You might imagine that the morass in Michigan—the tragedy of Flint’s water poisoning under a state-appointed emergency fiscal manager, the dilapidated condition of Detroit’s public schools under a state-appointed emergency manager, and Governor Rick Snyder’s own admission of the failure of a now three-year state takeover of 15 low-scoring Detroit schools into a “Michigan Education Achievement Authority”—would cause other states to re-think plans to impose state takeovers on struggling cities and school districts. When local citizens no longer exert any control through elected city councils and school boards over the officials who oversee their towns and schools, government doesn’t seem to work very well.
But states persist with plans to take over poor places. On Tuesday, officials in Atlantic City agreed to a takeover by the state of New Jersey to avoid bankruptcy. Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner has threatened to take over the Chicago Public Schools (though the state legislature in Illinois seems adamantly opposed to such a takeover), Ohio is proceeding with plans fast-tracked through the legislature last summer to take over the public schools in Youngstown, and voters in Georgia will decide on a proposed constitutional amendment which would enable the state to take over low-scoring public schools.
Kent McGuire, president and CEO of the Southern Education Foundation (SEF) has published a commentary in Education Week, A Failing Grade for K-12 State Takeovers. McGuire explains: “Louisiana was the first state to implement such a model in 2003. Its Recovery School District is now the nation’s first all-charter district… A decade later, New Orleans still reports some of the nation’s lowest achievement scores and graduation rates. Beyond poor academic outcomes, recent research from Stanford University found a host of negative consequences, with a majority of families reporting long commutes to school, overcrowding, a bewildering gauntlet of enrollment procedures, high rates of pushout, and difficulty finding schools able to serve students with special needs (including that the most vulnerable are the least likely to receive needed supports). The research also revealed that New Orleans’ charter takeover has resulted in schools’ increasing stratification by race and class.” This blog covered the Stanford research on New Orleans.
McGuire adds: “In Tennessee, student performance has been decidedly mixed in buildings overseen by the state-run Achievement School District—all but five of which were turned over to charter-management organizations. When ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic resigned last year, even he conceded the difficulty of state-driven turnaround, specifically the challenge of achieving results in a zoned charter school environment. Opposition to the ASD, including a call for a moratorium from the Shelby County school board on ASD takeover of any additional schools, is growing.”
While some state takeovers are proposed for purely fiscal reasons, the majority of state takeovers of school districts promise to raise test scores in so-called “failing” schools. McGuire warns that: “A common thread in all of these ‘reforms,’ along with… new proposals in Georgia… is the heavy reliance on standardized-test scores to deem schools ‘failing’ and in need of state intervention—even as the Every Student Succeeds Act, the new federal education legislation, acknowledges that a broader set of indicators should be used to measure schools’ progress…. In many cases, urban districts and schools have been deprived of the resources required to deliver high-quality education and then have been targeted for takeover by the same state policymakers who set those inadequate funding levels.”
McGuire continues: “The result of this reliance on test scores in underfunded schools is a disproportionate impact of state-run turnarounds on people of color and low-income communities. People in poverty and communities of color nationwide report being disenfranchised by these state takeovers, which leave them and their children even further marginalized… Whether the arrangement is called a portfolio district, a recovery district, or, most egregious, an ‘opportunity’ or ‘achievement’ district, the goal of these policies is the same: the transfer of local, public funds and decision making to non-accountable, often remote- or chain-charter operators.”
McGuire’s piece in Education Week announces the release of a new report from the Southern Education Foundation and the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, a report that affirms strategies known to “repair communities from the inside out—not the outside in.” SEF’s new report suggests that local school improvement has a better chance of closing the opportunity gap for students and families than the proposed Georgia state takeover—called the “Georgia Opportunity School District”—that will come before voters in November in the form of a constitutional amendment: “In early 2015, Governor Deal proposed and the Georgia State Legislature passed legislation to create a state-run ‘Opportunity School District’ (OSD) that would take control of some of the state’s lowest performing schools. The OSD proposal is based on initiatives in Louisiana, Michigan and Tennessee where state-run districts have removed public schools from local authority and imposed strategies including charter conversion, wholesale staff and leadership removal or school closure. Despite these interventions, takeover districts have failed to consistently improve student outcomes. Instead they have destabilized schools, angered parents and demoralized educators.”
SEF’s new report suggests that Georgia try a very different strategy: “Instead of taking schools away from communities, we suggest that Georgia embrace proven strategies that can (and should) be implemented without lifting schools away from local control. We introduce eight specific, research-proven ingredients that show the potential for increased student learning, better school climates and stronger public commitment: “access to high quality early childhood and pre-K education; collaborative and stable school leadership; quality teaching; restorative (justice) practices and a student-centered learning environment; a strong curriculum that is rigorous, rich and culturally relevant; wraparound supports for students and their families; deep parent-community-school ties; and investment, not divestment.” The report cites academic research affirming each of these strategies for school improvement.
SEF raises the same serious funding question in Georgia as a recent independent report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) showing that Georgia’s overall state school funding is 16.5 percent below what the state was spending before the Great Recession in 2008 (measured in inflation-adjusted dollars). CBPP ranks Georgia at the very bottom of all the states in the percentage drop in combined state and local funding for schools: a drop of 16.6 percent.
The Southern Education Foundation warns: “(E)ffective school reform isn’t done to communities, parents, students, and administrators. It’s done with them. Top-down mandates, school takeovers, external corporate operators—these strategies have not proven successful in building high quality public education…. It is the teachers, the school leaders, the students and parents who must carry out and push forward any improvement strategies. It is these same, local individuals who will be asked to support their public schools with their tax dollars. If they are not personally invested in change, change will fail.”