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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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.”

Will Flint’s Lead Poisoning Wake Us Up to Disaster of State Takeovers and Austerity Budgets?

State takeovers of various sorts have been a favorite policy response of governors and state legislatures who seek an efficient solution to the problems of America’s poorest cities and school districts.  The question today is whether the lead poisoning of Flint, Michigan’s water supply and the attempt for months to hide the seriousness of this situation, all under Emergency Manager Darnell Earley—now serving as Emergency Manager of the Detroit Public Schools—will sufficiently awaken the public to the widespread neglect by state governments of so many of our poorest cities and school districts.

Last August, the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools released a major report, Out of Control: The Systematic Disenfranchisement of African American and Latino Communities Through School Takeovers, that traces the state takeovers of school districts and the abrogation of democracy as appointed state overseers commence to manage operations without the usual checks and balances imposed by elected boards of education.  That report describes the long-running New Jersey takeovers of Jersey City (since 1989), Paterson (since 1991), and Newark (since 1995); the Louisiana Recovery District that has fully charterized the New Orleans schools since Hurricane Katrina in 2005; the Tennessee Achievement School District that operates schools in Memphis and now in Nashville; the Michigan Education Achievement Authority by which Governor Rick Snyder has taken over 15 schools in Detroit since 2013; and two new state takeovers in 2015—the takeover of Milwaukee Schools that was logrolled last summer into the Wisconsin state budget, and Arkansas’ takeover of the schools in Little Rock.  The 2015 legislation to enable Ohio to take over Youngstown’s schools was too recent to have been covered in the report, and Nathan Deal’s proposal for a Georgia “Opportunity School District” has passed the legislature but must be affirmed by voters in a referendum in November, 2016.

Additionally, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder has the power to appoint emergency fiscal managers for municipalities and school districts deemed to be in financial emergency.  Emergency fiscal managers were first authorized by state law in Michigan in 1988.  In a referendum in November of 2012, the voters overturned the right of the governor to take over local municipal and school district juristictions deemed to be in financial emergency, but the all-Republican legislature came back with a tougher law that was passed before the end of that year. The 2012 law supposedly limits the tenure of austerity-budget emergency managers, but Governor Snyder has found a way to extend emergency management long-term.  Curt Guyette, an investigative reporter for the ACLU of Michigan explains: “(T)he managers were given extreme unchecked authority… (T)hey were given the ability to come in, clean up the problems and get out.  And so there was an 18-month time limit put on their terms.  Except that this governor is exploiting what amounts to a loophole in that law… (T)hese emergency managers serve for 17 months and 29 days, and the day before their term expires, they resign.  A new emergency manager is put in place, and the clock starts ticking all over again.  And they just shuffle them from one place to another.”

We now know that a couple of years ago, Michigan’s appointed emergency fiscal manager, Darnell Earley, approved a plan for Flint to save money by creating its own water system instead of buying already treated water from Detroit.  Chemicals to prevent release of lead from old, corroded pipes were not added to the water when Flint began taking water from the Flint River; the pipes corroded all over town; and the children of Flint began to experience epidemic lead poisoning.

Earley left Flint and was appointed Emergency Manager of the Detroit City Schools a year ago, not enough time for him to be blamed for all of the school district’s fiscal problems.  The state’s previous appointed emergency managers had already failed to correct a long-running financial crisis for Detroit’s schools, a crisis that has now culminated in the failure to pay required contributions into the state teachers’ pension fund and a practice of restructuring short term debt instead of making the needed payments.  Detroit City Schools currently have an accrued deficit of $3.5 billion.

Here is the conclusion of the new report from the Citizens Research Council of Michigan: “Detroit Public Schools has $3.5 billion in outstanding debt.  Nearly half of this amount, $1.67 billion, is capital liabilities payable with a dedicated millage… The balance of DPS’s liabilities are related to legacy costs and repaying short-term borrowings converted to long-term debt by state-appointed emergency managers.  This includes $1.3 billion that represents DPS’s estimated share of the unfunded actuarial accrued liabilities for retiree pension and health care costs…. A plan that solves the district’s money problems without addressing what is taking place in the classroom will not set the district up for future success.  Similarly, any financial plan that only deals with the district’s near-term fiscal woes (cash flow for example) will not prove lasting and will not support student learning over the long haul if current financial problems are shifted to future students.”  Neither has the state legislature invested in public education, nor has the state devised a workable plan for equitable distribution of funding to help the school districts with the least capacity to generate local revenue. A new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities documents that Michigan’s general state funding per student remains 7.5 percent lower than it was prior to the 2008 recession.

It is not only the emergency fiscal managers whose performance is in question in Michigan, but critics have also been raising very troubling questions about the other form of state takeover in that state, the Education Achievement Authority, that manages 15 of Detroit’s struggling schools. Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority was intended to have been expanded beyond Detroit, but low achievement and other problems have prevented its growth. Here is some troubling data released in mid-December: “Just one fourth-grader in schools run by the Education Achievement Authority—a state district created to turn around the worst performing schools in the state—passed the math portion of the exam…. Overall, only 1.2% of the students in the district passed in math and 5.6% passed in English language arts.  In some grades and subjects, not one student passed.”  Last spring, even Governor Snyder admitted to the failure of the Education Achievement Authority, when he issued an executive order to transfer the Education Achievement Authority from the Department of Education to the Department of Technology, Management and Budget, a department directly under Snyder’s control.  In his executive order, he declared, “Despite not achieving satisfactory outcomes, the current structure has neither implemented the rigorous supports and processes needed to create positive academic outcomes….”  In these words last March, Snyder condemns the results of the state takeover initiative he had himself created, though the test scores just released show no improvement under the new management plan he instituted last spring.

And there is more, this time about the implications of the state-imposed emergency fiscal manager on the Detroit Public Schools—news about cutting back on building maintenance under current Emergency Fiscal Manager Darnell Earley.  Here is Michigan’s Eclectablog: “Darnell Earley has been the Emergency Manager for DPS for a year now.  While the obscene state of many DPS schools is not solely on his shoulders, it’s clear that that he’s done nothing to solve the problems.  Once again, he has used the Emergency Managers’ toolkit of cutting, reductions, and other austerity measures to solve a problem that can only be resolved through investment and renewal… For months, labor unions and residents have been sounding the alarm that a plan by DPS to cut the number of certified, licensed boiler operators and switch to an untested, unmanned system of monitoring commercial boilers in schools is too dangerous.  Boilers are more likely to explode when not maintained and watched by licensed, certified operators… DPS is decreasing the number of operators from one per school to a one per every five schools… Getting to a school in time to avert an equipment failure that can cause an explosion will become almost impossible.”

Here is the analysis of Curt Guyette,  speaking in an interview with Democracy Now: “(O)ne of the things about the emergency manager law is that these managers were given extreme unchecked authority.  And the thinking was… they were given the ability to come in, clean up the problems and get out…  And the other thing is… the imposition of austerity.  This is what austerity looks like… So you have all the problems in these schools that you just reported on, because they’re treating it like a managerial problem rather than a structural problem.”  Guyette is asked to comment on the type of communities and school districts on which Michigan has imposed emergency fiscal managers: “With the exception of one, they are all majority African American.  And they’re also all very poor cities.  So this is a racial issue, and it’s a class issue.”

This blog recently covered the fiscal problems of Detroit Public Schools here.