School & District Management

Racial Issues Cloud State Takeovers

By Beth Reinhard — January 14, 1998 8 min read
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Racial and voting rights skirmishes are complicating some government takeovers of troubled school systems and raising new questions about the wisdom of such intervention.

From Compton, Calif., to Cleveland, overhauls of at least eight elected school boards have provoked lawsuits and accusations asserting that the takeovers singled out predominantly minority districts and violated the rights of voters to choose their local education policymakers.

This week, that argument will reach the U.S. Supreme Court in a case pitting the U.S. Department of Justice against the Texas Education Agency, which wants to be able to replace failing school boards with state monitors without first seeking a federal review of possible voting-rights infractions.

A decision could sketch a model for the 23 states that have passed laws authorizing state or municipal governments to seize control of districts that are in crisis. Some takeovers strip power from elected boards, while others abolish them entirely, defying the American tradition of local control of schools.

Regardless of how the interventions work, state and city leaders say the reasons for them are clear: failing students, massive debt, abject mismanagement. In many cases, they note, state intervention has come after years or even decades of inaction or incompetence by the local boards.

But to some people in the communities involved, the perception underlying takeovers is that predominantly minority districts can’t be trusted to elect their own leaders and run their own schools.

“When you’ve got black people in charge and a majority-black district, people think they don’t know what they’re doing,” said the Rev. Michael DeBose, a former school board candidate who opposes the expected mayoral takeover of the Cleveland schools. “It’s really insulting.”

Such resentment is fueled by the large number of takeovers that have taken place in mostly African-American and Hispanic systems.

An Education Week survey of 21 districts that have ceded power to mayors or state agencies in recent years found that all but three have predominantly minority enrollments, and most are at least 80 percent nonwhite. Of eight districts that have been threatened with takeovers, all but two have populations that are predominantly minority, and three are at least 93 percent nonwhite.

Minority Percentages High

Communities with large minority populations are vulnerable to takeovers, many educators say, because they often are plagued with poverty, broken families, and crime--the combination of factors that so often undermines student achievement.

Still, some people insist that racial discrimination is at work.

“Black and Hispanic school board members feel they are being targeted,” said Katrina Kelly, the director of urban school district advocacy at the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va. “To prove that is questionable, but when you have a society like ours with a history of institutional racism, it’s hard to say for sure.”

Takeover critics acknowledge that their school systems face daunting problems, but they say there are better ways to improve education that don’t disenfranchise the community.

“When you have a hostile action like a takeover, it’s harder to make real improvement and gain the confidence of parents and teachers,” argued Bessie White, a plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the takeover of the Newark, N.J., schools.

Test Scores, Not Race

State officials deny that race is a factor in takeovers and point to blatant corruption and patronage by board members or abysmal student achievement. In the Jersey City, N.J., schools, which in 1993 became the first district to be run by a state government under an “academic bankruptcy” law, unqualified but politically connected people were routinely hired. The East St. Louis schools were drowning in debt and suffering from a massive teacher shortage when Illinois intervened in 1994.

“It’s an easy alibi to make it a race issue,” said Richard J. Mark, who chairs the state-appointed panel that oversees the East St. Louis district’s financial operations. “If we continue to let so many of our kids fail to learn to read and write, that’s what would be racist.”

Williard H. Murray, the former California legislator who wrote that state’s takeover law, agreed. “Race did not enter into the decision,” he said. “A lack of an adequate education did.”

Mr. Murray, a Democrat who represented Compton--where the schools were taken over in 1993--for eight years until he retired in 1996, said school boards in some poor, minority communities have become centers of patronage because they are one of the only large employers in town. ''Unfortunately,” he said, “the focus becomes political, not educational.”

Mr. Murray is black, as is Maryland Delegate Howard P. Rawlings, a Democrat who helped write the 1997 law that gave the state more power over the Baltimore schools. But having African-Americans involved or putting them in charge of takeover districts such as the District of Columbia, East St. Louis, and Newark hasn’t eased racial tensions.

“There’s no question that distrust between minority districts and state officials, who tend to be white, exacerbates problems and creates racial overtones to discussion of reform,” said Christine Johnson, the director of urban initiatives at the Education Commission of the States in Denver.

Supreme Court Test

Texas officials say poor student performance and district mismanagement are what prompted them to move into the Somerset system near San Antonio in 1995.

A group of residents sued the state, saying that the law that allows officials to appoint managers who can override the elected school board violates the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibits actions that hamper the voting rights of racial or ethnic minorities. More than 75 percent of Somerset’s 2,200 students are Hispanic.

Though the state eventually ended its intervention, the lawsuit prompted Texas lawmakers to amend the takeover law to expressly prohibit state interventions from interfering with local elections. But under a section of the Voting Rights Act that applies to eight Southern states with a history of racial discrimination at the ballot box, the Justice Department says it must still approve any takeovers.

The process was sorely tested last year when state officials sought to intervene in the debt-ridden Wilmer-Hutchins district outside Dallas. It took 90 days to get Justice Department approval to step into the district, which has a predominantly black and Hispanic enrollment. Meanwhile, Internal Revenue Service and FBI agents raided the offices of the 3,800-student system for records of possible financial abuses.

The awkward delay led Texas officials to file a lawsuit asking a federal district court in Washington for permission to forgo federal approval before any future takeovers. The court dismissed the action, but the U.S. Supreme Court accepted an appeal in Texas v. U.S. (Case No. 97-29).

The state of Texas does not believe the law applies to takeovers, and state officials say they must be able to act when a district is in crisis. “When there’s a crisis in a school system, we need to be able to act quickly and not wait for a slow, bureaucratic response,” said Ron Dusek, the press secretary for the Texas attorney general’s office, which will argue the case before the high court.

Takeover critics got a boost last week from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which said the control board created by Congress in 1995 to oversee the city of Washington’s finances overstepped its authority when it fired the superintendent of schools and transferred power from the elected school board to an appointed board of trustees. Though the decision was not based on constitutional arguments, critics of the new administration viewed the ruling as vindication of the rights of the public and the elected school board. (“Ruling Shakes Up D.C. School Management,” in This Week’s News.)

Challenges in Cleveland

The proposed overhaul of the Cleveland schools has brought to the forefront the legal obstacles that confront state interventions in local districts. (“Mayor To Get School Control in Cleveland,” July 9, 1997.)

The state has been operating the district since a federal judge ordered a takeover in 1995, but it began seeking a way last year to return the district to some form of local control--but not under the elected board.

While lawmakers and Ohio’s Republican governor, George V. Voinovich, were granting Democratic Mayor Michael R. White broad powers to appoint new leadership for the troubled 76,000-student system last summer, two potentially valuable allies were plotting a revolt.

The Cleveland Teachers’ Union and the local chapter of the NAACP were busy preparing lawsuits arguing that allowing the mayor to replace the elected board with an appointed one would violate the voting rights of the city’s predominantly black population.

The suits, filed in federal court in September, have prompted the mayor to stay mum on his plans for improving the schools. The situation has kept public debate in the political rather than the educational realm and forced state leaders to appoint a temporary superintendent until the legal questions are resolved.

“It’s frustrating to have a new governance structure that you’re excited about for a district as bad as Cleveland and not be able to move forward,” said state Rep. Michael W. Wise, a Republican who is a co-sponsor of the takeover law.

About eight other districts have seen legal challenges to takeovers, and residents of at least two of these districts, Newark and Compton, have filed voting-rights complaints with the Justice Department. (“Justice Dept. Investigates Takeover of Calif. District,” March 26, 1997.)

Court battles might be avoided if takeovers preserved elected school boards, said Henry R. Marockie, the state superintendent in West Virginia. He cited the 7,100-student Logan County schools in his state as a rare success story, where the local board lost most of its powers from 1992 to 1996 while the state was in charge. “Had we attempted to remove the local board, we’d probably still be in litigation today,” Mr. Marockie said. “This way, when we turned the district back to them, they were fully prepared to lead.”

Associate Editor Craig D. Jerald contributed to this report.

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