Federal Opinion

When States Seize Schools: A Cautionary Tale

By Walt Gardner — June 12, 2007 8 min read
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As increasing numbers of school districts across the country qualify for state takeover for failing to meet the provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, it’s easy to understand the allure of this Draconian strategy. Patience has its limits, even among some of the staunchest supporters of public education, when schools consistently fall short of stipulated outcomes. But this intuitively appealing approach promises far more than it can deliver.

The Missouri state board of education will find that out this month, when it takes control of the St. Louis public schools after the district posted a graduation rate in 2006 of only 55 percent and a dropout rate of nearly 19 percent, amid a host of other long-standing problems. Missouri will join New Jersey, New York, California, and other states in learning the ultimate futility of this kind of intervention. In fact, no state has ever been able to convert low-performing schools into high-performing ones.

—Nip Rogers


In 1989, New Jersey became the first state to assume full control of a local district when it seized the schools in Jersey City; it later did so in Paterson and Newark as well. The state was compelled to act by Jersey City’s appalling academic record and history of fiscal mismanagement. In all three cities, the state replaced the superintendent, central-office administrators, and local school board members. The new superintendent was granted broad powers to implement reforms.

One would think, in light of the egregious records of these three districts, that the state’s moves would have been welcomed. But they were widely considered to be hostile takeovers. Taxpayers resented replacing locally elected officials and their appointees with political outsiders. Equally important, they felt left in the dark by the lack of explicit guidelines to determine when local control would resume.

Nevertheless, steps were immediately taken to focus on test scores, in the belief that they would provide some objective evidence of improvement. By converting classrooms into test-preparation factories, standardizing the curriculum, and emphasizing uniform instructional practices, reformers were able to distract attention for a time from the real problems affecting the districts. Scores rose slightly, but more than a decade later they are still below the statewide average.

The fiscal ills afflicting the three districts that weighed heavily in the state’s decision to intervene in the first place were affected directly by a series of landmark court rulings in Abbott v. Burke. The New Jersey Supreme Court decreed that students in the state’s poor urban districts were being denied their constitutional right to a “thorough and efficient” education under the state’s method of funding schools. Not only was the state required to dramatically increase funding for the Abbott districts, but a new, meaningful state accountability system was mandated to assure that funding led to a wide range of educational reforms. Despite the court’s order, the state first sidestepped its responsibility by letting local districts negotiate the specific plan.

With pressure mounting, however, the state finally adopted the New Jersey Quality Single Accountability Continuum to integrate the thicket of monitoring procedures under Abbott and the No Child Left Behind law. But despite the reassuring title, little of substance has changed.

In 2002, New York state wrested control of the Roosevelt district on Long Island from its dysfunctional local board. As in New Jersey, poor test scores and financial deficits were central to the decision. Still, local leaders and residents expressed strong opposition to the turnover, preferring instead to handle the matter themselves. More than five years after the change in governance, and with the infusion of $6 million a year in additional aid, the district is still lagging overall behind the state average, despite some isolated successes in the form of the introduction of Advanced Placement courses and slightly higher test scores.

Evaluating the Roosevelt takeover has been complicated by the district’s haphazard financial and academic record-keeping. An audit undertaken internally and by the state estimated the 2006-07 deficit at $1.9 million to $6 million, pending a final report by the state comptroller.

Substituting one level of government for another has done little to improve educational quality. The state possesses no more inherent wisdom than local communities.

California intervened in Compton in 1993, after test scores hit rock bottom and the district’s books were about $20 million in the red. Exacerbating matters was the Compton district’s notoriety for patronage. Some 70 percent of school employees were support staff, and scandals arose involving the awarding of construction grants for subpar work. Despite this dismal record, however, residents perceived the takeover as a slap in the face.

Compton has been closely watched by reformers, because California has the most comprehensive and fully implemented system of intervention in the country. Its “fiscal-crisis and management-assistance team” is widely considered to be best practice in this specialized field. Yet after years of district operation by the state, which ended in 2001, students there continue to have among the worst scores on statewide Standardized Testing and Reporting program, or STAR, tests, given in grades 2-11 in various core subjects.

What emerges from the collective evidence of state takeovers of local school districts are several important lessons.

First, substituting one level of government in charge of a district for another did little to improve overall educational quality. The state possesses no more inherent wisdom than local communities.

Second, all of the troubled districts were overwhelmingly composed of poor black and Hispanic students. The tight connection between poverty and achievement has been documented by a host of peer-reviewed studies. Yet takeovers generally did not address these issues.

And third, takeovers were perceived as a hostile act because voters felt disenfranchised. They preferred working with, rather than under, state reformers. By not including them as equal partners, the state essentially sabotaged its own efforts.

Under the provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, state takeovers are only one option available for failing schools. They can also be turned over to private management companies, reconstituted as charter schools, or converted into small theme schools. But the results to date have been mixed.

Of the alternatives, charter schools so far have proved the most promising. But their potential is limited by two factors. First, the beneficiaries are only those children who have parents involved enough in their education to take advantage of the available opportunities. Children most in need have no one in their corner. As a result, they’ll continue to be trapped in execrable schools.

The other limiting factor is an inadequate number of seats to accommodate demand, because of the caps reluctantly placed by state legislatures in the wake of scandals involving fly-by-night charter school operators. The most notable of these was the August 2004 collapse of the California Charter Academy, the largest chain of publicly financed but privately run charter schools, which left 4,500 K-12 students in 60 mostly storefront schools stranded.

That was not an aberration. In March of this year, an investigation by the Orlando Sentinel disclosed that scores of the more than 300 charter schools in Florida continue receiving education dollars despite records of low student achievement and financial mismanagement.

The tight connection between poverty and achievement has been documented by a host of peer-reviewed studies. Yet takeovers generally did not address these issues.

The disconnect between supply and demand and the abandonment of essentially “orphan” children was seen most recently in New York City, when the Harlem Success Academy, a public charter school opened only last year, was forced in March to hold an admissions lottery to fill 105 kindergarten slots for next year from among the 500 or so families who applied. What about the children in Harlem whose parents or guardians chose not to participate in the drawing for admission, though? What happens to them?

To bring any semblance of hope to this educational underclass will take the implementation of social and economic policies on an unprecedented scale. Disadvantaged children go to school with huge deficits in socialization, motivation, and intellectual development through no fault of their own. They arrive in kindergarten already three months behind the national average in reading skills, and never catch up, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

While eliminating all inequities is a quixotic task, steps can be taken to reduce the gross disparities that account for so much of the academic achievement gap. Programs to provide prenatal care, nutritional counseling, vision testing, dental checkups, medical exams, and continuous mentoring can help prepare children to learn to the best of their ability.

To achieve that goal, New York City is moving ahead with a program that will pay poor families with children up to $5,000 a year if they meet any of a series of criteria. These include such things as attending parent-teacher conferences and going for medical checkups. Called “conditional cash transfers,” this program, the first of its kind in the United States, will track the progress of 2,500 randomly selected families getting the rewards against 2,500 randomly selected families who will not. All 5,000 families will be asked to participate before knowing which group they are in.

Giving children from these families what other children receive as their birthright is the least we can do. Whether we have the will to do what’s necessary is another story. But we can’t afford to dawdle when so much is at stake.

A version of this article appeared in the June 13, 2007 edition of Education Week as When States Seize Schools: A Cautionary Tale


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