What Would Happen If the State Took Over Your School District?

Chris Christie has plans to assume control of Camden's struggling public education system. Critics warn that there could be serious consequences.

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How bad does a public school system need to be for the state to take over? Are low student test scores alone enough? And what is a realistic time frame for the state to either turn schools around or restore local control?

The looming prospects of state takeovers are making headlines from Maryland to Ohio, as lawmakers express frustration with the glacial pace of school improvement and stagnant student achievement. Proponents of state takeovers say this drastic measure is the best way of promoting radical change in failing schools, improving accountability, and giving students access to better programs and services. State officials contend there must be consequences when schools continue to fall short of expectations, and that they have a constitutional obligation to step in. In some cases that means replacing the superintendent with a new (and ideally more effective) leader, and reallocating resources to target the areas of greatest need.

But critics contend that there can be significant downsides, including an over-reliance on test scores as the determining factor in whether a takeover is warranted. These takeovers also often focus on reorganizing the central office, which can have little direct impact on whether schools do a better job of meeting the needs of struggling students critics contend. Another potential problem: handing over control of the schools to an administrator who might have little or no experience in education. Given that several large urban districts are already looking for new superintendents -- never mind saviors -- it could be tough to find a superstar leader interested in taking on the challenge.

The track record for state takeovers is shaky "probably because they don't tend to change a whole lot," said Michael Petrilli, vice president of the Fordham Institute, a conservative-leaning education think tank in Washington, D.C. "The union contract stays in place, the bureaucracy stays in place. All that's gone is the school board."

Petrilli told me a more promising approach is the "recovery school district" -- an approach born in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina that has since been adopted in Michigan and Tennessee. A new district is created from scratch with the authority to hire and fire staff, close low-performing campuses, and even convert them into charter schools. "That strikes me as the smarter way to go," Petrilli said.

Takeovers of local school districts are rare, although roughly half the states have laws on the books that make it possible, according to the Education Commission of the States, a nonpartisan research and policy clearinghouse for legislators. The triggers vary, although most states require districts to have multiple consecutive years of failure to make sufficient academic progress. In Ohio, for example, a takeover of Cleveland's public schools is now a possibility after the district earned an "F" grade four years in a row on the state's academic report card. Cleveland's superintendent is petitioning the state for a waiver from the takeover. In Maryland, Rushern L. Baker, the executive of Prince Georges County, is aggressively lobbying state lawmakers to pass legislation giving him control of local schools, the Washington Post reported.

"Clearly there is a crisis in our school system," Baker said in a telephone town hall with more than 16,000 people participating. "Our schools continue to be ranked at the bottom, we can't keep a superintendent for more than a few years and our infrastructure is crumbling before our eyes. . . To accept the status quo is not an option."

In New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie is poised to take over Camden's public schools, which have a long history of some of the lowest student achievement in the state. It's a drastic measure that must be taken, contends the Star-Ledger's editorial board, citing local school officials' resistance to allowing successful charter schools expand, and the city's long history of flailing student achievement.

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Emily Richmond is the public editor for the National Education Writers Association. She was previously the education reporter for the Las Vegas Sun.

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