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.

Even If NCLB Is Reauthorized, States Push On with Punitive School Policies and Privatization

In an important piece last week for the Education Opportunity Network, Jeff Bryant looks at the way the dynamics are shifting in punitive education “reform.”  Even if Congress reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to take away No Child Left Behind’s federally prescribed turnarounds for schools in the lowest scoring 5 percent across the states, the punitive culture has been absorbed into the states themselves.  Reform that emphasizes sanctions, rather than state investment in education for equity, is particularly appealing to legislators in these times of tax cuts and austerity budgeting.  After all, more than half the states are not yet even investing as much as they were in public education prior to the Great Recession in 2008. Test-and-punish for the lowest-scoring schools is a popular strategy, because people outside the communities where it is imposed don’t feel the pain.  The flavor of the day as far as test-and-punish goes, according to Bryant is the state “Recovery School District,” as it is sometimes called, or state “Achievement School District.”

Bryant comments, “(T)here is a danger punitive ‘accountability’ policies from the federal government are about to pivot to even more unreasonable measures from states.  The danger, in particular, comes in the form of new policies being taken up by an increasing number of states to create special agencies—usually made up of non-elected officials—with the power to swoop into communities, take over local school governance, and turn schools over to private management groups often associated with large charter chains.  These appointed boards often take on the guise of a shining knight—using names like Recovery School District or Achievement School District.  But they are anything but gallant soldiers coming to the rescue.”

Recovery School District.  Achievement School District. They are the very same thing.  Though Bryant’s review of this trend doesn’t go back ten years, the latest wave of state school takeovers began in the winter after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans.  Naomi Klein describes the birth of the Louisiana Recovery School District in her 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine:  “In sharp contrast to the glacial pace with which the levees were repaired and the electricity grid was brought back online, the auctioning off of New Orleans’ school system took place with military speed and precision.  Within nineteen months, with most of the city’s poor residents still in exile, New Orleans’ public school system had been almost completely replaced by privately run charter schools.  Before Hurricane Katrina, the school board had run 123 public schools; now it ran just 4… New Orleans teachers used to be represented by a strong union; now the union’s contract had been shredded, and its forty-seven hundred members had all been fired… New Orleans was now, according to the New York Times, ‘the nation’s preeminent laboratory for the widespread use of charter schools’…. I call these orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities, ‘disaster capitalism.’” (The Shock Doctrine, pp. 5-6)

Today’s school takeovers through Recovery School Districts or Achievement School Districts do not follow hurricanes or floods or earthquakes.  Instead the sense of catastrophe that is believed to create the need for takeover and the private school management through charters that inevitably follows is the clustering of low standardized test scores in the poorest neighborhoods of our cities—a clustering that has been correlated again and again with growing economic segregation overlaid on segregation by race.   The federal No Child Left Behind Act, which has since 2002 mandated annual standardized testing for all children and disaggregated and reported the test scores, has created the sense of crisis by persistently labeling the poorest performing schools and school districts.  And in our poorest city neighborhoods there is a crisis for the children and for their schools that, as institutions operating in communities of devastating poverty, almost inevitably become overwhelmed.  Politicians realize something must be done, and a Recovery School District for other people’s children is not as politically painful as equalizing school finance, for example.

As Bryant explains, Recovery School Districts and Achievement School Districts—empowered by state law to take over the worst scoring schools or school districts, bring in emergency managers with the power to close schools, abrogate union contracts and even turn whole school districts over to Charter Management Organizations—are an increasingly popular “answer” to our problem of “failing” schools and school districts. In Tennessee, the legislature created an Achievement School District (ASD), giving “appointed officials the power to override local governance and take control of the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in the state.”  Operating first in Nashville and later adding Memphis, “ASD required districts to enforce, for their lowest performing schools, either or both of the following measures: fire school staff or hand the school over to a charter school management organization.  Conveniently, the ASD is also a charter authorizer, so it can designate any of its schools for charter takeover, and indeed it has done so numerous times.  In fact, the outgoing superintendent of the ASD, Chris Barbic, is the founder and ex-CEO of the Yes Prep chain of charter schools.”  Barbic resigned recently from the Tennessee Achievement School District when it became apparent that reading scores had dropped instead of improving as promised.

Bryant also sums up the story of the failed Michigan Education Achievement Authority, established in 2011 under Governor Rick Snyder.  Michigan’s recovery school district has been plagued with corruption and unable to raise test scores in Detroit.   Neither have Snyder’s state-apppointed emergency managers in Muskegon Heights and Highland Park school districts successfully turned around student achievement.  In fact the Charter Management Organizations brought in by emergency managers in Muskegon Heights and Highland Park—Mosaica and the Leona Group, both for-profits—have both quit, unable to turn a profit, despite their unprecedented power to close schools, fire teachers, and ignore contractual agreements with the unions.

Bryant reports that other states seeking to launch such “Recovery” or “Achievement” districts are Georgia, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Arkansas, Missouri, South Carolina, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin, where there is a move afoot to take over the Milwaukee Public Schools.  Even, “In New York, the state Education Department recently put 144 ‘persistently struggling’ schools under a new program that threatens them with ‘outside receivership.'”

Ohio instituted such a program in the last week of June.  The legislation was rushed through within 24 hours and without any opponent testimony permitted in the legislature.  The Plain Dealer editorialized on Sunday about the danger of this sort of legislation: “School reform is difficult.  It requires consensus, lots of public debate and no small amount of trust.  But the stealthy legislative steamrolling of the Youngstown Academic Distress Commission shamefully proves that’s not how many Republican members of the Ohio General Assembly or Ohio Superintendent of Public Instruction Richard Ross see it… The stealth provisions effectively abolish local control of schools after three years’ of failing grades and impose draconian changes that allow a single person appointed by a new commission established by the state to determine policies on pay, hiring, firing and charter schools, bypassing local school boards, administrators and unions… Abolishing local control in the dark of the night is not the right way to achieve strong school reform statewide.  And the new measure affects all public school districts in the future that earn failing grades for three consecutive years.”

If a Congressional conference committee can come to some agreement about reauthorizing the law we now call No Child Left Behind (and that may not be possible due to huge differences between House and Senate versions of the reauthorization bill), it is possible that Congress will lighten the heavy hand of federal test-and-punish.  But after a decade-and-a-half of everybody’s somehow swallowing the idea that we can punish schools into raising test scores—a period when Race to the Top dangled money in front of states that jumped to adopt punitive education policy into state law as the condition for getting a federal grant—we seem to lack the vision to see what needs to happen to improve the schools that serve our society’s very poorest children.