School districts are more likely to be healthy when they are well-funded, attract and retain a diverse certified teacher workforce, engage families and communities meaningfully, and promote diversity and racial equity among students and staff. But, the practice of state officials taking control over school districts they believe are failing compromises the health of those districts and communities.
Historical Overview of State Takeovers of Local School Districts
State laws authorizing takeovers began to appear in the 1970s and took off in the 1980s as much of the federal education oversight established in the 1960s was dissolved back to state control. A new focus on school accountability and standardized testing facilitated this shift. As of 2017, 33 states had passed laws to permit the state takeover of public school districts that did not meet the state’s accountability measures. Often, such districts are designated with a “turnaround” accountability status.
State takeovers do not lead to increased academic achievement and even further destabilize the school district.
New Jersey enacted the first state takeover of a public school district in 1989 by taking control of the Jersey City Public Schools. Since then, over 22 state governments and agencies have taken over more than 100 local public school districts across the country (Morel, 2018).
Officials justify many state takeovers of school districts as a response to low accountability ratings, which often rely on standardized testing performance, events, such as a natural disaster (in the case of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina), or other district actions, including allegations of fiscal mismanagement. Many state laws confer power for the takeover to either the state education commissioner or state superintendent, the state board of education, or the local mayor. In Texas, for example, the law authorizes the commissioner of education to take over a school district under specific stipulations.
Why State Takeovers Are a Problem
While the reasons for a state takeover of a public school district often focus on declining academic achievement and fiscal mismanagement, studies show that state takeovers do not lead to increased academic achievement (Wong & Shen, 2005; Zimmer, et al., 2017) and even further destabilize the school district (Harris, 2019; Morel, 2018). This turmoil can result in greater teacher and staff turnover in the district (Greenblatt, 2018) and exclusion of parent and community engagement in district decision-making (Morel, 2018).
School districts governed by and serving a majority Black population are 11 times more likely to have the local school board abolished.
For example, in the Detroit Public Schools, Michigan state officials placed the district under control of an emergency manager for 17 years (1999-2016) and left it arguably worse off than before. A report of the state’s management of the district found that there was an estimated $610 million in wasteful spending and rampant mismanagement of the district’s schools and educational services to students (Pitchford, 2019).
Similarly, in Tennessee, public school districts that were controlled under a state turnaround strategy had the same or worse outcomes than reform strategies that maintained local control (Zimmer, et al., 2017).
Listen to our podcast episode: School District Takeovers History and Today – #200
Moreover, state takeovers as a reform strategy tend to exacerbate racial segregation within a district community (Harris, 2019; Barnum, 2018; Morel, 2018). About 85% of state takeovers across the country affect majority Black and majority Latino school districts (Morel, 2018). School districts governed by and serving a majority Black population are 11 times more likely to have the local school board abolished by the state than majority White-serving districts (Morel, 2018).
IDRA promotes family and community engagement, supportive funding, a diverse and certified teaching workforce, racial and socioeconomic integration, and culturally-relevant practices as critical components to school district and campus health. Based on research, IDRA recommends the following alternatives to state takeover policies.
- States should adopt community-based turnaround efforts – instead of state takeovers or private partnerships – that support holistic, wraparound services to support schools that face multiple challenges. Community-based approaches enable grassroots changes to educational improvements (Oakes, et al., 2017).
- School districts are democratic entities, and states should treat them accordingly. In the event of corruption or malpractice, districts can hold special elections to remove individuals from school boards. In the case of multiple special elections, a community advisory committee can help restructure and retrain new board members and district administrators.
- Families can join coalitions across school districts to advocate for new strategies and appropriate implementation that support their schools, maintain local governance and incorporate communities in district decision-making.
Struggling districts or school boards should be addressed through community-driven democratic processes and with state supports, not by removing local governance.
Greenblatt, A. (2018). “The problem with school takeovers,” Governing.
Harris, A. (2019, October). “An attempt to resegregate Little Rock, of all places,” The Atlantic.
Morel, D. (2018). Takeover: Race, Education, and American Democracy. Oxford University Press.
Oakes, J., Maier, A., & Daniel, J. (2017). Community Schools: An Evidence-Based Strategy for Equitable School Improvement. National Education Policy Center.
Pitchford, G.K. (November 8, 2019). Review of Detroit Public Schools During State Management 1999-2016.
Wong, K., & Shen, F.X. (2005). “When Mayors Lead Urban Schools: Assessing the Effects of Takeover.” In W. Howell (Ed.) Besieged. The Brookings Institution.
Zimmer, R., Henry, G.T., & Kho, A. (2017). “The Effects of School Turnaround in Tennessee’s Achievement School District and Innovation Zones,” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 39(4), 670-696.
Terrence Wilson, J.D., is IDRA’s regional policy and community engagement director. Comments and questions may be directed to him via email at email@example.com. Chloe Latham Sikes, Ph.D., is IDRA’s deputy director of policy. Comments and questions may be directed to her via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[©2020, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the May 2020 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]