State takeovers—always intrusive—often arrogant, experimental, and ideological—don’t work. But state officials persist in believing they know better than residents and school leaders in poor, black and brown communities, and the idea that takeover can compensate for states’ own underfunding of their poorest school districts wins again and again. The Flint lead poisoning resulted from Michigan’s imposition of emergency state fiscal managers to shape up local municipal and school district finances without enough attention to government’s responsibility for quality services. Louisiana and Michigan imposed so-called “recovery school districts” in New Orleans and Detroit. Michigan unsuccessfully turned over Highland Park and Muskegon Heights school districts to for-profit charter managers. And in Pennsylvania, the School District of Philadelphia has been run since 2001 by a state-appointed School Reform Commission.
In New Jersey, until last week, the state has been running the schools in Newark for 22 years, despite the presence of a toothless local school board, whose meetings were even boycotted by Cami Anderson, a recent state-appointed superintendent.
Here is Karen Yi for the Newark Star-Ledger last Wednesday: “The state Board of Education voted Wednesday to end is takeover of the Newark school district and begin the transition to return control to the locally-elected school board after 22 years… The move comes after decades of fierce battles with the state and boiling frustrations among Newarkers who had little leverage over their schools. Key in the power shift: The local school board will now have the ability to hire and fire its own superintendent.”
Yi quotes Mayor Ras Baraka, a graduate of the Newark Schools and a local educator himself—formerly a Newark teacher and award-winning high school principal: “The people of Newark, we have some self-determination… We now have control over our own children’s lives. It doesn’t mean that we won’t make mistakes or there won’t be any errors or obstacles… we have the right to make mistakes, we have the right to correct them ourselves.”
Baraka has been criticized for leaving in place a number of the charter schools brought to Newark by the despised recent superintendent, Cami Anderson, but he has also managed to create enough trust to work with the newest state appointment, Christopher Cerf, to bring the catastrophic Cami Anderson One Newark plan, and the Mark Zuckerberg $100,000 million-funded privatization fiasco—a dream turned nightmare and put in place secretly by Governor Chris Christie and now Senator Corey Booker—under control. This blog extensively covered Anderson’s tenure here.
Cerf’s contract ends at the end of this school year, and the wind-down of state control will happen over a series of months. Marques-Aquil Lewis, president of the locally elected (but until now toothless) School Advisory Board, commented on the importance of the Board’s right to appoint the next superintendent: “It’s important the next superintendent understand the community that he or she is going to serve. It will help (to be from Newark). Not a requirement, but it will help.”
David Chen, for the NY Times, describes Lewis and the state takeover that has dominated his own school years: “In 1995, when Marques-Aquil Lewis was in elementary school, the State of New Jersey seized control of the public schools here after a judge warned that ‘nepotism, cronyism and the like’ had precipitated ‘abysmal’ student performances and ‘failure on a very large scale.’ For more than 20 years, local administrators have had little leverage over the finances or operations of the state’s largest school district. Choices about curriculum and programs were mostly made by a state-appointed superintendent, often an outsider. The city could not override personnel decisions. Now, Mr. Lewis’s 4-year-old son is in prekindergarten, and things are changing.”
State takeovers too often mean experimentation on the children in the nation’s poorest urban school districts. Adequate funding for the most basic and necessary improvements—small classes to insure that all children are known and supported—wraparound programs like health clinics and social services—is more than most states have been willing to invest in. State takeovers are an extension of the ideology of accountability—that if schools are run like a business, they can be made financially accountable. The idea that educators can be pressured through threats and financial incentives to raise test scores is the other side of this bargain, along with the idea that privatized charters will create competition.
John Jackson, the President and CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education comments on the arrogance and paternalism of these assumptions: “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. In short, inequitable funding and disenfranchisement by school takeovers are actually a vicious cycle, a double threat to democracy in poor communities. 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.”