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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Myths and Hype Fueled Charter School Expansion: Here Are 8 Essential Facts

If you value the role of public schools—locally governed, publicly owned and operated—whose mission is to serve the needs and protect the rights of every child, you can be more supportive if you know the facts about charter schools. The public schools across the United States enroll 50 million students, 90 percent.  Charter schools suck money out of state budgets and public school districts while they enroll only 6 percent of American students. We all need to be actively refuting the myths and calling politicians on their errors when they betray their ignorance about the problems posed by the privatization of public education.

Here are eight facts to keep in mind:

  1. While their promoters try to brand them as “public charter schools,” charter schools are a form of school privatization. Charter schools are private contractors whose expenses are paid with tax dollars. Their boards operate privately—very often without transparency.
  2. For-profit charter schools are permitted in only two states—Arizona and Wisconsin. In the 43 other states whose laws permit charter schools, the schools must be nonprofits.
  3. Nonprofit charter schools are increasingly operated—and often highly controlled—by for-profit Charter Management Organizations (CMOs).  Sometimes, in something called a sweeps contract, a nonprofit turns over 90 percent or more of its operating dollars to the for-profit management company it has hired to run the school—meaning that the for-profit essentially runs the school.  But that school is technically a nonprofit. Eighty percent of Michigan’s charter schools are operated by for-profit CMOs.
  4. Charter schools are established in state law in 45 states and the District of Columbia. (West Virginia, the 45th state, just passed charter school enabling legislation in June, 2019.)  There are no federal laws that set up or regulate charter schools.
  5. Across the states, charter school fraud and corruption has run rampant due to weak regulation by state legislatures.
  6. Charter schools and their supporters and lobbyists have used their power to promote charter schools across the state legislatures. Groups like the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), ExcelinEd (Jeb Bush’s group), and the American Federation for Children (Betsy DeVos’s group) have lobbied for charter school expansion, and deregulation. Many state legislatures have passed “model” bills which were written and distributed by ALEC’s Education Committee to members of state legislatures who are also members of ALEC.
  7. No state has passed additional taxes to fund charter schools.  When states create charter schools, children who leave public schools to enroll in charters carry away state dollars and essential funding from the public school districts where the children were previously enrolled (see here and here). Public school districts are unable to compensate fully for the loss the public dollars that used to pay for public school services but have now been redirected to a privatized sector.
  8. Since it was begun in 1994, the federal Charter Schools Program has served as a sort of venture capital fund with grants to states to fuel the startup and expansion of the charter school sector. More than $1 billion has been wasted on charter schools which never opened or eventually shut down.  Proponents of the program, including Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have claimed this waste of tax dollars is acceptable because the money fueled educational innovation and entrepreneurship—even if there was a high rate of failure.

Several of the Democratic candidates for President of the United States have been playing to public school supporters by opposing for-profit charter schools. For the American Prospect, Rachel M. Cohen reports that by opposing for-profit charters, several of the candidates seem to be distancing themselves from charter schools; she adds that two or three have even supported the idea, endorsed by the NAACP, of a moratorium on new charter schools until their impact has been carefully assessed. Cohen adds that candidates seem to be noticing public opinion polls that report “dwindling support among white Democratic voters” for charter schools.

Candidates ought to be calculating their positions based on the facts, however, not on shifts in political opinion.  If you know the 8 essential facts about charter schools described in this post, you will wonder:

  • How can so many of the candidates be so ignorant about the relative absence of for-profit charter schools?
  • Do these politicians not know that the for-profit Charter Management Organizations (CMOs), not the charter schools themselves, are sucking profits from the tax dollars allocated for the nonprofit charter schools they manage?
  • How can so many candidates seem unaware of the importance of our nation’s world class system of public education and poorly informed about the ways the public schools are threatened by the expansion of charters?
  • Are candidates trying to have it both ways—by being for and against charter schools at the same time?
  • Why do so many of the candidates not care enough to become informed about the needs of public schools and the challenges school privatization poses for public school districts?

Maybe the level of misunderstanding or the amount of disinterest is because school privatization, like school funding, is primarily a state-by-state issue.  But there is at least one area in which the matter of charter schools ought to be of urgent interest to every member of Congress and every Democratic candidate for President: the demonstrated catastrophe of the federal Charter Schools Program.  (See fact #8.)

The following question ought to be asked at every candidates’ debate or forum or town hall or coffee with a Democratic candidate for President:

The federal government—through the federal Charter Schools Program—has been subsidizing the startup and expansion of charter schools with grants to states. But the Network for Public Education and even the Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General have criticized this program due to the utter absence of oversight. More than $1 billion has been invested through this program in schools that never opened or that ultimately shut down. Will you pledge to terminate the federal Charter Schools Program program?

National School Funding Expert Shreds Far-Right Rationale for Portable School Funding

Betsy DeVos, the U.S. Secretary of Education, has gone around relentlessly announcing her philosophy of education, even in places where the message might not be age-appropriate. For example, last fall to celebrate the beginning of the school year, DeVos visited a K-8 school in Casper, Wyoming, where she told the children: “Today, there is a whole industry of naysayers who loudly defend something they like to call the education ‘system.’ What’s an education ‘system’?  There is no such thing!  Are you a system?  No, you’re individual students, parents and teachers. Here in Casper, and even within your individual families, the unique needs of one student aren’t the same as the next, which is why no school… is a perfect fit for every student.  Schools must be organized around the needs of students, not the other way around…”  Earlier in the summer, she had said the same thing to a more comprehending and likely audience at the annual meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council: “There are individual men and women and there are families… and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first. This isn’t about school ‘systems.’ This is about individual students, parents, and families. Schools are at the service of students. Not the other way around.”

DeVos’s words have been consistent, despite that to me they sound like gobbledygook. How do we separate the needs of the individual children being educated from the system of schools our society has set up for that purpose? Is DeVos’s message really just an empty, educational-libertarian linguistic construction to convey the message she stated bluntly in another 2015 speech, when she declared, “Government really sucks.”?

Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, now renamed as ExcelinEd, recently released a brief to help us understand what DeVos means when she says, “This isn’t about school ‘systems.’ This is about individual students, parents, and families.”  The new brief, Student-Centered State Funding: A How-to Guide for State Policymakers, purports to tell states how to remake their school funding distribution formulas in order to make each child’s school funding fully portable—a little backpack full of cash that the student can carry with her as her parents choose the school they believe will perfectly meet her needs. The brief seems to emphasize public school choice across school districts, but the implication is that the state/local public funding would be fully portable to whatever school, public or private, the parent might choose.

ExcelinEd’s brief says there are five simple steps for remaking a state’s school finance: “(1) Establish a base funding amount that every district receives for each student served… (2) Require local funding for a district on a per student basis…. (3) Structure all funding for students with special needs or disadvantages as a weight…. (4) Adjust funding for districts each year based on the number and characteristics of students they are serving. (5) Remove restrictions on how districts spend money….”  ExcelinEd defends its new strategy as more transparent, more empowering of districts and parents, and fairer.

The National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado asked Bruce Baker, the school finance expert at Rutgers University, to evaluate ExcelinEd’s new plan.  NEPC just published Baker’s review.

Baker is not impressed: “First, the brief advances the false dichotomy that state and district school finance systems should focus on funding the child, not funding the (bureaucratic, adult-centered) institutions that serve those children. This false dichotomy wrongly asserts there is no benefit to children of equitably and adequately financing educational institutions, and ignores the fact that it ultimately takes institutions, institutional structures and governance to deliver the relevant and appropriate programs and services… Second, the brief is based on overly simplistic, frequently misrepresented, and often outright incorrect versions of the status quo.  This includes overbroad mischaracterizations of how schools are currently financed…  Third, the details of the brief’s proposals and espoused benefits are entirely speculative and unsubstantiated….”

In its brief, ExcelinEd describes its theory about how states currently operate public schools: (1) that, “states fund specific staffing positions, services, programs or schools rather than students,” (2) that “states have hold harmless provisions such that districts get the same funding even if they lose students,” (3) that “states allow local funding of districts that is not dependent on the number of students,” and (4) that “states provide additional funding to districts that have a relatively small number of students.”  Baker  demonstrates the flaws in ExcelinEd’s argument: “The authors appear to be unaware or simply ignore the vast body of peer reviewed literature for guiding a) the setting of foundation levels, based on ‘costs’ of providing children with equal opportunities to achieve common outcome goals, b) the determination of additional costs associated with variation in individual student needs and in collective student population needs, c) the additional costs associated with differences in economies of scale and population sparsity, and d) the differences in costs associated with geographic differences in competitive wages for teachers and other school staff.  Additionally, literature dating back nearly 100 years addresses methods for determining equitable local contribution toward foundation spending levels.”

Baker condemns ExcelinEd’s brief for ignoring that school funding inequity is universally connected to disparities in the local property taxing capacity of local school districts. He explains that a primary purpose of state aid formulas is to equalize—to compensate for unequal local capacity—“to… keep in check per-pupil inequity resulting from local property tax revenues.”  “But the obsession in the ExcelinEd policy brief seems to be primarily on the fact that available funding for school districts is not 100% linked to the coming and going of individual students… ExcelinEd offers a bizarre illustration of how districts could increase or decrease their property taxes as enrollment shifts occur, with no consideration whatsoever of the primary basis by which local contributions are determined…. That is, to ensure that local jurisdictions, regardless of their wealth, can attain adequate and equitable per-pupil resources… The authors do not address the property wealth equalization goals of state school finance formulas….”

Baker further condemns ExcelinEd’s failure to acknowledge the role of concentrated student poverty across a local district’s student population, and failure to distinguish concentrated poverty from any individual student’s personal lack of resources. While it would be relatively easy to compensate for a child’s personal poverty with weighted additional funding the child would carry in his personal backpack full of cash, concentrated poverty is a more serious challenge that is glossed over in ExcelinEd’s brief.  Here is Baker: “Student demographic factors that affect the institutional costs of achieving common outcomes come in two parts—individual factors related to specific-student needs (language proficiency, disability) and collective population factors, including poverty, the concentration of poverty, and interaction of poverty with population density.  These ‘social context’ factors do not simply move with the child. A specific child’s marginal cost in one social context setting might be quite different than in another.” “Here the authors choose to outright deny that the marginal costs of an additional low-income student in a predominantly low-income setting might be different from the marginal costs of that same student in a higher income setting, and that accommodating those costs might improve equity…. (T)his means simply ignoring a legitimate driver of the cost of providing equal opportunity and thus knowingly disadvantaging students in schools with higher concentrations of poverty, merely to preserve their dogmatic view that all funding can and should be ‘student centered.’ That is, the authors are rationalizing the maintenance of inequality, because it’s just too hard to accommodate in their pro-choice framework.”

Baker notes that ExcelinEd’s brief denies the existence of stranded costs when children leave a school district for school choice: “(T)he authors’ treatment of funding related to declining enrollment fails to comprehend institutional cost structures…. Rather, in their view, any dollar that does not travel immediately with the child is a dollar spent inequitably and/or inefficiently…. (I)nstitutions providing services to the state’s children must manage fixed costs (institutional overhead, including capital stock), step costs (classroom/level site expenses, which do not vary by student), and costs which vary at the level of the individual student. All costs do not, nor can they, nor have they ever, regardless of institutional type, vary at the level of each individual student.”

Baker condemns ExcelinEd’s promise that school choice and portable funding will contribute to equity: “The brief’s central premise is that adopting ‘student-centered’ funding to enable parental choice of schools necessarily leads to a fairer and more transparent system for financing children’s schooling…. (T)he brief is predicated on the wrong assumption that most if not all state school finance systems and district budgeting models… operate in a way that favors institutions (and adult interests) over children.”

“Finally, to the extent that the end goal is to increase choice, it should be noted that increasing choices among different types of operators, with different financial and student service incentives, and different institutional cost structures and resource access, tends to erode, not enhance equity.  That is, increased choice in common spaces often leads to increasingly unequal choices.”