Republican lawmakers in Illinois last month pitched a bold plan for the state to seize control of the Chicago public schools, becoming one of a growing number of states that are moving to sideline local officials — even dissolve locally elected school boards — and take over struggling urban schools.
Governors in Michigan, Arkansas, Nevada, Wisconsin, Georgia, Ohio and elsewhere — mostly Republican leaders who otherwise champion local control in their fights with the federal government — say they are intervening in cases of chronic academic or financial failure. They say they have a moral obligation to act when it is clear that local efforts haven’t led to improvement.
“I want to protect the schoolchildren and their parents; that’s my first duty,” Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) said about his plan, which would wrest control of the nation’s third-largest school district from elected city leaders and was immediately opposed “100 percent” by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D).
After Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican presidential hopeful, seized the struggling schools in Youngstown last July, he described it as an 11th-hour attempt to save young lives. “If you’re a school district that’s failed year after year after year, someone’s going to come riding to the rescue of kids,” Kasich said, describing the Youngstown school system, which has regularly received F’s on state report cards and where just 1.1 percent of the Class of 2013 was deemed ready for college.
Eleven states have passed or debated legislation to create state-run school districts in the past year, according to the Education Commission of the States, which tracks state education policy.
“There certainly is an effort afoot in the country to dismantle local government and reduce or eliminate the role of local school boards,” said Thomas Gentzel, executive director of the National School Boards Association.
State takeovers were once a rarity, but they have become increasingly popular as the number of states controlled by Republicans doubled between 2010 and 2014.
“There’s been a sea change of Republicans taking control of a great many states, and this model is quite appealing to them,” said Kenneth K. Wong, chair of the education department at Brown University.
In the most recent versions, states are creating “recovery districts” in which they take control of large numbers of schools scattered across several districts.
Although the particulars vary, an appointed manager wields broad powers to redesign schools or close them entirely. The state manager can hire and fire, set curriculum, reconfigure the school day, sell property and, in some cases, break existing labor contracts. Increasingly, state managers are turning over traditional public schools to charter school operators, which are funded by tax dollars but are privately managed.
The idea is that the state can bring aggressive change in a way that local politicians, with their community ties and loyalties, cannot.
The best-known example is the Recovery School District in Louisiana, created by state lawmakers in 2003 to convert struggling traditional schools in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Shreveport into charter schools. The district now consists of about 70 charter schools.
But the move to replace locally elected school officials with outsiders has yielded questionable results. Takeovers in Newark, Detroit and Memphis have not improved test scores — in fact, some schools have gone backward.
“These ideas kind of travel like wildfire,” said Kent McQuire, president and chief executive of the Southern Education Foundation, which recently analyzed state takeovers in three states. “But you can’t really find evidence that there’s been positive, sustainable changes in learning in those places.”
And the takeovers have sparked angry protests, legal challenges and bitter complaints of racism. All state takeovers to date have occurred in school districts that are impoverished and majority African American and Latino.
“These proposals are not really about school reform or improvement,” said Philip Lanoue, the 2015 national Superintendent of the Year. He runs a school district in Georgia, where Gov. Nathan Deal (R) wants to change the state constitution to enable state takeovers. “These takeovers are entangled with money and power and control.”
In Georgia, Deal wants to create an Opportunity School District made up of as many as 100 low-performing schools from across his state.
But voters first have to amend the state constitution, which currently stipulates that education must be controlled by “that level of government closest and most responsive to the taxpayers and parents of the children being educated.”
If the referendum passes in November, Atlanta would be most affected, with 27 eligible struggling schools.
The mere threat of a takeover has prompted the Atlanta public schools to act. The system hired a top Deal education aide — who had designed the governor’s plan for takeovers — to advise the city on how to avoid one. Atlanta Superintendent Meria Carstarphen announced last month that she was inviting charter school operators, local nonprofit agencies and other organizations to submit proposals for ways to boost the performance of those 27 struggling schools.
One elementary school in Clarke County, Lanoue’s district, would be a candidate for takeover. He said lasting improvement doesn’t come from a top-down makeover.
“If you really wanted true reform, wouldn’t you work directly with school boards and the school system?” he said.
One of the most contentious takeovers has been the seizure of the Youngstown City Schools in Ohio, which the Kasich administration orchestrated behind closed doors.
Youngstown has been struggling since the collapse of the steel industry in the 1970s. Nearly all the district’s 5,100 students are low-income, and 1 in 5 have special needs. Classrooms churn with instability: Nearly 20 percent of Youngstown students either came into the district or left in the middle of the 2013-2014 school year while more than 1 in 4 were chronically absent.
In the summer of 2014, Tom Humphries, president of the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber of Commerce and a Kasich supporter, said the governor told him to devise a plan to fix the schools.
“This is about these kids,” said Humphries, adding that the region has had difficulty attracting new employers because of an undereducated workforce. “They only get one opportunity, and this is about their lives. We can’t keep doing the same things. They’re not working.”
He launched 10 months of secret meetings between top Kasich administration officials and a handful of community leaders, including the Youngstown schools superintendent and the president of Youngstown State University.
Participants’ notes released by the state show the members pledging secrecy out of concern for anticipated public resistance. After nearly a year of discussions, the Kasich administration unveiled plans for a turbocharged state takeover that includes the dissolution of the locally elected school board and appointment of a chief executive officer with broad powers over local schools. A special commission controlled by Kasich appointees is expected to name a chief executive next month.
The administration and its allies in the state legislature rushed the legislation, getting it approved by a committee and narrowly passed by both houses of the legislature less than 24 hours after it was made public, drawing protests from Democratic lawmakers who said it violated procedure.
“This was a blueprint to dismantle the city schools,” said state Sen. Joe Schiavoni, a Democrat who represents Youngstown and is Senate minority leader.
Members of the elected Youngstown school board said they were blindsided.
“None of our community was involved in this, period,” said Brenda Kimble, president of the Youngstown City Schools board of education, which is suing to stop the takeover. “No board members, no parents, no elected officials, no teaching staff. Nobody knew about this.”
The Rev. Kenneth Simon, a Baptist pastor involved with Youngstown schools, said the changes concentrate power in a new chief executive who is not accountable to the community, something that could be especially damaging to African Americans.
“They’re taking away the right of our own school board that we elected to govern,” he said. “The school board has no power,” he said. “The community has no say. I don’t know how African Americans could sit and let them roll the clock back like this.”
The law applies not just to Youngstown but to any Ohio school district that receives an F grade from the state three years in a row.
“This isn’t just something happening in this small city in Ohio,” said Schiavoni, the Democratic lawmaker. “This is going to happen in other school districts in Ohio, and it’s happening all over the country. It’s a systematic approach to privatize public education.”
Talking to reporters four months ago, Kasich was baffled that some in the community oppose the takeover of a failing school district.
“What do they want to do? They want kids to continue to fail?” Kasich said. “People ought to be outraged when kids are trapped in failing schools. It’s a disgrace.”