State Takeovers: Radical Seizure of School Districts vs. Organic, Community Grounded School Improvement

This blog will take a one-week, mid-summer break.  Look for a new post on Monday, August 5.

We are in the midst of a wave of state school takeovers.

On Tuesday evening In Providence, Rhode Island, the state Council of Elementary and Secondary Education granted the authority for Rhode Island’s recently appointed State Education Commissioner, Angelica Infante-Green, to take over the Providence Schools. A new and scathing report by a team from John Hopkins University had criticized the current operation of the school district—already under mayoral governance.  For the Providence Journal, Linda Borg reports: “Under a 1997 statute, Infante-Green now has the power to revamp the teachers’ contract, revise how the school district is governed, even make decisions over hiring and firing… Infante-Green also confirmed that she will hire a superintendent to takeover the schools by early November. In fact, she is already speaking with several individuals, although no one has been named.”  Diane Ravitch provides some background about Angelica Infante-Green: “Infante-Green has never run a school district. She has never been a school principal. She entered education through Teach for America, then ran bilingual programs in Bloomberg’s (NYC) Department of Education. She belongs to Jeb Bush’s Chiefs for Change.”

In Benton Harbor, Michigan, Governor Gretchen Whitmer continues to threaten to close Benton Harbor’s high school or take over the school district.  In a commentary for Bridge Magazine, Tom Watkins, the state’s school superintendent from 2001-2005 warns that shutting down the high school or taking over the district won’t solve the core problem: “The Benton Harbor school crisis is ground zero for a dysfunctional educational funding model and a state government that has been pretending to address the problem going back decades… If you have a hole in your roof, pretending to fix it does not keep the rain out. Our system of funding our schools is fundamentally, structurally unsound….”  In a recent podcast (link includes a transcript), the education writer Jennifer Berkshire and Massachusetts education historian Jack Schneider add that Michigan’s system of cross-district open enrollment conspires with structural racism to undermine poor school students by driving out students, each one carrying school funding away from places like Benton Harbor. The system is set up to progressively threaten the fiscal viability of majority poor and majority African American school districts.  This blog has covered the current situation in Benton Harbor.

And  in Ohio, where state takeovers of Lorain and Youngstown have proven catastrophic, the Republican dominated state Senate has refused to repeal a 2015 state takeover law, even despite bipartisan passage of a repeal in the Ohio House by a huge 83/12 margin. Legislators finally agreed to compromise with a one year moratorium on state takeovers in the new state budget while the Legislature deliberates. Three districts—Youngstown, Lorain and East Cleveland—are currently under state Academic Distress Commissions, while ten additional districts face takeover within the next two years—Columbus, Dayton, Toledo, Canton, Ashtabula, Lima, Mansfield, Painesville, Euclid, and North College Hill.  This blog has covered Ohio’s current and threatened state takeovers.

Whether you think state takeovers of public school districts are a good or a bad thing depends on how you think about school reform. Chiefs for Change, the organization of “corporate reformer” state superintendents and now also local school superintendents even posts on its website guidance on how to do a state takeover. Chiefs for Change was spun off several years ago from ExcelinEd, Jeb Bush’s corporate reformer think tank. Its state takeover guidance, The Hidden Equation in School Improvement: Lessons Learned About Governance-Based Strategies, lists three types of “governance-based” school improvement efforts: turnaround zones—in which a state creates a turnaround district which subsumes a number of so-called failing schools, sometimes from several different distinct school districts; receiverships—commonly called state takeovers, when a state takes over the operation of a particular school district; and charter school expansion.  Chiefs for Change prescribes three conditions its think tank advisers believe are necessary to ensure the success of any governance-based reform:

  • A strong “new leader to make decisions that unflinchingly put the needs of students first.”
  • Autonomy, including “control over staffing, budget, schedules, teacher collaboration opportunities, and school culture in ways that are often politically difficult in traditional school systems.”
  • A third-party consultant “external to the school system has helped guide nearly every real transformation we’ve seen.”
  • Flexibility because, “Successful changes aren’t one-size fits all models.”
  • Accountability. “It must be clear who is responsible for achieving results and what happens in the event improvement goals are not met.”

Chiefs for Change’s model is the one being adopted in Ohio and, I suspect, in Providence, Rhode Island.  School improvement in this model is measured by standardized test scores—how much and how quickly they rise.

Many who reject the “corporate school reform model” understand that public schools are intended to be democratically governed local institutions operated within their communities.  And many of these advocates recognize that schools being seized in state takeovers are nested in Black and Brown communities where poverty is concentrated.  These advocates recognize that challenges for educators and students in these districts are associated with generations of under-funding of schools along with poverty and racism. The President and CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education, Dr. John Jackson characterizes the underlying issues beneath state takeovers of public schools:

“First, it’s important to understand that these state takeovers are taking place in the context of decades of disinvestment in public schools.  Due to tax cuts and austerity budgets at the state level, schools in poor communities have suffered increasing inequities in funding for vital education services.  Recent studies document that states taking over the democratic rights of local citizens and elected education officials have themselves failed to meet their own constitutional obligation to provide the locality with equitable resources needed to provide students with a fair and substantive opportunity to learn… It’s also impossible to dismiss the disparate racial impact of state takeovers.  An overwhelming percentage of the districts that have experienced takeovers or mayoral control serve African American and Latino students and voters.  The fact that this trend only occurs in districts like New Orleans, Memphis, Nashville, Detroit and Chicago that are made up predominantly of people of color raises serious federal civil rights issues. The same communities that often face the greatest barriers to the ballot box are those susceptible to further disenfranchisement by removing local control of schools… Take away democratic rights and the ability to vote to influence schools—the most meaningful public institution in any community—and you take away citizens’ greatest opportunity to become civically engaged, to work together to improve schools, to build healthy living and learning communities…”

Three organizations supporting organic reform within traditional public school districts, along with reforms in funding and wraparound social and health services inherent in the Community School model, have released major reports about strategies for addressing the challenges facing our society’s poorest school districts.  After profiling disastrous state takeovers takeovers in New Jersey, Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee, Michigan, Wisconsin and Georgia, the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools lists specific reforms likely to be more supportive of students and democratic community engagement:

  • “Curriculum that is engaging, culturally relevant and challenging;
  • “An emphasis on high quality teaching;
  • “Wrap-around supports such as health care, eye care and social and emotional services available before, during and after school and provided year-round to the full community;
  • “Positive discipline practices such as restorative justice; and
  • “Transformational parent and community engagement in planning and decision-making.”

The Southern Education Foundation prescribes the same kind of interventions as an alternative to radical imposition of governance changes like mayoral control and state takeover.  And the Center for Popular Democracy recommends the same formula for school improvement. This report’s authors also warn about a record of significant failures in the corporate reform model: “Children have seen negligible improvement…state takeover districts have been a breeding ground for fraud and mismanagement… staff face high turnover and instability… (and) students of color and those with special needs face harsh disciplinary measures.”

Going deeper than the recommendations in the previous three reports, just this month, the National Education Policy Center published Recasting Families and Communities as Co-Designers of Education in Tumultous Times, from academic researchers at the University of Washington, Seattle, Northwestern University, and the University of Colorado at Boulder. This new report rejects top down, “corporate” reform and makes a strong case for school reform which engages parents and community in the collaborative transformation of their schools:

“In a national moment of political tumult and violence directed at immigrants, people of color, and other marginalized groups, our education systems need new strategies to meaningfully engage families and communities in ensuring equitable learning for our youth.  Not only do families and communities bring historical and lived knowledge about how to persist through these challenges, they can also bring critical expertise in how to advance educational justice and community well-being… System, school, community and foundation leaders committed to racial equity and family co-design work should: support initiatives that tap into and develop the collective leadership of families and communities of color in improving schools… rather than programs that seek to change parent behaviors to better support schools’ agendas; prioritize school change efforts that engage families and communities with educators and seek to build solidarities across racial and professional divides…; partner with community-based organizations and public agencies to enact educational change; invest in building and supporting the capacity of local leaders (not policy elites) to facilitate meetings and conversations across racial, cultural and other differences; (and) recognize that histories and systemic inequalities shape how families and communities experience and participate in formal spaces, and that patterns of inequity tend to re-assert themselves despite good intentions.”

Organic school improvement is likely to be accomplished over several years. State takeovers—in the corporate, Chiefs for Change model—routinely define penalties if quick turnaround, defined as raising standardized test scores—isn’t accomplished by a one-year or two-year deadline. State takeovers are cheap, technocratic, top-down schemes prescribed by politicians who know very little about building trust among parents, teachers and school administrators. Too often, their “unflinching” leaders create community chaos—what has been happening for the past year in Lorain, Ohio under the takeover czar David Hardy.

There is one other big problem with the corporate, state-takeover model. It is almost always imposed as a way to “fix” schools without the kind of school finance reform necessary for generating adequate investment when our society’s poorest children are concentrated in a school district or neighborhood.  In his (2018)  book, Educational Inequality and School Finance, Bruce Baker, the Rutgers University school finance expert addresses the always unmet financial needs of the poorest school districts:

“Because student backgrounds vary, because students are so unevenly sorted across schools, and because backgrounds and sorting lead to disparate outcomes, we must do everything we can to leverage resources to mitigate these disparities.  For without equitable and adequate resources, there’s little chance of achieving educational opportunity.” (Educational inequality and School Finance, p. 52)”  “(A) substantial body of research addresses how child poverty, limited English proficiency, unplanned family mobility, and school racial composition may influence the costs of achieving any given level of student outcomes.  The various ways children are sorted across districts and schools create large differences in the costs of achieving comparable outcomes, as do changes in the overall demography of the student population over time.  Rises in poverty, mobility due to housing disruptions, and the numbers of children not speaking English proficiently all lead to increases in the cost of achieving even the same level of outcomes achieved in prior years. This is not an excuse. It’s reality.  It costs more to achieve the same outcomes with some students than with others.  These differences exist both across school settings and over time as student population demographics shift.” (Educational inequality and School Finance, pp. 198-199)

Baker writes in the dry language of a school finance economist. The relevance of his point to this post, is that state legislatures will do almost anything (appointing state takeover czars) instead of raising taxes and restructuring state school finance systems to invest adequately in our society’s poorest school districts.

To accomplish educational equity, however, state governments need to be spending far more on the school districts serving our society’s poorest children.  As Baker explains, when state funding and local property taxes are massed together, “The models included here suggest that, in some states, the highest-poverty quintile of districts fall as much as $14,000 to $16,000 per pupil below necessary spending levels.” (Educational inequality and School Finance, p. 213)

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Charter Advocates Demand that States Reform Failing Online Academies

When the largest pro-charter school advocacy organizations publish a report demanding major reforms in the sector for which they are themselves the primary advocates, you have to pay attention. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, and 50 CAN (the pro-charter, pro-school “reform” network of state astro-turf advocacy groups) just published a scathing report on the abysmal performance of virtual, online academies.

These pro-charter organizations explain that the huge online academies are failing to educate students at the same time they are cheating taxpayers:  “(T)he well-documented, disturbingly low performance by too many full-time virtual charter… schools should serve as a call to action for state leaders and authorizers across the country.  It is time for state leaders to make the tough policy changes necessary to ensure that this model works more effectively for the students it serves. It is also time for authorizers to hold full-time, virtual charter schools accountable for performance, using measures and metrics suited to their programs and closing those that chronically fail their students.”

The new report presents facts about the growth of the online charter sector: “Of the 43 states and D.C. that have enacted charter school laws, 35 states plus D.C. allow full-time virtual charter schools. The eight that do not allow these schools are Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Tennessee, and Virginia…  As of August 2014, according to National Alliance research, there were 135 full-time virtual charter schools operating in 23 states and D.C….  According to National Alliance research, enrollment in full-time virtual charter schools is highly concentrated in three states—Ohio, Pennsylvania, and California—which collectively enroll over half of full-time virtual charter school students nationwide… Full-time virtual charter schools serve a higher percentage of white students (69 percent vs. 49 percent), a lower percentage of Hispanic students (11 percent vs. 27 percent), and roughly the same percentage of black (13 percent vs. 15 percent), Asian/Pacific Islander (2 percent vs. 5 percent), Native American (1 percent vs. 1 percent), and multi-racial (4 percent vs. 3 percent) students as compared with traditional public schools.”

The report’s scathing critique of online charter schools is grounded in a trio of reports by academic think tanks, jointly published in the fall of 2015 by Stanford CREDO, Mathematia Policy Research, and the Center for Reinventing Public Education.

Here is a summary of the concerns raised in the new report from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, and 50 CAN: “Full-time virtual charter school students experience 180 fewer days of learning in math and 72 fewer days of learning in reading in comparison to traditional public school students.”  “The mobility rates for students after they leave full-time virtual charter schools are extremely high…. (Students who leave full-time virtual charter schools have a more chaotic school experience after they leave full-time virtual charter schools than they did before they enrolled in such schools.)”

The new report’s authors recommend that states ought to beef up their regulations to ensure “minimum academic performance standards” and ought to have the leverage to close schools that are not serving their students.  States ought to regulate authorizers to ensure that all the money they collect for oversight is being used for its intended purpose. Non-profits should not be beefing up their operating budgets with the funds intended to cover charter school oversight, and tiny local school districts should not be padding their own budgets by collecting state fees to sponsor huge charter schools that poorly serve children from other districts across the region.

Virtual charter schools do not have the same costs as brick and mortar schools, and states ought determine what it really costs for online schools to operate and additionally “require full-time virtual charter school operators to propose and justify a price-per-student in their charter school applications” based on the real costs of full-time virtual charter schools.

And finally, the new report recommends that as states establish valid costs for operating full-time virtual charter schools, they also consider  a performance-based funding system that reimburses schools only for the students who are actively participating in the online school’s academic program.  The report encourages states to consider paying for the students who stay in the schools and graduate: “As states develop policies in the specific area of performance-based funding, we recommend that they look to the emerging efforts in four states that are experimenting with completion-based funding systems: Florida, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Utah.”  While online schools ought to be open to all, schools ought also to be required to have some admissions requirements to ensure that parents are able sufficiently to oversee their child’s participation.

States also ought to be monitoring the performance of the authorizers themselves.  And states ought to be setting limits on the size and expansion rates of these schools which sometimes enroll thousands of students. “When the large size of many full-time virtual charter schools is combined with research showing that full-time virtual charter school students have much weaker academic growth overall than traditional public school students, caution is justified.”

We will have to wait to see whether state legislators are moved by the advice of the pro-charter advocates to clean up the most notorious operators in the charter sector, the until-now untouchable online academies. After all, the same advice has been given before.  The Annenberg Institute for School Reform released similar recommendations in 2014, and the Center for Popular Democracy has been releasing an annual demand for more accountability in the charter sector.

In Ohio, at least, it is apparent that academic and think tank reports have been unconvincing to legislators in the pocket of the for-profit charter operators who regularly make the necessary political contributions.

More on How Charter Schools Profit from Tax Dollars and Undermine Host School Districts

Recent weeks have brought a lot of press about the way charter schools are undermining public school districts and diverting tax dollars allocated for education too often to for-profit companies.  Capital & Main in California just published a week-long expose explaining how rapid expansion of charters threatens the financial stability of the Los Angeles and Oakland school districts. The Salt Lake Tribune editorialized against for-profit charters after that newspaper’s scathing investigation explained how, “A handful of private companies have banked more than $68 million from Utah taxpayers over the past three years.”  And in Ohio, after the legislature ended its spring 2016 session without considering an excellent law that would have required the notorious cyber charters to prove that the students the state is paying for are actually participating in the online program, the Columbus Dispatch editorialized: “The idea was that if student outcomes improved in charter schools, then the schools would continue… But the straightforward experiment went off the rails when some clever operators figured out how to get rich by sponsoring charter schools.  And to keep the gravy flowing, they began making major political contributions to the lawmakers who control the gravy.”

This is the context in which the Center for Popular Democracy has just released its third annual report, Charter School Vulnerabilities to Waste, Fraud, and Abuse: “Two years ago, the Center for Popular Democracy issued a report demonstrating that charter schools in 15 states—about one-third of the states with charter schools—had experienced over $100 million in reported fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement since 1994.  Last year, we released a new report that found millions of dollars of new alleged and confirmed financial fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement in charter schools had come to light, bringing the new total to $203 million.  This report offers further evidence that the money we know has been misused is just the tip of the iceberg. With the new alleged and confirmed financial fraud reported here, the total fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement in charter schools has reached over $216 million.”

The new report examines fraud and mismanagement across the states and explains that, “State oversight systems are currently reactive by design. While states do require that charter schools submit budgets, financial reports and independent financial audits, most do not proactively monitor for fraud, waste, mismanagement, or other financial abuses.”  The Center for Popular Democracy recommends that charter schools be required to institute internal fraud risk management assessments and that oversight agencies like state comptrollers’ offices should regularly audit charter schools.

Of course a huge problem is that charter schools are established and regulated in state law, and experience tells us that political pressures and financial contributions to state lawmakers have exacerbated the states’ failures to oversee charter schools in the public interest. It is for this reason that the Center for Popular Democracy recommends that the U.S. Department of Education should make the awarding of enormous federal grants to states for the expansion of charter schools contingent on states’ passage of laws to strengthen oversight: “Taxpayers invest billions of education dollars in charter schools, yet states offer too few protections to ensure that those taxpayer dollars are benefitting students.  Therefore, we recommend that federal funding for charter school education should flow only to states that have… taxpayer protection provisions in place for their charter schools.”

The new report once again points to failed federal regulation of the federal Charter Schools Program. “The federal government alone has contributed over $3.3 billion through several grant programs specifically designed to increase the number of charter schools in the United States.  With the recent passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the federal government has signaled its plan to spend another $3.3 billion over the next 10 years, which would double the federal investment in charter schools.”

And yet, according to Center for Popular Democracy’s new report, “In 2010, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) issued a memorandum to the Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement.  The OIG stated that the purpose of the memorandum was to ‘alert you of our concern about vulnerabilities in the oversight of charter schools.’…  In September of 2012, the OIG audited the Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement’s (OII) Charter Schools Program and found that OII did not adequately monitor the federal funds.  Specifically, the audit report states that: ‘We determined that OII did not effectively oversee and monitor the SEA (State Educational Agencies) and non-SEA grants and did not have an adequate process to ensure SEAs effectively oversaw and monitored their subgrantees.  Specifically, OII did not have an adequate corrective action… process in place to ensure grantees corrected deficiencies noted in annual monitoring reports, did not have a risk-based approach for selecting non-SEA grantees for monitoring, and did not adequately review SEA and non-SEA grantees’ fiscal activities.'”

In other words, the U.S. Department of Education has been giving billions of dollars to states to promote the expansion of charter schools and to other charter school sponsors without any kind of adequate tracking of how the money is being used.  This allegation is  certainly consistent with the findings of a new report released in Ohio last week by Innovation Ohio and the Ohio Education Association. Ohio has been a big recipient of federal Charter Schools Program Grants over the years, receiving CSP grants of $99.6 million since the 2006-2007 school year. Belly Up: A Review of Federal Charter Schools Program Grants explains that in Ohio, “At least 108 of the 292 charter schools that have received federal CSP (Charter Schools Program) funding (37 percent) have either closed or never opened, totaling nearly $30 million.” “Of those that failed, at least 26 Ohio charter schools that received nearly $4 million in federal CSP funding apparently never even opened and there are no available records to indicate that these public funds were returned.”

Stunning New Report Shows Power of Wraparound Community Schools

Three organizations, the Center for Popular Democracy, the Coalition for Community Schools, and the Southern Education Foundation have released an in-depth and very significant report: Community Schools: Transforming Struggling Schools into Thriving Schools.  It is a primer for those who want to understand what a full-service Community School is and who want to know why such schools are today’s most significant policy development. The new report can also serve as a beginning guide for school districts that seek to transform their schools into Community Schools.

The new report profiles elementary, middle and high schools that are currently implementing a variety of strategies of successful Community Schools. “Their stories describe what these schools and districts were grappling with prior to becoming Community Schools, how they began to use a transformational strategy, what elements were implemented in what specific ways, and the amazing results that accrued.”

The essence of a Community School, according to the new report, is its whole child strategy—that schooling cannot be conceptualized or measured with a mere test score.  Community Schools are described as increasing attendance, decreasing suspensions and expulsions, creating healthy and safe communities, as well as improving academic outcomes.

A Community School is a set of formal partnerships with “the Community School Coordinator… part of the leadership team” and a Community School Committee including “parents, community partners, school staff, youth and other stakeholders.”  Such partnerships can be sustained by patching together a number of readily available funding streams, but the coordination and administration of the funding partnership must be sustainable for a Community School to thrive: “Community Schools require sustainable funding and resources.  This can be realized through a combination of resource provisions leveraged through partnerships; investment at the federal, state, and local government levels; and foundation and government grants.  For example, a site coordinator may leverage health and dental care, early childhood programs, before and after school learning programs, and/or restorative justice programs using free school space like an empty classroom, cafeteria, or gym after school hours.”  The public school is the primary site of such programs, which, “In addition to wrap-around services… bring a particular emphasis on high-quality teaching, deep learning, restorative justice, and authentic family engagement.”  “When schools become Community Schools, they become more than just schools; they become centers of community life.  Together, educators and community partners collaboratively address issues traditionally independently addressed by agencies like health and human services, parks and recreation departments, and housing agencies.”

At Webb Middle School, a struggling school in Austin, Texas, the threat of closure motivated teachers, parents, and the community to push for a Community School model beginning with an intensive needs assessment.  Partnerships now include after school programs provided by the Boys and Girls Club, college mentoring, a mobile clinic that provides free immunizations and physicals. “One interesting and beneficial outcome that Webb experienced by adding the mobile clinic was much greater participation on the school’s athletic teams.  Before the mobile clinic, few students participated in after school sports… because the district required that students receive a physical prior to participation in sports, which most students could not afford… Now participation rates on Webb’s athletic teams have soared, and their teams are winning.”  Families wanted the arts brought back to Webb, and the Community School staff helped bring back a band, an orchestra, and a dance troupe.  The Community School also brought English-as-a-Second-Language classes for parents, classes offered right at school for 2.5 hours three days a week.  Webb has become a desirable school; after five years as a Community School, Webb’s enrollment has grown from 485 to 750 students.

The greatest strength of this report is the set of stories of the transformation of schools across very different locations—Austin, Orlando, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Cincinnati; a county-wide strategy in Multnomah County, Oregon, and a statewide program in Kentucky.  I urge you to read these profiles carefully, for they demonstrate the complexity and the rewards of the transformations that have occurred.  At Evans High School in the very poor Pine Hills neighborhood of Orlando Florida, “students ha(d) gone without health care of any kind… With the help of their health and social service partners, Evans has been able to implement full service physical and mental health services located in their Wellness Cottage, a separate building on campus that is connected to the school… Much of this medical and mental health support is paid for through Medicaid.  The school provides assistance to students and families to fill out applications.”

Nine years ago when Baltimore’s Wolfe Street Academy became a Community School, it “was ranked 77th in the district in academic measures…. In 2014, after eight years as a Community School, Wolfe Street ranked an astonishing 2nd in the city academically, its mobility rate… down to 8.8 percent.”  “Baltimore has put together a quilt of funding sources to accomplish the funding of 52 Community Schools in the city.”  Funding streams are patched together from the City Government, philanthropic donations, and general school district funds controlled by each Community School’s principal.

In Cincinnati, Ohio, 43 of the city’s 55 schools now have Community School site coordinators and—importantly considering Ohio’s paltry investment in urban public schools—“no program has an impact on the public school system budget.  All services are leveraged and fully sustainable within themselves,” although, “Federal government Title One funds do… currently fund a portion of the Community Learning Center site coordinators.”  “Community engagement, neighborhood by neighborhood and site by site, from the very beginning led to Local School Decision-Making Councils… which constitutes the schools’ current governance. Because Cincinnati’s goal was to do this work at a district level, rather than school by school, it became necessary to embed the concept in policy to protect it for future generations… We’re now up to 43 schools…. This has lasted through four superintendents.”

Community Schools: Transforming Struggling Schools into Thriving Schools is such a positive report that it makes the formation of Community Schools sound easy.  Clearly the obstacles from community to community are overwhelming, but I urge you to read this report to understand just how such transformation can be accomplished.

Report Critiques State Takeover School Districts in LA, TN, and MI; Michigan’s Will Be Dissolved

The Center for Popular Democracy released a fine new report earlier this week about three “‘takeover districts’ in which schools that are deemed ‘chronically failing’ are removed from the local school district and placed in a statewide district with a separate governance structure that is far less transparent and accountable to the public.”  The new report covers the Louisiana Recovery District, the Tennessee Achievement School District, and the Michigan Education Achievement Authority.

Such “recovery” or “achievement” school districts are a little different than direct state takeovers of school districts like those in Newark, New Jersey, or Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, or Highland Park, Michigan.  The states operating the “recovery” or “achievement” districts have created a separate statewide school district with the plan of removing particular low-scoring schools from their local district and inserting them into a new statewide governance body.

One of the first things you notice about these so-called statewide districts, however, is that they haven’t really succeeded well enough to operate statewide.  Louisiana’s Recovery School District (RSD) existed before Hurricane Katrina, but the rules for state seizure of schools were expanded immediately after the hurricane to enable state seizure of almost all of New Orleans’ public schools.  The state has added to the RSD several other schools in East Baton Rouge Parish, Point Coupee Parish, and Caddo Parish, but the majority of schools administered by the Louisiana RSD remain in New Orleans.  In Tennessee, according to the new report, “The state has elected to focus on Memphis: 27 of 29 Achievement School District (ASD) schools are located in Memphis; the remaining two schools are in Nashville.”  And in Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority (EAA), although the original intention was to seize struggling schools across the state, the EAA was never expanded beyond the original 15 Detroit schools.

Here is what the Center for Popular Democracy concludes about the three state “achievement” or “recovery” school districts covered in this report:

Children have seen negligible improvement—or even dramatic setbacks—in their educational performance.”  For example, in Tennessee’s ASD, “Only six out of the 17 takeover schools had moved out of the bottom performance decile by the end of the 2013-2014 school year… ASD’s superintendent, Chris Barbic, stepped down in the summer of 2015.  In his resignation letter, he acknowledged that ‘achieving results in neighborhood schools is harder than in a choice environment.'”  In New Orleans, “The results for students in Louisiana under the RSD program have been anything but clear-cut.”  (Linda Darling Hammond and colleagues at Stanford University clarified one reason for this in a research brief last fall.  As New Orleans’ schools were sucked into the RSD after Hurricane Katrina, all the rules were bent, and charter schools were permitted to be selective. They continue to have entrance exams and competitive entrance requirements.  Not surprisingly, the highest scoring schools are also the most selective schools.)  And in Michigan’s EAA, “Between 2012 and 2013, 36 percent of students in EAA schools saw declines in their performance on Michigan’s MEAP methematics tests, and another 43 percent saw no improvement.  Thirty-six percent of EAA students also saw declines in MEAP reading performance….”

State takeover districts have created a breeding ground for fraud and mismanagement at the public’s expense.” In all three state takeover districts, “private interests stand ready to gain through both legal and illegal channels.  Real estate deals and fees paid to education consultants can siphon millions of dollars away from direct investment in the students enrolled… In New Orleans, much of the profiteering has been enabled by inadequate oversight and unscrupulous contractors.” “In Michigan, the EAA has used its students as guinea pigs to test for-profit educational software. The EAA established a ‘blended learning’ model, basing its curriculum on a for-profit educational software product called ‘Buzz,’ which… relegates teachers to ‘more of a facilitative role.’  The EAA paid a total of $350,000 to try out this previously untested software….  Teachers complained that the software did not work properly and was incomplete…. Finally, in 2015, the EAA made Buzz optional for instruction….”  And in Tennessee: “A joint audit by the State of Tennessee’s Comptroller of the Department of Education and the State Board of Education found mismanagement of federal funding as well as incorrect payment processing at the ASD between July 2012 and June 2014.”

Staff face high turnover and instability, creating a disrupted learning environment for children.” “Many times, the entire staff of all takeover schools has been fired at once, and is usually replaced by new teachers with far less experience.  The demographics of the teaching workforce can also change when teachers are brought in by external, private entities like Teach for America.”

Students of color and those with special needs face harsh disciplinary measures and discriminatory practices that further entrench a two-tiered educational system.”  The new report summarizes the details of the lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center and families whose children’s rights to special education services were violated by Louisiana RSD charters that accepted students but failed to provide services appropriate to their needs.  “Only in early 2015, after a federal judge approved a settlement order resolving a four-year old lawsuit, did the state commit to new oversight measures.  The settlement order delineated new safeguards for children with special needs, including a new independent monitor, an auditing procedure, provisions to evaluate special education programs when charter schools apply for renewal, and a requirement that the state creates a plan to identify all students in need of special education services.”  All three state “recovery” or “achievement” districts are reported to have overused  suspensions and harsh discipline.

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The release of the Center for Popular Democracy’s report couldn’t be more timely.  Just a week ago, the Eastern Michigan University Board of Regents, one of the partners with the state of Michigan and the Detroit Public Schools in the formation of Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority, voted to withdraw its involvement in the EAA.  The university has been criticized by the public and by its own College of Education, its professors, and its students because the university’s Board of Regents agreed to participate back in 2011 without buy-in from members of the faculty of the College of Education.  The Detroit Free Press reports: “The formation of the EAA… in June 2011… was met with concern from the faculty, especially those from Eastern’s education school, which said they had not been consulted.  Faculty continued to be upset over the years, saying their expertise was not being used to help improve the district.” Over the years some public school districts have protested Eastern Michigan University’s involvement in the EAA by refusing to place the university’s student teachers in their public schools.

The Free Press quotes Jim Stapleton, a member of Eastern Michigan’s Board of Regents, describing why he voted to endorse the university’s separation from EAA: “Today, the (EAA) district is not even being run by someone with an educational background.  When coupled with the damage this arrangement has done to the reputation of our university and, particularly the retaliation that has taken place against our students just trying to start their careers for a decision our board made… this has been personally problematic for me for a while.”

The fact that Eastern Michigan University is pulling out of the Education Achievement Authority means, according to the original agreement that specifies a time line for eventual closure if any of the partners withdraws, that by June 30, 2017, the EAA will cease to exist, unless the legislature shuts it down before that.