On State Takeovers of School Districts

Roosevelt High School in Gary, Indiana

Recently there has been a number of high-profile cases of states taking over school districts. The Kentucky State Board of Education will soon decide whether or not they will take over Jefferson County Public Schools (Louisville), a move that both parents and teachers object to.

The Indiana Legislature voted in May to strip power from Gary and Muncie school district’s school boards. In Muncie’s case, Ball State University has been given control. In Gary’s case, MGT Consulting Group, based in Tallahassee, Fla., a $6.2 million contract to serve as Gary’s emergency manager. The emergency management team leader, former educator Peggy Hinckley (a native of Lake County where Gary is located), is the sole decision-maker.

The State of Louisiana took over New Orleans Public Schools after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 transitioning many of the public schools to charter schools. It was not a success. Mercedes Schneider writes in The Huffington Post:

An overarching goal of state takeover of Louisiana schools was for the state to assume control of most New Orleans public schools– which it did in 2005– and to convert all of those formerly local-board-run schools into charter schools– which it did by May 2014.

Louisiana’s RSD New Orleans (RSD-NO) was an experiment, one that was supposed to “turn around” those failing schools and make the RSD charter conversion a modern-day miracle.

By 2017– twelve years post-Katrina– it is clear that the experiment has failed. There is no incredible test-score-based miracle, and in no place is such failure more obvious than in the average ACT composite scores for RSD-NO in general and its high schools individually.

The state of Michigan controlled Detroit Public Schools from 1999-2006 and 2009-2016, the newly formed Detroit Public Schools Community District has an elected school board.

Tennessee has experience in taking over schools, with Memphis Public Schools being the largest district, and two studies show it is not working.

A 2016, paper by Michigan State University researchers studying the Detroit and Memphis takeovers concluded:

The formation of the EAA and ASD reflected the leadership of state and external partners in both urban districts. In practice, their introduction has added yet another district-like bureaucracy to the complex and evolving systems of school governance in both places. Key challenges involving finances, competition among schools, leadership turnover and lack of district-wide governance remain unaddressed by state policies.

The first study from Vanderbilt University cast doubt on the state’s achievement school district plan, The Tennessean reported in 2015:

District-run turnaround efforts of low-performing schools have yielded better results than that of Tennessee’s Achievement School District.

The finding, released Tuesday in a policy report by Vanderbilt University, casts doubt on the effectiveness of the district meant to help improve the bottom 5 percent of all schools in the state. The study, however, adds that most reform efforts take three to five years to change a school.

“Some years results are bouncing down or up, and across all years the change is basically a zero,” said Ron Zimmer, a professor of policy and education. “The overall story is that we’re not seeing an effect.”

And although he said reform efforts generally take years, district-run efforts have yielded positive results in a relatively short time.

A study from the Tennessee Education Research Alliance released on Tuesday shows three years later it still isn’t working. From The Tennessean:

The finding from a Tennessee Education Research Alliance research brief released Tuesday reinforces what researchers discovered in 2015 about the district over the course of three years. That district-run turnaround efforts of the state’s lowest-performing schools yield greater results than that of Tennessee’s state-run district

“The model that said to bring in a new manager and them give autonomy and good things will happen doesn’t work,” said Gary Henry, a Vanderbilt University researcher on the study and expert in education policy.

It brings about a moment where Tennessee’s education leaders must refocus on how Tennessee’s Achievement School District goes about its work because the threat of a state takeover has spurred action in districts, according to researchers of the study.

So the threat of a takeover appears to do more good than the actual takeover itself.

Local control in education is waning nationally and a state takeover of a local school district takes away the voice of the taxpayers and parents when elected boards are either abolished or neutered.

This is not to say each of these school districts were without problems, that certainly is not the case, but in the case of school takeovers, we see that the loss of local control does not produce the results the state promises.

Centralization fails yet again.

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