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State Takeovers: What Loss of Control Means for Schools

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(Update: I had the opportunity to talk about public school takeovers with Celeste Headlee for NPR’s Tell Me More. You can listen to our discussion here.)

How bad does a public school system need to be for the state to take over? Are low student test scores alone enough? And what is a realistic time frame for the state to either turn schools around or restore local control?

The looming prospects of state takeovers are making headlines from Maryland to Ohio, as lawmakers express frustration with the glacial pace of school improvement and stagnant student achievement. Proponents of state takeovers say this drastic measure is the best way of promoting radical change in failing schools, improving accountability, and giving students access to better programs and services. State officials contend there must be consequences when schools continue to fall short of expectations, and that they have a constitutional obligation to step in. In some cases that means replacing the superintendent with a new (and ideally more effective) leader, and reallocating resources to target the areas of greatest need.

But critics contend that there can be significant downsides, including an over-reliance on test scores as the determining factor in whether a takeover is warranted. These takeovers also often focus on reorganizing the central office, which can have little direct impact on whether schools do a better job of meeting the needs of struggling students critics contend. Another potential problem: handing over control of the schools to an administrator who might have little or no experience in education. Given that several large urban districts are already looking for new superintendents — nevermind saviors — it could be tough to find a superstar leader interested in taking on the challenge.

The track record for state takeovers is shaky “probably because they don’t tend to change a whole lot,” said Michael Petrilli, vice president of the Fordham Institute, a conservative-leaning education think tank in Washington, D.C. “The union contract stays in place, the bureaucracy stays in place. All that’s gone is the school board.”

Petrilli told me a more promising approach is the “recovery school district” — an approach born in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina that has since been adopted in Michigan and Tennessee. A new district is created from scratch with the authority to hire and fire staff, close low-performing campuses, and even convert them into charter schools. “That strikes me as the smarter way to go,” Petrilli said.

Takeovers of local school districts are rare, although roughly half the states have laws on the books that make it possible, according to the Education Commission of the States, a nonpartisan research and policy clearinghouse for legislators. The triggers vary, although most states require districts to have multiple consecutive years of failure to make sufficient academic progress. In Ohio, for example, a takeover of Cleveland’s public schools is now a possibility after the district earned an “F” grade four years in a row on the state’s academic report card. Cleveland’s superintendent is petitioning the state for a waiver from the takeover. In Maryland, Rushern L. Baker, the executive of Prince Georges County, is aggressively lobbying state lawmakers to pass legislation giving him control of local schools, the Washington Post reported.

“Clearly there is a crisis in our school system,” Baker said in a telephone town hall with more than 16,000 people participating. “Our schools continue to be ranked at the bottom, we can’t keep a superintendent for more than a few years and our infrastructure is crumbling before our eyes. . . To accept the status quo is not an option.”

In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie is poised to take over Camden’s public schools, which have a long history of some of the lowest student achievement in the state. It’s a drastic measure that must be taken, contends the Star-Ledger’s editorial board, citing local school officials’ resistance to allowing successful charter schools expand, and the city’s long history of flailing student achievement.

New Jersey already has oversight of three districts – Jersey City, Newark and Paterson. As the Philadelphia Inquirer reported, significant problems persist in those districts. Newark, which has been under state control since 1995, continues to struggle to serve a high-poverty, high-minority population of students. A coalition of Newark parents and community leaders have been pushing for several years to regain control of their schools, arguing that they are in the better position to know what students need.

Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s perceived reluctance to assume more authority for the schools also has been a source of contention, as the NJ Spotlight recently reported from a community forum:

“You should have blasted (New Jersey Education Commissioner Chris Cerf) and said we should get back that local control,” said Angel Plaza, the student representative on the local school board. “I would have thought you would take the mantle and tell him we deserved it. It was a slap in the face to Newark students, all of us. For 18 years, the state has controlled us, and we’re the dumb ones?”

Booker responded that “I support local control, and I have supported it consistently,” NJ Spotlight reported. “But until that happens, I’m going to support our kids and our schools right now.”

In some instances control over the local schools has been put in the hands of the mayor – Boston and New York City are some prominent examples. Again, results have been mixed depending on the measures used to judge the experiment’s success (For more this issue, including a new report funded by the Broad Foundation, check out the LA Schools Report blog).

The motivators for a state takeover of a school district typically fall into two categories  – financial bankruptcy and academic bankruptcy. The first is relatively easy to define: Your liabilities outstrip your ability to pay. There’s also a clear goal: a balanced budget and paying off debts. Academic bankruptcy, however, is more difficult to define – and to solve.

Mike Griffith, a consultant who works with the Education Commission of the States, said he recently struggled to help the Michigan Legislature come up with a definition of academic bankruptcy for Detroit.

“Every definition we came up with put five or six other districts in that category,” Griffith told me. “You can talk about graduation rates, dropout rates, test scores – but what’s the cutoff line?”

Once the definition is put in place, the larger problem of how to fix the schools still looms. States have to find the right leader to take charge, decide where to focus resources and reform efforts, and develop a timeline for expectations. There needs to be an exit strategy as well, Griffith said. Too often there isn’t one, which has been the case in New Jersey, Griffith said. Unlike exiting financial bankruptcy – the debts have been paid, the books have been balanced – determining when schools are ready to be returned to local control involves much murkier waters.

“It takes years and years for schools to get back on track, which is one thing people acknowledge,” Griffith said. “What happens when the state is done taking over?”