Veterans of State Takeover Battles Tell a Cautionary Tale

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State officials who have battle scars to show from their efforts to take over local school systems offered some advice to their colleagues last week: Look before you leap.

"Take a long hard look and think about whether or not you want to go into a public school system," counseled Joseph A. Spagnolo Jr., the state education superintendent in Illinois, which two years ago assumed control of the failing East St. Louis schools.

He was one of about 40 educators and policymakers at a one-day conference here on the state role in improving urban schools, sponsored by the Education Commission of the States.

Since New Jersey took over the Jersey City schools in 1989 under the state's pioneering "academic bankruptcy" law, a growing number of states have considered the drastic remedy to correct everything from dismal test scores to fiscal mismanagement. Twenty-two states have laws that allow them to intervene in low-performing schools or districts, according to the ECS. And at least two more--Michigan and Pennsylvania--are weighing takeover proposals. ("Plan to Allow Mich. School Takeovers Assailed," in This Week's News.)

Many states have come to view such interventions as the heaviest weapon in their long battles to force improvement in chronically low-achieving and mismanaged schools and school systems. ("Ill Will Comes With Territory In Takeovers," June 12, 1996.)

'Dog Chasing a Car'

But too often, Mr. Spagnolo said last week, states pursue takeovers "like a dog chasing a car. Once a dog catches it, he's not sure what he's going to do with it."

So far, there is little evidence about whether state interventions work. Though most of the participants here reported positive changes in how districts are run, they said gains in student performance have proved much more elusive.

In March 1995, a federal judge ordered Ohio's state superintendent to assume control of the Cleveland schools as part of a court-ordered desegregation plan. The court granted the superintendent broad authority to set aside any state laws that impeded the reorganization of the 74,000-student district.

But two years later, "it is almost impossible for us to move quickly," said John M. Goff, the state superintendent of public instruction. He blamed the slow progress, in part, on the difficulty of getting all the parties in the desegregation lawsuit to agree before any action is taken.

Need for Local Control

Mr. Goff now contends that local school systems cannot be run from a distance.

State Rep. Michael A. Fox of Ohio, the chairman of the House education committee, agreed. "The state department of education is not designed to do it," the Republican said. "It just won't work."

Before state officials barge into local school systems, takeover veterans suggested, they should ask some hard questions: Do they have a plan for improving academic achievement? How will they measure success? How can they gain the support of teachers, principals, and the public? And how can they ensure that they will not have to run the system indefinitely?

"If we just focus on how we're going to change the chairs and rearrange the governance structure, I really don't think we're going to be a hell of a lot better off," Mr. Spagnolo cautioned."Unless there's some way to intervene on a school-by-school basis--almost on a classroom-by-classroom basis--it will all be for naught."

In 1995, the Illinois legislature drastically intervened in Chicago, dissolving the existing school board. But instead of appointing state officials to run the massive district, lawmakers turned that responsibility over to the mayor.

One reason the intervention is proving successful, argued state Rep. Mary Lou Cowlishaw, the chairwoman of the education committee in the Illinois House, is that lawmakers brought all the constituents on board before the bill was passed. Parents, for example, also have a strong voice in running the schools through their presence on the local school councils created under a 1988 reform law.

"We followed the philosophy that nothing is ever going to work that is imposed on people against their will," Ms. Cowlishaw said.

Partnership Key

After eyeing the often acrimonious experiences of other states, Maryland recently decided not to take over the Baltimore public schools.

Instead, state officials have signed a consent decree with Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke under which they will share responsibility for running the 110,000-student system. In exchange for heightened accountability and a role in the governance structure, state leaders agreed to provide an extra $254 million in funding over five years. The proposal must be approved by the legislature. ("Maryland Counties Take Aim at Baltimore Aid Proposal," in This Week's News.)

"For me, what's key is not just the money but the fact that we agree now that the education of these children is the joint responsibility of the city and the state," Mr. Schmoke told the ecs gathering. "If we don't together educate these children, they're going to cause problems down the road for the entire state."

Henry R. Marockie, the state superintendent in West Virginia, echoed that message of partnership. In August, the state school board relinquished its control of the Logan County district, which it had run since 1992. It left behind a district with higher test scores, a lower dropout rate, and better management. ("W.Va. Leaves District Better Than It Found It," Sept. 18, 1996.)

But the key, Mr. Marockie said, was cooperation. "It started out hostile," he said. "It was a partnership before it was over, and that is why, in my judgment, it was successful."

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