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By W. Gardner Selby January 12, 2017

Abbott achieves compromise for Texas 'achievement' school districts

Greg Abbott ran for governor calling for Texas to detach repeatedly worst-performing elementary schools from local school districts and potentially give them vim and vig by grouping them together.

In his campaign's compendium of gubernatorial goals, Abbott said state law should be revised to direct the state education commissioner to launch a Texas Achievement School District for the state's 15 elementary or charter schools faring the worst for two straight years on the state's academic accountability system. Abbott said the leader of each new district would be chosen by the commissioner. And, Abbott proposed, each affected school would be in the district for three years before returning to its previous district or being re-committed for three additional years.

That district model, Abbott said, "would be intended to create a swift, automatic process under which the very worst schools would be removed from the control of their local school districts each year and placed under management of the ASD, which specializes in the task of improving failing schools."

A version of the special districts was folded into legislation during the 2015 legislative session, Abbott's first as governor, but didn't make it into law. Still, a related idea took hold.

We didn't hear back about this promise from Abbott. Separately, Lauren Callahan of the Texas Education Agency said by email that officials there were unaware of any 2015 legislation singling out lowest-performing elementary schools.

We also asked Lonnie Hollingsworth of the Texas Classroom Teachers Association about Abbott's promise. Hollingsworth said by email that a measure by Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, included language providing for an academically lagging school to be overseen by a new special district.

The Senate-approved version of West's Senate Bill 669 provided for the establishment of Texas Opportunity Districts at certain low-performing campuses. According to a Senate Research Center summary, the legislation held that a campus found low-performing for two straight years could be shifted from the oversight of a school district to management by a new opportunity district headed by an appointee of the state commissioner and "staffed by experts in school turnaround," the summary says.

The district's superintendent would be "empowered with a range of tools to turn around the campus," the summary says, "including repurposing the school or contracting with an alternative management organization. The school would be returned to the jurisdiction of the local district once performance was on track," the summary says.

SB 669 won Senate approval in May 2015, but House members didn't give it a hearing, according to legislative records. On May 26, 2015, senators made a late run at placing the essence of West's plan into House Bill 1842 -- with the proposed districts awkwardly dubbed State Turnaround Districts (STDs). Yet the West-backed addition didn't make it into the final version of HB 1842 signed into law by Abbott.

So, what did work out?

HB 1842 set in motion what the Texas Tribune later summed up as new deadlines for districts to improve failing schools, also allowing the commissioner to install a board of managers replacing district leaders who fail to fix underperforming campuses. After two years of academically unacceptable ratings, districts must develop reform plans with input from parents and other community members.

Under the law, after three years of academically unacceptable ratings, the commissioner can approve a plan to fix the school, install new school or district leadership or close the school. After five years of unacceptable ratings, the Tribune noted, the commissioner must either install new district management or close the school.

Callahan, the TEA spokeswoman, said by email that due to HB 1842, the commissioner has the power to close low-performing schools faster or install a board of managers to oversee a district.

We rate this previously unrated Abbott promise a Compromise.

COMPROMISE — Promises earn this rating when they accomplish substantially less than the official's original statement but when there is still a significant accomplishment that is consistent with the goal of his original promise.

Our Sources

Emails, Lauren Callahan, information specialist, Texas Education Agency, Feb. 10-11, 2016

Senate Bill 669, Senate-approved version, 2015 regular legislative session, Texas Legislature Online (accessed Feb. 9, 2016)

Record votes on Senate Bill 669, 2015 regular legislative session, Texas Senate Journal, May 7, 2015

Summary of SB 669, Texas Senate Research Center, April 28, 2015

Amendment by Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, placing State Turnaround Districts language into House Bill 1842, Texas Senate Journal, May 26, 2015

News story, "Texas to Hold Districts Accountable for Failing Schools," Texas Tribune, Aug. 13, 2015

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