Takeovers no fix for education

This fall’s contract fight between Philadelphia public school teachers and the school board has contained a new wrinkle: the threat of a state takeover of the Philadelphia schools if teachers strike. But would Harrisburg know what to do? Susan Fuhrman, Dean of the Graduate School of Education, examines states’ track records:

States have always had the authority to take control of school districts, because education is the states’ responsibility. School districts, and local control of education, are entirely creations of the state. And over the past hundred years or so, states have, from time to time, taken over school districts that are experiencing financial problems, usually due to mismanagement or corruption — or often both.

In the late 1980s, takeovers began addressing issues of academic bankruptcy as well as financial bankruptcy. In many states, the ultimate punishment for academic failure is a takeover. The recent focus in law is much more on takeovers for academic reasons than financial reasons. But only in law. My feeling is that states are very unlikely actually to do takeovers for only academic reasons. Politically, the ability to talk about subjects like waste and mismanagement makes talk of takeover much more palatable.

Academic takeovers do happen. In New Jersey, for example, there are four or five districts that have been in receivership for mostly academic reasons. But there are no success stories here. States don’t turn these places around academically; they don’t know what to do. They don’t provide technical assistance, professional development or capacity-building — most states don’t have the capacity or the people to call upon — so the schools themselves can’t improve.

Some states are now turning to comprehensive school reform designs that come out of universities or other school researchers. For instance, there’s Success For All, a primary grades reading program which was developed by Robert Slavin at Johns Hopkins University. There are currently several thousand schools signed up with Success For All across the country. The state of New Jersey now requires every school within the state’s poor urban districts to sign up with a school reform design of the individual school’s choosing. The trouble with these programs is that a lot of them are underresearched. Not much is known about how well they work and in what contexts.

Financial takeovers are not a huge challenge for states. You can clean up the books, improve management practices, identify corruption. But issues of economic development are at the core of all these problems. These underperforming districts are in poor places that are losing jobs. The schools are often the largest employer. There’s a huge incentive for corruption. The state can come in and keep an eye on things for as long as they’re in there. But then the state has trouble leaving, because they don’t attend to economic development. They don’t address the motivations for corruption, so it remains a big possibility as soon as the state leaves.

In Eastern Kentucky, there are a few counties that have been under state control for a while. The Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990 shifted the focus to a more statewide approach to such problems. It includes ethical training for board members, and taking hiring power out of the hands of school boards. The state enacted statewide school reform to address the fiscal problems of poor districts. The package included getting more funding for poor districts, plus instructional reform and ethical training. And you’ve seen improvements in these districts and in the state as a whole.

State takeovers are part of a larger movement of states saying to school districts, if you don’t perform, there’s punishment waiting for you. But there’s still the question of what do you do after you take it over. That question existed before this movement came up, and it’s going to be with us for a long time.

Susan H. Fuhrman is also director of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, which studies education policy issues.


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Originally published on September 28, 2000