Despite Takeover Laws, States Moving Cautiously on Interventions

By Jessica L. Sandham — April 14, 1999 4 min read

In the decade that has passed since New Jersey became the first state to seize control of a local school district because of its academic troubles, state leaders say they have learned some hard lessons about when and how it’s necessary for states to intervene in failing districts.

The most important advice: Tread carefully.

Twenty-three states have passed laws that permit state officials to exert authority over a district in the case of “academic bankruptcy,” or woefully low-performing schools. To date, only 11 states--including Michigan last month in a controversial decision to intervene in Detroit--have elected to do so, according to the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.

When states do intervene, they often stop short of tossing out all of a district’s leading players, such as school board members and the superintendent. And many have crafted laws that allow them to influence decisions behind the scenes in a more limited fashion in academically troubled districts.

After watching the uneven gains made by New Jersey as a result of its wholesale takeovers of three city school districts between 1989 and 1995, states have “gained a further appreciation of how difficult and contentious it is to run an urban district,” said Todd M. Ziebarth, a policy analyst with the ECS. “States have been real hesitant to take on the urban beast.”

Beginning with the Jersey City schools in 1989, and following with takeovers in Paterson and Newark, Garden State leaders found it was far easier to clean up district-level finances and management practices than it was to make a dent in student achievement, observers say. New Jersey’s experience was not an anomaly.

Because of mixed results, along with the racial tensions that flare up when school districts with large minority populations are taken over by mostly white state leaders, takeovers are something most states only consider “in the most extreme of circumstances,” said Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Washington-based Council of the Great City Schools, which represents the nation’s large urban districts. (“Racial Issues Cloud State Takeovers,” Jan. 14, 1998.)

“Most states still haven’t figured out an appropriate or terribly helpful role,” he added.

Maryland’s Approach

In the past few years, when state officials have deemed it necessary to take power from local school boards, they have sought to involve some local leaders in the process.

In Michigan, state legislators voted to take over the troubled Detroit public schools and to give control of the system to Democratic Mayor Dennis W. Archer while ensuring that Gov. John Engler, a Republican, will still have some role in the reforms there. The balance of local and state authority was crucial to the legislature’s approval of the plan, observers say.

But while takeovers of any kind are viewed as a remedy of last resort, laws allowing states to take less drastic steps are becoming more common, said Chris Pipho, a spokesman for the ECS.

For example, he said, states are passing laws that allow them to put money into district-level staff development or that require they send in teams to help troubled districts build improvement plans.

Some experts point to reforms that Maryland lawmakers are considering for the schools in one suburban district outside Washington as an example of states’ more moderate approach to district-level intervention.

Almost two years after Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat, entered into a partnership with Baltimore city officials to overhaul that city’s school board, state officials are looking at ways to make a less intrusive push for improvement in Prince George’s County.

The 130,000-student district that borders the nation’s capital has the second-lowest test scores in the state, behind Baltimore’s, and nearly 15.5 percent of its 6,800 teachers don’t have permanent teaching certificates. But under legislation that was passed by the Maryland House of Delegates last month and is now under consideration in the Senate, the state would simply expand the role of an oversight panel of county residents it appointed last year to ensure that the district moves forward with recommended improvements.

If passed, the legislation would empower the oversight panel to participate in the search for a new superintendent and make budget recommendations. But the school board’s basic governing authority would remain intact.

The state seized a more active role in the 110,000-student Baltimore schools only because the city district offered a clear-cut case of “egregious mismanagement” and insufficient resources, state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said. “There was no ambiguity. ... It’s not a case of one size fits all,” Ms. Grasmick added.

“It’s ideal for oversight of schools to be left to communities,” she continued. “That has to be balanced against our responsibility to provide quality education for our children.”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 14, 1999 edition of Education Week as Despite Takeover Laws, States Moving Cautiously on Interventions


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