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When States Take Over Schools

Most reporters dread seeing the next school board meeting on the calendar. But as more states take over failing schools, removing them from local control, some journalists are finding open and easily accessible meetings harder to come by, and recognizing the value of what they’ve lost.

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Most reporters dread seeing the next school board meeting on the calendar. But as more states take over failing schools, removing them from local control, some journalists are finding open and easily accessible meetings harder to come by, and recognizing the value of what they’ve lost.

“Even though we hate going to board meetings, it turns out they’re useful,” Tennessee journalist Grace Tatter said to a roomful of knowing chuckles. The reporter for Chalkbeat Tennessee was moderating a panel about the increasing use of state “recovery,” “achievement” and “opportunity” districts. These state-run districts pluck low-performing schools from local control.

Panelist Ann Zaniewski, a Detroit Free Press reporter, said meaningful open meetings can be a casualty in state takeovers. There may be meetings, she said, but a lot of decisions get made behind closed doors. The other panelist, Vanderbilt professor Gary Henry, said takeover districts tend to lack strong mechanisms for local control.

“Talking about parents holding these schools accountable is a pipe dream in my view,” he said.

The participants in the “When States Take Over Schools” session at the 2016 EWA national conference in Boston earlier this month were generally critical of the trend. States that take over failing schools typically either run them directly or turn them over to charter school operators.

Advocates of state-run turnaround districts argue that the strategy brings a fresh opportunity to make dramatic change in the lowest-performing schools, after local authorities have failed over time to improve them. The idea is also to eventually return the schools to local control. Critics reject these takeovers as a usurpation of local control.

The panel described the political tug-of-war over control of schools and assessed the outcome so far.

Some schools have improved, said Henry, who has studied the phenomenon, but typically it was because they were not actually taken over. Rather, the threat of state intervention inspired a vigorous response, especially in urban Tennessee districts, he said. Local officials raised the pay and lured some of their best principals and teachers to high-poverty schools that had been neglected for years.

The essence of any recipe for school improvement is no secret, Henry said: “The key ingredient to school turnaround is teacher recruitment and — let me underscore this three times – teacher retention.”

State Strategies Vary

Each takeover approach is unique. In Louisiana, the state stepped in after Hurricane Katrina to take over most of the public schools in New Orleans, converting them to independent charter schools overseen by the state-run Recovery School District. The state also eliminated attendance zones so students could enroll in any public school in the city.

Michigan’s system sent children back to their neighborhood schools but under new management. Tennessee embraced a hybrid approach, taking over schools with its Achievement School District (ASD) and handing them to charter operators. Unlike in New Orleans, these new Tennessee charter schools continue to serve the students from their prior attendance zones.

Tennessee also created “innovation zones” in several cities, giving local districts grant money to turn around their failing schools. The “i-Zones” essentially compete with the ASD, and they have seen bigger academic gains, Henry said.

He attributes the uninspiring performance of the ASD’s charters to a fish-out-of water problem: Charter schools have traditionally operated under a choice model, allowing parents to match student needs to the strengths of a school. That advantage was neutralized when these charters had to take all comers like the neighborhood schools they replaced.

The idiosyncrasies of each takeover district make comparisons difficult. In Georgia, for instance, proponents of a proposed Opportunity School District have pointed to New Orleans to argue that the strategy works. Although debates persist about what to take away from the New Orleans experience, a recent study from Tulane University found that student test scores “shot upward after the reforms,” and that high school graduation and college-entry rates climbed, too.

The lead researcher, Douglas Harris of Tulane, wrote of the study, “We are not aware of any other districts that have made such large improvements in such a short time.” At the same time, Harris cautioned that some of the conditions that made New Orleans “ripe for success” might be difficult to duplicate elsewhere.

Henry said the post-Katrina change in population has to be considered when measuring school success there. Did the new charter schools face the same challenges as the failed neighborhood schools they replaced? In any case, Henry notes that Georgia’s proposal is more like the Tennessee model than the one used in Louisiana.

Georgia Plan Goes to Voters

Zaniewski described the controversial approach in Michigan. In 2011, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder created the Education Achievement Authority to take over failing schools. Parents were angered because their children had to attend the same failing schools but under new management that seemed aloof and inaccessible, she said.

The fight seems more about who gets to run the schools than anything else, she said: “Politics, at least in Detroit, has played a large part in what is going on.”

The proposal in Georgia is high stakes: State lawmakers have put a constitutional amendment on the November ballot. If it passes, the Opportunity School District will become permanent. Henry, who in December published an evaluation of the Tennessee district’s effect, warned that Georgia would be implementing a long-term school reform strategy that has produced few dividends in Tennessee.

“We’re just not seeing the data that this is helping kids,” he said.