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State Takeovers of School Districts Still Happen. New Research Questions Their Value

For much of America’s K-12 education system, “local control” is a bedrock principle, with core funds coming from local property tax collections and residents electing representatives to the school board.

But every so often, states override local control, taking over a district’s operations for years or even decades.

These controversial efforts often fail to make the desired financial improvements, and they benefit the majority-Black school districts far less than others, according to a growing body of research. Scholars also haven’t found much evidence linking takeovers to any substantial effect on students’ academic outcomes, particularly because state takeovers don’t inherently lead to changes that affect academics.

And yet, more than three decades since the first state takeover of a school system, at least one district each in Alabama, California, Indiana, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Ohio, South Carolina, Texas, and West Virginia is currently under state control.

The highest-profile district right now is Houston, the nation’s eighth largest. The move has been hugely controversial—teachers had to reapply for their jobs, school libraries became discipline rooms, a new principal-evaluation system threatened administrators’ jobs. Mike Miles, the district superintendent appointed by the state, has faced calls for his resignation, a teachers’ union walkout last month, and a federal civil rights complaint. Miles has said his intention is to carry out “whole-scale systemic reform.”

A majority of states have laws that permit state officials to conduct a takeover of public school districts that aren’t meeting standards of academic accountability and financial health. Takeovers typically involve firing existing school and district leadership and replacing them with state-appointed officials, often in exchange for a loan.

The practice began in 1989 with New Jersey’s takeover of the Jersey City school district. Since then, major cities like Chicago; Detroit; Newark, N.J.; and Philadelphia have experienced school district takeovers by their respective states. More than 100 districts overall have experienced state takeovers.

Politicians typically pitch state takeovers as efforts to help steer a sinking ship to calmer waters. But existing and emerging research offers a more mixed and less rosy view.

Examining more than 100 takeovers between 1990 and 2019, three education scholars found that state takeovers contributed to increases in per-pupil spending of nearly $2,000 in the five years following the takeover.

Districts with majority-Black districts, however, rarely experienced more than a tiny sliver of that spending boost, researchers found—even though they’re the ones most often targeted for takeover.

These findings got their first public audience in March at the Association of Education Finance and Policy Research conference in Baltimore. The research, now available as a working paper, comes from Melissa Arnold Lyon, a professor of public policy at the University at Albany; Joshua F. Bleiberg, an assistant professor of education policy at the University of Pittsburgh School of Education; and Beth Schueler, an assistant professor of education and public policy at the University of Virginia.

The new research builds on existing scholarship showing that state takeovers disproportionately affect districts with large shares of non-white students.

“If takeovers were happening [solely] because districts are struggling, we would have many more takeovers than we do,” said Domingo Morel, an associate professor of education at New York University who has conducted extensive research on state takeovers of schools.

Other factors that precipitate takeovers, Morel has found, include school boards whose members mostly are people of color and court rulings ordering states to supply more funding to schools with large shares of students with high needs.

Districts worry about state involvement in their operations

A scan of recent local media headlines reveals state takeovers are a looming possibility for many more districts than the ones that actually see it happen.

“About five years ago, I started to think we were entering that phase where states realized that state takeovers were not doing what they wanted them to do,” Morel said. “I think there’s emerging evidence that we might not be entering that phase.”

The Ann Arbor school district in Michigan could come under state control after it posted a $25 million budget shortfall for the upcoming school year.

The superintendent of the Hammond schools in Indiana recently said the district could be at risk of a state takeover after a tax levy referendum failed at the polls.

In Paterson, N.J., district officials last fall voiced fears about the possibility of being taken over by the state, just two years after the state ended its 30-year control of the district.

And in Louisiana, the state superintendent of education is proposing state takeovers for as many as two dozen low-performing schools. That would mark a significant shift from the current status quo; no school or district has been through a state takeover there in nearly a decade, following a cascade of controversy that surrounded the state’s efforts to convert much of the New Orleans school system to a charter governance model after Hurricane Katrina.

Some districts, like the Live Oak schools in California, staved off a state takeover threat this year by laying off teachers, drawing community ire in the process.

State takeovers aren’t the only way

Still, there’s some sporadic evidence of a shift away from the widespread practice of state takeovers.

Lawmakers in the Tennessee Senate recently passed a bill that would remove the state’s authority to take over struggling schools. Instead, for struggling districts, the state would oversee a turnaround plan managed and implemented by local officials. The bill has yet to pass the House.

In Michigan, a nascent legislative effort to repeal the law allowing state takeovers of school districts failed to gain traction a few years ago. But the state hasn’t taken over a district since releasing Detroit to local control in 2016 after the city’s schools spent 13 of the prior 17 years under state control. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, has declined in recent years to pursue a state takeover for districts that might previously have been prime candidates.

“It’s a back burner issue,” said David Arsen, a professor of education at Michigan State University who’s published evidence that financial fortunes of districts taken over by the state not only failed to improve but declined, as a result of state involvement.

States have other smaller-stakes mechanisms to pressure school districts to improve test scores and eliminate budget deficits.

The Boston district, for instance, is currently required to comply with an improvement plan hammered out with state and city officials to ensure the district improves on persistent issues like bus arrival times and services for students with disabilities.

The Texas Education Agency recently hired for the Socorro school district near El Paso two conservators—monitors appointed by the state who examine the district’s governance decisions, conduct assessments of school buildings and technology systems, and hold schools accountable for adhering to a corrective action plan.

“‘Takeover’ is saying the local community is incapable of supporting their own students, and we need to remove them from the equation,” Morel said. “If we really are interested in improving school districts, there are ways for states to support local communities that get them away from this idea of takeover.”

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