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The Problem With School Takeovers

Studies show they're ineffective and may unequally impact black and Hispanic communities.

Newark NJ public school
Public schools in Newark, N.J., are finally under local control again.
Since February, the school board in Newark, N.J., has been meeting to set policy. That may sound like the most mundane occurrence imaginable, but it’s a big novelty in Newark. The schools there are now being run locally for the first time since a state takeover in 1995.

New Jersey was the first state back in 1989 to pass a law allowing takeovers of local school districts. Since then, states across the nation have appropriated more than 100 districts, including those in major cities such as Baltimore, Detroit, Memphis, New Orleans and Philadelphia. And with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act requiring states to identify and improve poor-performing schools, that trend is not about to die out.

But states don’t possess a secret formula for making schools succeed. Far from it. Test scores and graduation rates don’t suddenly skyrocket. A recent Harvard University study of schools in Lawrence, Mass., did find “sizable achievements in math and modest gains in reading.” But other studies have been more negative, arguing that state takeovers do very little if anything to improve student performance, while dramatically driving up rates of turnover among teachers and staff.

Although poor academic performance and mismanagement are often cited as the main rationales for takeovers, other factors are at play, suggests Domingo Morel, a political scientist at Rutgers University-Newark, in his new book Takeover: Race, Education and American Democracy. Morel sees takeovers as an especially emblematic example of states centralizing power at the expense of local governance. As states have become increasingly responsible for footing the education bill in recent decades, they have sought greater authority. “Perhaps more so than any other policy domain, control over public education became a central point of contention between state and urban localities,” Morel writes.

As his subtitle suggests, Morel sees race as a major force. Nearly 85 percent of the districts that have been taken over by their states have had majority black or Latino student populations. States are much more likely, when they do take over majority white districts, to leave their local school boards intact, abolishing them only 4 percent of the time compared with 33 percent in majority black districts.

Morel views this racial dynamic through a political lens. Participation in school politics has been a “catapult” for black political power, he notes, with school board members going on to serve on city councils or as mayors. More Latinos, meanwhile, serve on school boards than in any other political office. 

His argument, however, that minority political power is weakened by state takeovers is undercut by one of his own case studies. Hispanics held no political offices in majority Latino Central Falls, R.I., when the state took over its schools in 1990. But three Latinos were quickly appointed to the revamped school board, and James Diossa currently serves as the city’s first Latino mayor.

Another concern with state takeovers is the loss of control to outside groups. Foundations, for instance, tend to put their money into districts that have been taken over to encourage experimentation, such as the expansion of charter schools. Most famously, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg pledged $100 million to the struggling schools in Newark back in 2010. But like the state takeover of schools in Newark, that largesse failed to produce miracles. Too much money was spent on consultants and too little effort was devoted to building support among parents and teachers for new approaches. “School districts are more likely to improve educational outcomes when there is collaboration,” Morel writes. “Why would states pursue policies that lead to political disruption and hostility between local communities and state government?” 

Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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