Washington Post Report Highlights Problems with State Takeovers of Schools

Earlier this week the Washington Post‘s Lyndsey Layton reported on the wave of attempts by Republican governors to seize local schools and school districts and turn them over to new state-run governance structures dubbed “recovery” or “opportunity,” or “achievement” school districts: “Governors in Michigan, Arkansas, Nevada, Wisconsin, Georgia, Ohio and elsewhere—mostly Republican leaders who otherwise champion local control in their fights with the federal government—say they are intervening in cases of chronic academic or financial failure.  They say they have a moral obligation to act when it is clear that local efforts haven’t led to improvement… Eleven states have passed or debated legislation to create state-run school districts in the past year… State takeovers were once a rarity, but they have become increasingly popular as the number of states controlled by Republicans doubled between 2010 and 2014.”

Layton cites a report from the Education Commission of the States, an organization that has historically leaned toward support of accountability-based school reform.  The Education Commission of the States describes the state run “recovery” districts this way: “In recovery districts, SEAs (state education agencies) gain legal authority to take over their lowest-performing schools and assume the LEA (local education agency) functions for those schools.  Schools in these districts are united not by geographic proximity, but rather by their status as underperformers.  The belief is that by grouping schools in this way, states can more seamlessly implement comprehensive and aggressive reform strategies in schools facing similar challenges.  Recovery districts tend to have a governance system in which ‘high-quality’ operators function in a charter-prevalent model.  Schools that are not run by charter operators are run instead by the state board or recovery district authority.”  Notice the language in ECS’s report that affirms the frame of those who support state takeovers—“seamlessly implement comprehensive and aggressive reform strategies”—“governance system in which ‘high-quality’ operators function in a charter-prevalent model.”

Less sympathetic to the ideology of the school “reformers,” Layton describes the way these state takeovers operate: “Although the particulars vary, an appointed manager wields broad powers to redesign schools or close them entirely.  The state manager can hire and fire, set curriculum, reconfigure the school day, sell property and, in some cases break existing labor contracts.  Increasingly, state managers are turning over traditional public schools to charter school operators, which are funded by tax dollars but are privately managed.  The idea is that the state can bring aggressive change in a way that local politicians, with their community ties and loyalties, cannot.”

Kent McGuire of the Southern Education Foundation is quoted by Layton: “These ideas kind of travel like wildfire.  But you can’t really find evidence that there’s been positive, sustainable changes in learning in those places.”

She also quotes Clark County, Georgia’s Philip Lanoue, the 2015 national Superintendent of the Year: “These takeovers are entangled with money and power and control.”

Layton reminds readers of Ohio Governor John Kasich’s surreptitious takeover last summer of the schools in impoverished Youngstown, Ohio.  Ohio is a super-majority Republican state, making it easy for Kasich and his staff to engineer quick passage through a captive legislature. Layton explains: “The administration and its allies in the state legislature rushed the legislation, getting it approved by a committee and narrowly passed by both houses of the legislature less than 24 hours after it was made public.  ‘This was a blueprint to dismantle the city schools,’ said state Sen. Joe Schiavoni, a Democrat who represents Youngstown and is Senate minority leader.”  This blog has extensively covered the Youngstown takeover here, here, and here.

This blog has covered state takeovers of schools and school districts.  In Michigan, here, here, here, here and here. The proposed constitutional amendment to create a Georgia Achievement District, here.  In Newark, here and here.  In Milwaukee, here. In New Orleans, here. State takeovers in general, here and here.

What is the most telling information in Layton’s new Washington Post article?  “All state takeovers to date have occurred in school districts that are impoverished and majority African American and Latino.”