Chicago’s schools are emblematic of those in large cities across the country. According to the district’s website, with a $5.69 billion budget, the city’s 38,000 employees educate 400,000 students, of whom 86 percent are economically disadvantaged and 17 percent are English Language Learners. While most high-school students in Chicago—66.3 percent—graduate within five years, 45 percent of those graduates begin their senior year not doing well enough academically to attend a four-year college. In 2012, the U.S. Department of Education reported that 79 percent of the eighth-graders in Chicago Public Schools weren’t grade-level proficient in reading, while 80 percent weren’t proficient in math.
The fiscal dilemmas, as well as the unrest among teachers, compound those ongoing academic challenges. Rauner and a group of Republican lawmakers say that a state takeover, which would wrest control from Mayor Rahm Emanuel, is the only way to fix a system that is “absolutely collapsing on itself.” Indeed, according to editors at the Chicago Tribune, the recent bond deal won’t fix the city’s upcoming financial collapse; they chastise union leaders and local political leaders for rejecting compromise measures with the state. “The school system is heading toward implosion and the mayor and legislative leaders—all from Chicago—are not offering a way to manage this debacle so the teachers can continue to educate the children while the financial disaster is resolved,” the editors wrote. As part of the takeover, the Illinois State Board of Education would appoint an oversight board to examine the books, and the state would have the option to file for bankruptcy for the city’s schools, opening the possibility of cuts to pension benefits and the termination of tenured teachers.
The goal of state takeovers is often to innovate, increase flexibility over personnel decisions, and gain control over the budget, according to Kenneth Wong, a professor of education policy at Brown University. Because states provide about 50 percent of the funding to urban schools on average, he noted, legislators feel that districts should be held accountable. “They want to see results in return for the money,” Wong said.
Republican governors in particular tend to advocate for state takeovers largely on ideological grounds, believing that collective-bargaining rights interfere with reform. They say that unions are too protective of the adults employed by the school district at the expense of children’s educational needs and that reorganizing schools so that they’re less tethered to union interests will make them more effective.
Several states, including New Jersey, California, and West Virginia, are currently running dozens of local school districts nationwide using two different methods. One model involves taking over an entire school district. The state reduces the power of the elected school board and gives it to an appointed board and manager—a move that creates tensions, as communities often distrust the powerful state managers, who don’t have ties with the city. These takeovers may make short-term improvements in administration, according to Wong, but don’t always help teachers to improve curriculum and instruction. The other model—used in Tennessee, Michigan, and New Orleans with some success—targets only certain schools within a district. It doesn’t wrest control of an entire school district from the local governing structure. Instead, it focuses on the worst-performing schools, and might set up charter schools or fire lower-performing teachers. Research shows some improvement in academic performance with this model.