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Curmudgucation: Are State Takeovers a Useful Tool

Earlier this month, the 74 published an unusual article from  Ashley Jochim and Paul Hill, both of the Center on Reinventing Public Education. Their argument is that state takeovers of school districts "remain a powerful tool."

What's exceptional about the piece is that it is loaded with evidence to the contrary. I mean, ordinarily I would have had to go hunt this stuff down myself, but it's right here in the piece. Tennessee, having pioneered the Achievement School District model for state school takeover and having proven that the model doesn't actually work, is finally backing away from the whole idea. Ohio's state takeover law has created some real disasters, and the legislatures is wrestling with getting rid of it, but in the meantime, it has hit pause on takeovers. Louisiana, New Jersey, Georgia-- the list of states getting out of the takeover biz is growing.
 

There's the culprit

 

The authors acknowledge all of that. They acknowledge some of the criticisms, including those from conservative and even reform-friendly writers like Jay Greene, saying that takeovers are just overreach by distant bureaucrats and have a lousy track record. Plus, folks object to how state takeovers often seem to be part of dismantling public education, which is apparently a lefty position (some say we need to figure out how rejecting a foundational institution in society became a "conservative" idea).

Also, they note that state takeovers "can carry steep political costs," as in the way that takeovers of mostly black districts invariably result in the stifling of black voices. And takeovers can suppress union vices as well, which I'm pretty sure some folks see as a feature and not a bug.

Despite all this, the authors argue that states should keep takeovers in their bag of tricks anyway.

Their evidence? Well, none, really. Their argument is that there were no takeovers in the 1990s and schools were "unable to shake persistent low performance." Well, no. First, we'd need to clear up what exactly their basis for writing off the nineties is, and second, correlation does not equal causation. Even if 90s schools were low-performing, I can think of a few gazillion other variables that might explain it. The Bush administration. Home Alone came out. Game Boy. MTV stopped showing videos. Grunge. Cheers ended. Sonic the Hedgehog.

So why are takeovers worth keeping in use? Well, um. The report from which this article is spun is really a compendium of interviews with ten state education chiefs, which may well reveal some details of takeover stories, but are unlikely to find a state official who will say, "This particular power should be taken away from me and my successors." It offers some thoughts about how to do it properly, calling takeovers an "important but limited tool.

The report emphasizes that there has to be a local political base and an implementation plan that involves lots of stakeholders. That is true-- the mess in Ohio is a fine example of how things go when takeovers are simply imposed by the state. But the Ohio examples illustrate an issue that the writers don't directly address-- your takeover law can't be dumb to begin with. The Ohio law (HB 70) puts one takeover czar in charge of every single aspect of running the school; he becomes the entire central office staff and the school board, and if he can also leap tall buildings in a single bound while taming unicorns, that would be good, too. Ohio's law is guaranteed to fail because A) it is imposed against the will of the local folks and B) it hinges on a person of superhuman expertise in every single aspect of running a school system. It could never be implemented well because you cannot implement a lousy law well.

The thing is, takeover laws tend to be lousy laws. The writers say "states cannot stand idly by while local districts struggle to meet the needs of students or taxpayers," but who is there in the state capital who knows more about how to run the East Egg school district that the people who live in East Egg and the professionals who work in those schools. I get it-- in some East Eggs the people don't appear to know enough. But who in the state capital knows more?

And is our premise in a takeover that the state does know how to run an awesome school district? And if so, why don't we just have them run all the school districts? Or are we saying that their expertise is only what's needed to turn a failing district into one that's good enough to get by- in which case, doesn't that indicate they aren't really up to the job? Because fixing a district in trouble is mostly a lot harder than running a district that's not in trouble. So why do we think the state has any of the expertise necessary to pull this off?

The writers also reveal one other aspect of takeovers by saying that it's good for the state to have that authority, even if they don't use it. In other words, state takeovers can serve as a motivational threat.

But states that abandon the tool "risk irrelevance." In other words, the writers (or their interviewees) don't envision the state's role as providing support or resources or otherwise partnering with local districts. Instead, it's more "Pay attention to me and treat me like I'm important or I will hit you with this stick." I'd suggest that if you have to resort to threats or otherwise force yourself into the relationship, you really are irrelevant.

Is there a role for the state? Sure. Enforce the law. For instance, stomp on districts that insist on segregating students and the providing non-white students with substandard resources. Provide districts with resources-- you could even ask them what they need, first. Be a partner. But this takeover nonsense hasn't worked, isn't working, and shows no signs of working in the future. Get some different tools.

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Peter Greene

Peter Greene has been a high school English teacher in Northwest Pennsylvania for over 30 years. He blogs at Curmudgucation.