State Takeovers Debated as School-Reform Tactic

By Bill Montague — September 24, 1986 21 min read

The surprise proposal by the National Governors’ Association that states consider taking over school districts found academically “bankrupt” has drawn attention to a policy that is likely to be widely debated in the coming year.

In endorsing state sanctions for low-achieving school systems, the governors have highlighted a number of issues at the heart of the school-reform movement, according to interviews with policy experts, district superintendents, and education officials in a number of states.

Such intervention plans, now in place in only a few states, raise unanswered questions about the degree to which states should hold districts accountable for the stricter standards of the reform era, and the desirability and effectiveness of state action when districts fail to meet those standards.

Thus far, despite the enthusiastic endorsement of such state leaders as Gov. Thomas H. Kean of New Jersey, who has proposed an academic- bankruptcy policy for his state, many educators remain uncertain about the meaning of the concept. Others are questioning whether states can improve performance where local officials cannot.

If left to their own devices, intervention advocates contend, low performance school districts will never correct their problems. State education officials, they say, should move aggressively to force improvements-- by examining district operations, imposing goals for academic achievement, and setting timetables for meeting those goals.

To spur needed changes, supporters say, states should be prepared to impose sanctions, such as withholding state aid or forcing consolidation, on districts that fail to improve.

And as a last resort, they add, states should oust local officials and assume direct control of their districts, much as court-appointed receivers take control of private firms forced into financial default.

“In rare cases, local systems cannot, or will not, meet acceptable levels of program or student performance,” declares the report of the governors’ association’s task force on teaching. “It makes little sense to abandon able people to bankrupt organizations.”

Details Unclear

Although a handful of states have adopted procedures for local intervention, none has actually imposed sanctions on a district for academic reasons, or taken control of one, according to officials in those states.

Because so much remains untested, one expert noted, academic bankruptcy is still largely an abstract concept. “I’m not sure that there is a clear understanding of what this means,” said Michael Cahen, a policy analyst for the National Association of State Boards of Education.

Much of the discussion so far has centered on the political implications of state intervention, with both critics and supporters citing such policies as evidence of a fundamental change in the balance of power between state and local authorities.

Critics, many of them local officials, say excessive state interference would violate the American tradition of local control of schools.

Supporters, including Secretary of Education William J . Bennett, reject that argument. “Nobody has a right to a bad education,” he said in praising the governors’ recommendations at the N.G.A.'S summer conference.

Intervention advocates contend that the idea is a natural outgrowth of the states’ constitutional duty to provide for the education of their children-the same principle, they say, that has put state governments at the forefront of the reform movement.

Intervention, several experts said, can also be viewed as a symbolic gesture aimed at those who foot the bill for reform-the individuals and businesses that have agreed, often reluctantly, to tax increases earmarked for education.

“You can look at it as a trade-off : for the added money,” Mr. Cohen said. “Many states have persuaded I business and individuals to agree to pay more for education, but they’re saying: ‘We’re not going to give I more if all we get is more of the same.’ ”

Mr. Cohen said he interpreted the governors’ endorsement of the academic- bankruptcy theory as part of the N.G.A’S overall emphasis on loosening state regulation of local methods while demanding more concrete results-what Gov. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee described as “some old-fashioned horse trading.

“I think there is a market for that idea; people are attracted to it,” Mr. Cohen said. ''But I’m not sure how we do it. Until we get some good workable answers to those questions, there is nothing to trade.”

Kean takes Lead

In endorsing state intervention, the governors were following the lead of the influential chairman of the N.G.A.'S teaching task force, Governor Kean of New Jersey.

Mr. Kean, who recently finished a term as chairman of the Education Commission of the States, has proposed an ambitious intervention plan for deficient districts in his state.

“As governor of New Jersey, I couldn’t sleep at night if I thought our schools were continuing to turn out unqualified graduates year after year after year, and I wasn’t doing anything about it,” Mr. Kean said in an interview at the N.G.A. conference.

If the plan wins approval from the legislature, New Jersey will join three other states-Arkansas, Kentucky, and South Carolina-where similar laws are already on the books

A more modest intervention system is under consideration in the nation’s most populous state. The California board of education is weighing a program aimed at districts receiving state compensatory education aid, according to Bill Honig, the state’s superintendent of public instruction. The board will hold hearings on the plan this fall, he said.

The California program would not require legislative approval, according to Mr. Honig, because the board already has the authority to approve and monitor the way district!; spend their state remediation aid.

Conflicting Definitions

Despite the recent publicity, for many education officials, however, the term “academic bankruptcy” is still unfamiliar-and a source of some confusion, Mr. Cohen said.

Supporters say the phrase is a metaphor, designed to link the new idea with an older and more familiar practice-- state intervention to rescue districts that are in financial trouble.

Some officials, however, are taking the metaphor literally, Mr. Cohen said. At a recent conference for members of education boards, he said, discussion of the N.G.A. report tended to reflect this misunderstanding.

“People were very concerned about what it meant in terms of the ‘States’ financial responsibilities,” Mr. Cohen said. ‘There were questions about whether the state was going to come in and take over and pay for everything.”

Such confusion may result from the fact that in the past, state governments have traditionally limited their attention to school districts’ ability to pay their bills.

State involvement in districts’ financial affairs has largely been a matter of self-protection, said August W. Steinhilber, general counsel of the National School Boards Association. Because school districts are the legal creations of state governments, creditors of bankrupt districts can seek repayment from the states, he said.

To forestall such claims, Mr. Steinhilber said, most states have adopted procedures for monitoring or intervening in districts with financial problems. Such measures typically provide for the appointment of one or more fiscal overseers to audit the district’s books and to impose management changes and budget cuts.

Differing Standards

In the states that have adopted intervention plans, districts are being measured against a variety of academic yardsticks, covering both the services they must provide and the results they must achieve.

The criteria-many of them common tools of the reform movement--include such factors as:

  • Test Scores In South Carolina, the state sets the minimum acceptable scores for students at each grade level on a battery of reading, writing, mathematics, and science tests. Districts are required to meet or exceed at least two-thirds of 27 standards covering different tests at different grade levels.

  • Accredidation:Kentucky and South Carolina have stiffened their enforcement of state accreditation requirements. In South Carolina, districts cannot have any school on probationary status and no more than 10 percent of all classes taught by teachers lacking proper certification.
  • Course offerings:In Arkansas, at least 38 courses now must be offered at the high-school level, compared with 24 before the reforms.
  • Dropout rates:In South Carolina, the dropout rate for high-school students may not exceed 7.9 percent of total enrollment.
  • Dropout rates: In South Carolina, the dropout rate for high-school students may not exceed 7.9 percent of total enrollment.
  • Instructional time:Both Kentucky and Arkansas have mandated that districts extend the length of school days and years.
  • Other standards include limits on student and teacher absenteeism, lower student-teacher ratios, and tougher graduation requirements.

    To enforce the standards, the states are armed with an array of sanctions that progress in severity, beginning with state-sponsored inspection teams and ending, in some cases, with the firing of local officials.

    In Arkansas, districts that cannot meet state standards taking effect next year face the threat of forced consolidation with neighboring districts. In Kentucky, officials have the power to redirect up to 25 percent of a district’s budget; to hire and fire district staff; and, as an ultimate step, to replace the local superintendent and remove members from the local board.

    The South Carolina law allows state officials to declare an “educational emergency” in a low-ranking district that fails to make the changes recommended by a state inspection team. Such a designation would allow the state to withhold any or all aid to the district and to fire the local superintendent.

    the legislature, would go even further. The bill, which Governor Kean characterized as “an extraordinary step,” would not only give state officials extensive review and budgetary powers, it would also allow them to dispense with a local board entirely and take direct control of the academically failing district for a minimum of five years.

    During that time, a state-appointed superintendent would be required to review the status of all school principals in the district and decide within a year whether to retain or fire them.

    Loss of Confidence

    While the scope and duration of state involvement differs in each plan, the message is the same, according to Michael Kirst, professor of education at Stanford University.

    “It is indicative of the loss of confidence of many state officials in local leadership,” Mr. Kirst said. ‘They have reached the limits of their patience with some districts and there seems to be growing feeling that some are simply incorrigible.”

    Still, for a state even to consider the wholesale firing of local school I officials marks a sharp departure from what Mr. Kirst called “the longstanding American tradition of local control.”

    But that tradition’s longevity notwithstanding, it is universally acknowledged that state governments have the sovereign power to limit or revoke it at will.

    “We are creatures of the state legislatures,” said Mr. Steinhilber of the National School Boards Association. “Whatever authority we have is delegated to us by them.”

    In light of the states’ unquestioned supremacy, intervention becomes a political question, not a legal one, Mr. Steinhilber said. And politically, the concept has met with a mixed reception so far from local officials.

    “It is controversial in some respects,” said J .R. Williams, executive director of the Arkansas School Boards Association. Many local officials, he explained, see Arkansas’s plan as a thinly disguised effort to force some of the state’s numerous small districts to consolidate.

    “However,” he said, “I think we all understand that there has been an urgent need to improve education in our state, so [the loss of control] may be worth it.”

    In South Carolina, some district officials reportedly have complained that the state board has not always given them a fair hearing when considering the review teams’ findings.

    “I think the problem is that the superintendents in the districts involved don’t feel they have an opportunity to file a minority report, if you will,” said Ellen Henderson, a spokesman for the state’s school-boards association.

    But despite such problems, Ms. Henderson added, “we do not disagree with the idea that the intervention process is necessary.”

    Opposition Seen

    In New Jersey, however, district officials are much more critical of the concept and more dubious about its chances for success. Octavius T. Reid Jr., executive director of the New Jersey School Boards Association, predicted that a state takeover would encounter considerable hostility from municipal politicians, parents, and others in the community.

    “I’he plan does not anticipate the kind of political opposition that would occur at the local level, “Mr. Reid said. “That’s a very serious failing.”

    At a recent forum held by the Newark school board to discuss the plan, parents who attended were largely opposed, said Eugene C. Campbell, the city’s school superintendent.

    “Some people felt very strongly about this,” Mr. Campbell said. “One woman said she felt the state was trying to take away their right to choose their school officers at the polls.”

    Mr. Reid charged that the New Jersey plan is the product of a “super-p mentality” on the part of state education officials. Instead of rushing to supplant local control, he said, the state should offer districts more of the long-term assistance necessary to produce lasting improvements.

    “I’here has to be more emphasis on making districts self-sufficient,” Mr. Reid said. “It is not realistic to think the Great White Father is going to be able to come in and solve everybody’s problems. Unless there are people in the district who have some stake in making a plan work, who have some belief in it, then whatever good the state does is not going to last.”

    Governor Kean, however, said he believes parents will support any effort that promises to improve their children’s’ education. Those who oppose him, he said, “are thinking like dues-paying members [of lobbying organizations] and not like educators.”

    Not Meant To Punish

    And state policymakers stress that the intervention plans are not meant to punish low-performing districts, but rather to help them escape some deeply rooted problems.

    “What we wanted,” said a Kentucky Education Department official, “was a process that would serve as a carrot rather than a club; a system that would identify deficiencies and then have a logical, methodical way of correcting them with the resources we have made available.”

    Intervention planners also deny that the academic-bankruptcy concept is part of a long-term effort to transfer power from the local to the state level.

    “We are still operating on the premise that local problems are better solved at the local level,” said Walter McCarroll, an assistant commissioner of education in New Jersey and the primary author of its plan. ''We are not interested in becoming involved beyond what is absolutely necessary.”

    To a greater extent than most states, however, New Jersey has in the past demonstrated a willingness to enter into the administrative affairs of school districts.

    fairs of school districts. Since the mid-1970’s, state law has provided for fiscal intervention. In 1984, the state revised and toughened that law, broadening its scope to target districts with questionable personnel and management practices, and creating a special investigative unit to conduct in-depth reviews.

    Over the past 10 years, state authorities used those powers several times, intervening in Newark in 1975, Trenton

    In East Orange, the local superintendent welcomed the move. The Trenton school board, on the other hand, took the state to court, a response that led to a 1981 ruling by the New Jersey Supreme Court upholding the state’s constitutional authority over the schools.

    Citing that decision, Governor Kean argued that he already holds the authority to intervene on academic grounds. He bid for legislative approval, he said, is intended to win broader support for the idea.

    “I want to get the legislature on board,” he said.

    Economic Impact

    As an expression of state power, intervention has highlighted a related question: To what extent are states responsible for shouldering the added costs of their new standards?

    In all three of the states that currently have academic-bankruptcy laws, legislatures have coupled those measures with increased aid, in some cases targeting all or part of the money to poorly performing districts.

    Still, the tougher standards embodied in those laws have had a heavy fiscal impact on many districts, especially in cases where the state has demanded expensive improvements in service, such as lower student-teacher ratios, longer school years, and mandatory course offerings.

    In Arkansas, a record number of districts asked their voters to approve property-tax increases in the wake of the new law, according to Mr. Williams. A number of others, realizing they could not hope to raise the money needed to meet the new standards, voluntarily merged with neighboring districts, he added.

    Although South Carolina has provided some additional aid as part of its plan, the law specifically declares that the state will not guarantee full funding for all required improvements, a spokesman for the state’s department of education said.

    department of education said. This has resulted in a painful “Catch 22" for local officials in one district, according to George Leventif, director of legal services for the South Carolina School Boards Association.

    Carolina School Boards Association. The district, in rural Clarendon County, was one of two this year ordered by the state to take corrective action. However, when district officials asked the county for additional funds to begin work on the required improvement plan, their request was denied, Mr. Leventif said.

    Without additional money to pay for the plan, the district runs the risk that some or all of its state funds will be impounded.

    Low-wealth districts, even those with their own taxing authority, often cannot raise revenue for school improvement, Mr. Leventif said. In fact, he said, it has been “almost predictable” which districts will end up on the state’s annual deficiency.

    on the state’s annual deficiency list. In four of the six South Carolina districts so cited in 1985, the student population was more than 90 percent black, according to state education department statistics. In none of the districts was that percentage lower than 70 percent. All six districts were rural and poor, with property values well below the state average.

    We have districts that already have to get 80 percent of their money from the state,” Mr. Leventif said. “You can’t squeeze blood from a turnip.”

    Officials Respond

    State officials are responding to the economic’ implications of the new standards by redesigning them, said Stephen E. Taylor, a consultant to the South Carolina Education Department.

    Although many details remain unsettled, officials have agreed that the new system will rate schools, not districts, Mr. Taylor said. This, he added, would prevent an entire district from being singled out when only one or two of its schools are deficient.

    And, he said, that system will recognize the handicaps that some districts face by dividing the state’s schools into five groups, based on such factors as district spending, teacher qualifications, and poverty levels. For some standards--such as test scores--schools will be judged against the others within their group, not against a statewide average, Mr. Taylor said.

    Spending Pressure Cited

    According to Mr. Cohen, the analyst for the association of state education boards, increasing local spending- and taxes-may have been an intentional goal of the legislatures that adopted academic-bankruptcy laws, particularly in the South, where elected officials have long been reluctant to seek higher taxes at the polls.

    Adopting a policy of forcing under- funded districts to increase local property taxes, however, could leave some states vulnerable to a court challenge, according to one expert.

    Where courts have interpreted state institutions as requiring the state to define a system of basic education and ensure adequate funding for it, tougher standards could translate into a financial commitment by the state, said Martha McCarthy, professor of education at Indiana University.

    In such a situation, she said, “a state would have to have a mechanism for getting those funds [to the districts]. It could be from a state tax, or it could be from local sources, but if the state doesn’t provide the mechanism for that to happen, then I think the state would not be fulfilling its responsibilities.”

    The New Jersey plan would place any additional fiscal burden exclusively on local resources by means of a provision allowing the state to override local officials and voters and impose higher tax rates on deficient districts.

    This has raised the hackles of , school officials in the state’s urban I districts, which, in contrast to the situation in Southern states, would be the ones most affected by the plan.

    The state is already embroiled in a 5-year-old suit with parents from several districts who charge that the state’s school-finance system unconstitutionally perpetuates large inequalities between urban and suburban districts.

    “The state should be looking at whether or not the municipality involved can afford a thorough and efficient education,” said Mr. Campbell, the Newark superintendent. “If not, then it is constitutionally incumbent on the state of New Jersey to allocate the funds to make that possible.”

    Governor Kean rejected that argument, contending that the demands for more money are “the ultimate cop-out.” New Jersey, he said, has increased spending for education as fast or faster than other states, without solving the problems that the intervention plan is meant to address.

    “It’s not a money problem,” Mr. Kean said, “it’s an education problem.”

    In the end, said Mr. McCarroll, New Jersey’s assistant education commissioner, intervention might actually reduce district expenditures.

    We are very sure we can accommodate the additional fiscal requirements through reallocation of funds and by eliminating inefficiency and mismanagement,” he said.

    Will It Work?

    But some experts were skeptical that state control would lead to any lasting improvement in the nation’s most troubled school systems.

    There has to be a recognition that once you get to the end of the road, there may not be much more that the state can do that the locals haven’t already tried to do,” Mr. Cohen said.

    For Stanford’s Mr. Kirst, intervention also seems a dubious solution, because state education departments often do not have the necessary expertise to run a district. “That’s not what the people in those departments were hired to do,” he said.

    In general, Mr. Kirst said, the pendulum may have swung too far in the direction of state regulation and control. State involvement, he said, has become “too much of a good thing,” and now threatens to stifle the creativity and initiative of local officials.

    Mr. Cohen warned of the unintended side effects that could stem from concentrating on several key standards as a measurement of success or failure.

    “If teachers spend all of their class time drilling students to pass achievement tests, then you may suffer in some other areas, like pupil satisfaction and self-esteem,” Mr. Cohen said. “There is the risk that you will maximize performance on one goal at the expense of the others.”

    Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, strongly opposes the governors on the issue, although he has voiced his support for many of their other recommendations.

    In a recent commentary, Mr. Shanker questioned the wisdom of comparing urban school districts with those in middle-class suburbs. Many big-city districts, he wrote, often end up looking quite inadequate in such a match-up, even though they rank high among other urban systems.

    “Educational bankruptcy is a big stick, and there’s no carrot dangling at the end,” Mr. Shanker wrote.

    Intervention supporters, such as Mr. McCarroll, said they hope the threat of that stick will be sufficient to prod recalcitrant districts into making needed changes.

    “The threat itself certainly may end up being an effective deterrent,” said Ms. McCarthy of Indiana University, noting how the threat offederal sanctions under Title IX of the Higher Education Amendments of 1972 was enough to coax most colleges and universities into upgrading resources for women’s athletics.

    But Mr. McCarroll said he was pessimistic about the current trends in his state.

    “If nothing changes, if there is no greater effort made on the part of these districts, then I think intervention will be necessary,” he said.

    In the end, countered Mr. Campbell, the Newark superintendent, disputes over who will control hi district’s schools may be irrelevant in comparison with the problems of poverty, drug abuse, teenage pregnancy, and crime that beset them.

    Many of the problems, he said, are administrator, whether hired by a local board or appointed by the state.

    “We are faced with problems that are more than just educational problems,” he said. “I try to teach an understanding of substance abuse, but I cannot be responsible for arresting dope dealers. If the state is going to come in here, I’d like to know if they plan on taking that responsibility. If not, then how are they going to do a better job than I am?”

    A version of this article appeared in the September 24, 1986 edition of Education Week as State Takeovers Debated as School-Reform Tactic


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