By Sally Absher

As maligned and unpopular as Knox County Director of Schools Dr. Jim McIntyre has been, he must take some comfort in the fact that he’s not quite as despised as Chris Barbic, the contentious superintendent of Tennessee’s Achievement School District (ASD).

But McIntyre’s fellow Broad Superintendent Academy alumni Barbic recently announced he is resigning at the end of the year (hat tip:

Barbic told senior officials that now that the ASD is no longer new, it needs a different leader. He reportedly also cited health reasons, including the 2014 heart attack that kept him out of work for weeks, in his announcement to resign.

Tennessee’s ASD was modeled after Louisiana’s Recovery School District (RSD), which has the dubious honor of having completely closed every single public school in the city of New Orleans, replacing them with a disconnected web of charter schools.

The ASD currently has control of 27 schools in Memphis and two in Nashville, from among the lowest-performing 5 percent in the state. Twenty-two of these are run by charter operators, the remainder are run directly by the state. Nineteen Memphis area schools and 11 schools in Nashville currently meet the criteria to be absorbed by the ASD.

So far, Knox County and Hamilton County (Chattanooga) have remained beyond the reach of the ASD, but some say it is only a matter of time. Knox County had four schools on the priority list last year: Sarah Moore Greene, Green Magnet Elementary, Lonsdale Elementary, and Vine Magnet Middle. This years’ list will be released next month.

Districts with Priority Schools have one year to plan before their schools receive “mandatory intervention,” such as inclusion in the ASD or a district-led “Innovation Zone.”

When the State formed the ASD in 2012, they appointed Barbic to lead the special district based on his record as a charter school operator in Texas. Schools that are taken over by the ASD either become charter schools or are run directly by the ASD, and get new staff, curriculum, and control over their schedules and budgets.

The ASD was formed with the “ambitious goal” of raising the state’s bottom 5 percent of schools into the top 25 percent in just a few years. Having just completed its third year, scores will be released next month that, according to Barbic, will be the first meaningful measure of whether the district is achieving that goal.

“All our schools have three years to be on track, and if not, we’re going to replace charter operators. If it’s direct run, we’ll replace ourselves with a high-performing charter,” said Barbic, at the end of ASD’s second year.

But in his resignation announcement, Barbic was less than optimistic about the results of that approach.

“As a charter school founder, I did my fair share of chest pounding over great results,” he wrote. “I’ve learned that getting these same results in a zoned neighborhood school environment is much harder.”

The first two years of test scores didn’t show much in the way of dramatic gains. Last spring Barbic told Chalkbeat that it was too soon to tell whether the school overhauls were working and that the extent of poverty in Memphis impeded change. “I think that the depth of the generational poverty and what our kids bring into school every day makes it even harder than we initially expected…We underestimated that.” Indeed.

The ASD has not been without its critics, from parents, teachers, and students to legislators. Last year several charter operators, including YES Prep, the charter network Barbic founded in Houston, pulled out of agreements to take over schools under the ASD. As a result, earlier this month the ASD announced it is overhauling the way it assigns local schools to outside charter operators.

Also last year, legislators, unhappy with poor public perception and mediocre results, filed 22 bills designed to slow ASD growth. Most of these died before they could make it to the Governor’s desk.

Two bills that benefitted the district passed – one expanding the number of students eligible to attend ASD schools, and another allowing the ASD to charge charter operators to run its schools.

A third bill that passed bars the ASD from intervening in low-performing schools where test scores are showing gains. This could result in a smaller number — and more uniformly low-performing — schools ripe for takeover when state achievement test scores come out later this summer.

The pressure is rising at the state level too, with budgetary uncertainty and “shifting priorities” among state education officials.

Tennessee spent more than 10 percent of the $500 million “windfall” obtained from Race to the Top to launch the ASD. But those funds are now gone – and so is Kevin Huffman, the commissioner who promoted the ASD and hired Barbic. His replacement, Candice McQueen, has indicated she supports the initiative but has concerns about the long-term financial sustainability.

McQueen will appoint Barbic’s successor. Perhaps a certain superintendent of a district in East Tennessee might be interested?