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Janresseger: State Takeovers: Radical Seizure of School Districts vs. Organic, Community Grounded School Improvement

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 MagazineTom 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 coveredOhio’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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Jan Resseger

Before retiring, Jan Resseger staffed advocacy and programming to support public education justice in the national setting of the United Church of Christ—working to improve the public schools that serve 50 million of our children, reduce standardized testing, ensure attention to vast opportunity gaps, advocate for schools that welcome all children, and...