State School Takeovers Steal Democracy, Ignore Poverty

The takeover of the public schools in New Orleans followed a natural catastrophe, the destruction of the city by Hurricane Katrina and the failure of the levies.  The mass charterization of the city’s schools is said by its proponents to have improved education for the children who have returned, but the takeover remains controversial. What is less controversial is the impact of the imposition of the Recovery School District on democratic ownership and governance.  I will always remember the words of a New Orleans mother who cried out at a national meeting, “They stole our public schools and they stole our democracy all while we were out of town.”

Politicians are rather cavalier about state school takeovers and the imposition of “achievement school districts” and “recovery school districts” when the families served by the schools are poor.  While New Jersey‘s governor Chris Christie would be unlikely to dismiss the role of the local school board in Montclair or Princeton, he didn’t hesitate to disdain the citizens of Newark when he proclaimed on television, “And I don’t care about the community criticism.  We run the schools in Newark, not them.”

Tennessee‘s Achievement School District, created to seize the lowest-scoring 5 percent of that state’s schools, has been managing schools in Nashville and Memphis for some years without stunning success, despite the rhetoric on its website that says the state takeover is designed to “bust barriers” and “catapult” the low scoring schools “straight into the top 25 percent.”  Chris Barbic ran the Tennessee Achievement School District from May 2011 until late July, when he resigned after test scores had hardly risen and none of the schools reached the top 25 percent.

And in Michigan, Governor Rick Snyder issued an executive order in mid-March to transfer the state body that has been overseeing the state takeover of low-scoring schools from the Department of Education to the Department of Technology, Management and Budget, a department directly under Snyder’s control.  His executive order declared, “Despite not achieving satisfactory outcomes, the current structure has neither implemented the rigorous supports and processes needed to create positive academic outcomes nor placed (sic) any of the identified low achieving schools.” Snyder was condemning the state takeover initiative he himself created several years ago.

Poor and mediocre results from a variety of top-down state takeover arrangements have not discouraged ideologues who believe low test scores in extremely poor communities are the result of inefficiency that can be improved from on-high.

In January, the state of Arkansas took over the public schools in Little RockBarclay Key, a history professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and a pubic school parent writes: “(O)n January 28, 2015, the state board of education voted 5-4 to take over the entire LRSD (Little Rock School District) on the pretense that six of our forty-eight schools were in ‘academic distress.'”   Key adds that the four school board members voting for the state takeover have direct ties to “foundations that are purposefully undermining our public schools”—the Walton Family Foundation, the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, and Arkansans for Education Reform.

In New York in April, according to Capital Confidential, “the legislature and governor created a new section of State Education Law pertaining to school receivership.  In June, the Board of Regents approved new regulations to implement the provisions of the law.”  The new state plan will directly affect 20 “persistently struggling” schools and eventually a total of 144 that have been identified as “struggling,”   The “persistently struggling” schools will be assigned to an “inside receiver,” most likely the superintendent of their school district, but the receiver will now have the capacity to lengthen the school day or school year, re-negotiate the union contract, change the budget and curriculum, or to convert the school to a charter or a full-service community school.  If schools do not improve within a year, they will be taken over by an outside receiver.

In early July, when Scott Walker finally signed the state budget in Wisconsin, tucked into the budget bill was the takeover of the Milwaukee School District.  Rob Peterson, founder of Rethinking Schools magazine and former president of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, explains: “In Milwaukee, the state’s largest district and home to predominantly African-American and Latino students, the budget includes a ‘takeover’ plan that increases privatization and decreases oversight by the elected school board of the Milwaukee Public Schools.  The plan empowers the Milwaukee County Executive to appoint a ‘commissioner’ who will have parallel power with the MPS school board. The commissioner can privatize up to three of the city’s schools the first two years, and up to five every year thereafter.”

In Ohio at the end of June, without prior warning in the middle of a a committee hearing, Ohio Senator Peggy Lehner, chair of Ohio’s Senate Education Committee, introduced a 66 page amendment to establish state takeover of the Youngstown schools by an emergency manager—and takeover in the future of any school district with three years’ of “F” ratings—rendering the elected school board meaningless and abrogating the union contract.  She attached her amendment to a very popular bill designed to support expansion of the number of full-service, wraparound community learning centers in Ohio.  Within hours the bill had passed the Senate, moved to the House for concurrence, and been sent to the Governor for signature.

And in Georgia, Governor Nathan Deal considers his greatest achievement the establishment of a statewide “Opportunity School District,” designed, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, to “give the state the power to seize control of failing schools, convert them into charters or shut them down.”  In Georgia, unlike the other states named in this post, a majority of the voters must approve the measure in 2016 before it will take effect.  It has, however, already begun to affect the state’s education politics.  The designer of the Opportunity School District plan, Erin Hames—Governor Deal’s top education policy adviser—just resigned from her state position to sign a no-bid contract with the Atlanta Public Schools to advise the school district on how to avoid the very policy she created—the state takeover of 27 low-scoring schools.

Myra Blackmon, columnist for the Athens Banner-Herald, commented on this convoluted situation in Sunday’s paper: “Recently, we learned that Erin Hames, Gov. Nathan Deal’s education minion, is leaving her job.  In her new role, she’ll be paid $96,000 a year by the Atlanta Public School system to help it avoid becoming a victim of the Opportunity School District plan which Hames developed and rammed through the state legislature… But it gets worse.  Hames’ new consulting company filed its corporate papers on August 5, just four business days before the Atlanta Board of Education’s August 11 vote on her no-bid contract… This is how the self-selected ‘education reformers’ operate.  Their motive is profit and personal advancement.  They love the idea of schools run by private organizations….  It defies the values of local control in favor of centralized, easily managed power—all the while claiming ‘it’s for the children.'”

State school takeovers, whatever their form, fail to address what research has long confirmed is a primary factor that affects school achievement: poverty and especially concentrated neighborhood poverty.  Here is the analysis of Paul Jargowsky, a Rutgers University social scientist, about the demographic trend in the very type of school district being targeted with state takeover of low-scoring public schools: “Nationwide, the number of high-poverty neighborhoods and the population living in them has risen at an alarming pace… In the 2005-09 ACS data, before the financial crisis took hold, high-poverty census tracts increased by nearly one-third, to 3,310…. by 2009-13, an additional 1,100 tracts had poverty rates of 40 percent or more, bringing the total to 4,412. The overall increase in high-poverty census tracts since 2000 was 76 percent… The total population of these high-poverty neighborhoods has also grown… (S)ince the 2000 low, the number of persons living in neighborhoods where the poverty rate is 40 percent or more has grown by 91 percent… One of the primary concerns about high-poverty neighborhoods is the potential impact on child and adolescent development.  Indeed, William Julius Wilson stressed the lack of positive role models within the social milieu of urban ghettos.  High-poverty neighborhoods produce high-poverty schools, and both the school and neighborhood contexts affect student achievement.”

State school takeovers have no impact whatsoever on concentrated poverty.  They do steal democracy and local control, however, in poor communities.

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Residential Concentration of Poverty (and Wealth) and the Impact on Public Schools

Paul Jargoswky, the Rutgers University professor of public policy and director of the Rutgers Center for Urban Research and Urban Education, has just published a new brief on the growing concentration of poverty in many urban neighborhoods across America:

“To address the root causes of urban violence, police-community tensions, and the enduring legacy of racism, the genesis of urban slums and the forces that sustain them must be understood.  As a first step in that direction, this report examines the trends in the population and characteristics of neighborhoods of extreme deprivation… The number of people living in high-poverty ghettos, barrios, and slums has nearly doubled since 2000, rising from 7.2 million to 13.8 million… Poverty became more concentrated—more than one in four of the black poor and nearly one in six of the Hispanic poor lives in a neighborhood of extreme poverty compared to one in thirteen of the white poor.  To make matters worse, poor children are more likely to reside in high-poverty neighborhoods than poor adults.”

The problem is not merely the persistence of poverty but also its growing concentration. Jargowsky speculates about the causes: “Recent economic troubles have clearly contributed to the sharp re-concentration of poverty since 2000.  But another huge factor, in good economic times and bad, has been rampant suburban and exurban development.  Suburbs have grown so fast that their growth was cannibalistic: it came at the expense of the central city and older suburbs.  In virtually all metropolitan areas, suburban rings grew much faster than was needed to accommodate metropolitan population growth, so that central cities and inner-ring suburbs saw massive population declines.”

Cities with the highest concentration of poverty are more likely to be mid-size cities with many in the Midwest: “Whereas concentration of poverty used to be a big city problem, the fastest growth in black concentration of poverty since 2000 was in metropolitan areas with 500,000 to 1 million persons—places like Syracuse, New York; Dayton, Ohio; Gary, Indiana; and Wilmington, Delaware.  In Syracuse, for example, the number of high-poverty tracts more than doubled, rising from twelve to thirty.  Syracuse now has the highest level of poverty concentration among blacks and Hispanics of the one hundred largest metropolitan areas.”  Concentrated poverty among African American residents is highest in these ten cities: Syracuse, NY;  Detroit, MI;  Toledo,OH;  Rochester, NY;  Fresno, CA;  Buffalo, NY; Cleveland, OH; Gary, IN;  Milwaukee, WI; and Louisville, KY.   Among Hispanics, concentrated poverty is highest in these ten cities: Syracuse, NY;  Philadelphia, PA;  McAllen, TX;  Detroit, MI;  Springfield, MA;  Rochester, NY;  Milwaukee, WI;  Fresno, CA;  Buffalo, NY; and Cleveland, OH.

“Unfortunately,” explains Jargowsky, “poor children are more likely to live in high-poverty neighborhoods than poor adults… The gap is largest for poor children under 6 years of age, by 16.5 percent compared to 13.8 percent for poor adults.  The gap in high poverty neighborhood residence is even larger for the black poor, with 28 percent of black poor children less than 6 years old residing in concentrated poverty compared to 24.2 percent of black poor adults.  Whites, however, show the opposite pattern, with white poor children less likely to live in high-poverty neighborhoods than white poor adults.”

Stanford University sociologist Sean Reardon has conducted massive research (here and here) on growing segregation of families by income and a closely related widening income inequality achievement gap at school.  Reardon’s research confirms that families are increasingly raising children in communities of either concentrated poverty or concentrated wealth.  Reardon was recently interviewed by Sam Pizzigati for Too Much, an online monthly published by the Institute for Policy Studies:  “We’re concerned about racial segregation, in part, because of the economic segregation that goes along with it.  Racial segregation often means that blacks or Latinos are unequally concentrated in poor, disadvantaged neighborhoods….”  “Increasing economic segregation means that kids from high-income families live with kids from other high-income families and go to schools that have more resources.  They go on to do better in school and have a better chance of attending a good college.  We have evidence over the last few decades that the achievement gap—the test score gap—between students from high and low-income families is widening, and maybe that’s related to these processes.”

Reardon continues: “But I think there’s another less direct but maybe more insidious way that these things operate.  If high income families increasingly live among other high-income families, and far away from middle class and lower-income families, then they may have less understanding of the plight of the middle class or the working class or the poor.  They may be less willing to invest their resources in public goods—like schools and child care facilities and health care infrastructure—that would broadly benefit everyone in society.  And so I worry that income segregation means that the affluent are increasingly sequestered in enclaves where they have little incentive to understand why we should invest in broad public goods that would help everyone.  And since these affluent control the vast majority of our economic resources—and also a disproportionate share of our political resources—then their disinvestment from public goods has broad repercussions for our society.”

Concentrated Poverty in 2014 Now 50 Percent Higher than in 2000

In her recent book, Reign of Error, Diane Ravitch decries the lack of political leadership during the past quarter century to address what she calls “the toxic mix”: racial segregation, poverty, and inequality:

“In the absence of active leadership by federal officials and the judiciary, the public is apathetic about racial and ethnic segregation, as well as socioeconomic segregation…  Neither of the major federal efforts of the past generation—No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top—has even mentioned segregation….  While these programs directed billions of federal aid, they did not leverage any funding to promote desegregation of schools or communities, and in their demand to expand the charter sector, they may have worsened the problem.  As black and Hispanic students remain segregated in large numbers, their academic achievement remains low.  Then federal law stigmatizes their schools as ‘failing’ and recommends firing their principals and their teachers and closing their schools.” (pp. 294-295).

One advocate who has persistently drawn our attention to the impact of concentrated poverty and inequality overlaid on racial segregation is Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute.  In a new piece posted on the website of the Economic Policy Institute, African American Poverty: Concentrated and Multi-Generational, Rothstein describes his just-published review for the American Prospect of a new book by sociologist, Patrick Sharkey, Stuck in Place, which according to Rothstein explores the multi-generational impact of living in communities where poverty is extreme and children and their families are surrounded by a concentration of families where there is little hope.

Rothstein also directs our attention to Paul Jargowsky’s new report from the Century Foundation and Rutgers Center for Urban Research and Education: Concentration of Poverty in the New Millennium.  According to Jargowsky, “the number of high-poverty census tracts—those with poverty rates of 40 percent or more—fell 26 percent, from 3,417 in 1990 to 2,510 in 2000.”  However, “The sharp reduction in high-poverty neighborhoods observed in the 2000 census… has since been completely reversed.  The count of such tracts increased by 800 (32 percent) between 2000 and the 2005-2009 ACS data to nearly the level of 1990….  In the latest available data, spanning 2007-2011, the count of high poverty tracts rose by an additional 454 (14 percent) to 3,764, eclipsing the 1990 high.  Overall, the number of high-poverty tracts has increased by 50 percent since 2000.”

I agree with Rothstein that we must educate ourselves about our society’s growing inequality as one step toward building the political will to address the tragedy and injustice of ongoing denial of opportunity for generations of children.  Rothstein concludes his recent blog post: “Reading Patrick Sharkey’s Stuck in Place and Paul Jawarsky’s Concentration of Poverty is a sobering way to start 2014  But for deeper insights into the challenges we face in narrowing inequality, I recommend you do so.”