Why State Leaders Need To Back Away From School Takeover Agencies

Jeff Bryant

What do Republicans have against school boards?

That’s a question to take away from a recent article in The Washington Post, in which education writer Lyndsey Layton reports that Republican governors and legislators in at least 11 states are in various stages of seizing control of schools and school districts and overriding local governance of education. The state takeover agencies are branded with various names – Recovery School District, Achievement School District, Education Achievement Authority – but the goal is always the same: dismantle school boards or take their governance powers away.

Layton notes how odd it is for Republican leaders who profess the preeminence of “local control” yet suddenly go full top-down authoritarian when it comes to schools. But as she explains, the typical process behind these state takeovers is for the governor or a state appointed board to use a rating system, mostly based on student test scores, to designate a group of schools or a whole district “low performing,” then appoint a manager with “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.”

“This model is quite appealing to [Republicans],” Layton quotes Kenneth K. Wong, chair of the education department at Brown University.

But if elected school boards are the problem, are state takeover agencies the answer? “No,” says a new report from the Center for Popular Democracy.

Very Disappointing Results

The report, “State Takeovers Of Low-Performing Schools: A Record of Academic Failure, Financial Mismanagement & Student Harm,” examines the track record of district and school takeovers in states that have employed this governance method the longest time – Louisiana, Michigan, and Tennessee – and concludes, “There is no clear evidence that takeover districts actually achieve their stated goals of radically improving performance at failing schools.”

“We wrote this report to warn state leaders about adopting these takeover methods,” report author Kyle Serrette, CPD’s director of education justice, tells me in a phone conversation. “We saw seven states recently adopt new legislation authorizing takeover agencies, and we wanted to show them the promised outcomes of these agencies just aren’t there.”

Instead of helping students and improving schools, state takeovers of public schools have led to very disappointing results, CPD finds. “Children have seen negligible improvement – or even dramatic setbacks – in their educational performance,” the report states. And takeovers have led to a great many unintended negative consequences, including high rates of teacher turnover, the spread of harsh disciplinary measures that discriminate against children of color, and widespread “fraud and mismanagement” in schools that have been taken over and handed off to privately managed charter school organizations.

This Clearly Doesn’t Work

In Louisiana, the report finds “mixed results” at best, for the state’s Recovery School District, as state standards and achievement levels have stayed mired near the bottom compared to the rest of the states in the country. State education officials, in attempts to obscure the poor track record of the takeovers, have also frequently changed the metrics used to gauge school performance from year to year.

Michigan’s state takeover agency has been “a disaster,” the report finds. The report quotes the head of the agency admitting that after three years of direct state administration, “achievement hasn’t improved.” In schools overseen by the state authority, student scores on state standardized tests have continued to decline. Significant percentages of students in poor performing schools who had previously shown proficiency in state math and reading exams have experienced declines since the takeovers of their schools took place.

In Tennessee, the six Memphis schools taken over by the state in 2012 have all experienced declining reading scores on state tests; half have had math scores drop, too. The goal of using state takeovers to move the lowest performing schools out of the bottom level of performance looks more like a pipe dream. “Only six out of the 17 takeover schools had moved out of the bottom performance decile by the end of the 2013-2014 school year,” the report finds.

What went wrong?

It’s The Democracy, Stupid

“We know these schools were struggling before the state takeovers,” Serrette explains, “but state officials opted for structural change alone. And structural change by itself doesn’t work.”

It’s understandable that sorting out the problems of chronically struggling school districts can be a very frustrating experience for public officials. Locally elected school boards are often overly contentious to the point of dysfunction. Too few people bother to vote in school board elections, and the electoral system is often prone to manipulation from powerful individuals and self-interested groups. And the country’s history is replete with examples of local boards that perpetuated widespread mistreatment of minorities to the point where outside intervention was necessary.

But local school governance, through elected schools boards, has always been “a major part of the engine that maintains and strengthens our U.S. democracy,” states John Jackson, president and CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education, in a forward to the CPD report. Therefore, in Jackson’s view, “any state action that limits or takes over that process is paramount to a state action limiting a fundamental vehicle of democracy.” [Disclosure: the Schott Foundation is a partner of the Education Opportunity Network.]

Furthermore, Jackson contends, the state takeovers frequently occur “while the states themselves fail to first meet their own constitutional obligation to provide the locality with the resources needed to provide their students with a fair and substantive opportunity to learn.”

Jackson points to Flint, Michigan, where a state appointed emergency manager made unilateral decisions that caused thousands of children in the city to be exposed to concentrated levels of lead, as an example of how direct state oversight lacks the local context and the citizenry input to make good decisions. “It is clear,” Jackson concludes, “that while states can be supportive in providing relief and standards, history and outcome data have proven they are not best positioned to manage or take over complex local school operations.”

What struggling schools needs instead of structural change is “strategic change,” Serrette maintains. “Taking over schools or closing them down is not accountability,” he argues. “Real accountability would be taking responsibility to make sure these schools get the strategic supports they need.”

Those strategic supports Serrette refers to are spelled out in the report in the form of six recommendations that include changes to curriculum, instruction, staffing, and parent engagement.

So why aren’t state officials taking these steps instead?

Why Are States Doing This?

Layton quotes various Republican governors saying the takeover districts are all about “riding to the rescue of kids” and taking steps “to protect the schoolchildren and their parents.”

Despite good intentions, however, “lawmakers often have very little experience in governing schools before they take office,” Serrette argues. “They frequently only know what was put into place before they took office,” or they are influenced most by “what they’re being told” by outside agencies and actors.

Increasingly, one of the most powerful influencers of education policy is the richly financed charter school industry, and it is no coincidence that one of the most prevalent outcomes of state takeovers of local schools is the eventual handover of those schools to charter management organizations, as the CPD report points out.

As I reported for Salon over a year ago, when Tennessee created its state takeover agency, called the Achievement School District, state officials 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 has done so numerous times. In fact, the first superintendent of the ASD, Chris Barbic, is the founder and ex-CEO of the Yes Prep chain of charter schools. When the ASD rolled into Memphis, the ASD immediately began targeting the district’s schools for takeover by charter operations.

My article quotes Metro Nashville Public School board member Will Pinkston who explains how “the charter school movement has hijacked education policy” by using the ASD as an opening to impose more privatization of public schools without any local consent of the educators and families affected.

Pinkston should know. As a staffer in the administration of former Tennessee governor Phil Bredesen, he was instrumental in devising the state’s successful proposal to receive money from the Obama administration’s Race to the Top competitive grant program, which financed and led to the creation of the ASD. Pinkston takes credit for coining the very name of the agency.

Now, in his role as a local school board member, Pinkston accuses the ASCD of engineering “hostile takeovers” of local schools that marginalize community input. “It’s immoral to force this kind of change on people who don’t want it,” he states.

The CPD report confirms much of what Pinkston contends, not only in his home state but also in Louisiana and Michigan. While these takeover districts do not deliver improved student performance, they end up being “largely comprised of charter schools under private management … These schools have been accused of cherry-picking students, failing to provide adequate services to children with special needs, and implementing punitive disciplinary measures, such as suspensions, which often disrupt educational outcomes for students of color.”

Furthermore, handing over public schools to these privately operated charter firms also “can siphon millions of dollars away from direct investment in the students enrolled in turnaround schools,” the report concludes. And transferring public assets to private control “has allowed theft, fraud and mismanagement to run rampant in the scattered and fragmented takeover districts.”

So, yes, we need locally and democratically elected school boards, as imperfect as they are. Not only are they likely the best vehicles we have to scrutinize public education expenditures, they are also likely still the best governing structure we have to ensure students are learning.

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