their proposed accountability systems – plans for how they will assess the success of school districts, schools, students and educators and how they will improve those that fail to deliver – to the Education Department, at which point administration officials and a team of peer reviewers will assess and then either approve or deny the states’ submissions.

While the department’s decision will not hinge on whether the accountability proposals include school choice policies, DeVos said last month that she will use the approval process as an opportunity to “encourage” states to adopt those policies.

Her remarks roiled the education space, including lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, as they came on the heels of President Donald Trump signing into law a resolution that eliminated an Obama-era accountability regulation and in doing so was supposed to prevent future secretaries of education from using its authority to persuade or demand states adopt certain education policies.

But an analysis of the first accountability plan submissions show that so far few states are heeding DeVos’ advice.

Tennessee’s school choice language centers on its Achievement School District, the state’s attempt to turn around its poorest-performing schools. The strategy was first conceived as part of its effort to secure a 2010 grant from the Obama-era Race to the Top competition and currently consists of 33 schools. Through the effort, the bottom 5 percent of the schools in the state – the majority of which are located in Memphis – are absorbed into a state-run district that provides principals and teachers more autonomy in running schools, and the majority are turned into charter schools.

After four years of operation, the Achievement School District consists of 28 charter schools that are run by 15 charter operators and five schools that the state directly manages.

The state’s intervention strategies also include a requirement that schools on the cusp of falling into the state’s worst performers implement one of five turnaround strategies, one of which is turning the school into a charter school.

In the last five years, the number of students enrolled in Tennessee charter schools has increased by more than 300 percent, according to the state’s department of education. Currently, 98 charter schools serve more than 29,000 students, or about 2.9 percent of all public school students in the state.

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