Jochim & Hill: State Takeovers Remain a Powerful Tool for Improving Schools. States Should Not Walk Away From Them

If the debate over the value of local control in K-12 public education were a boxing match, you might say supporters of a stronger state role increasingly look to be down and out.

This year, officials in Tennessee and Ohio hit the pause button on new state interventions. State takeovers in Louisiana and New Jersey have come to an end, and the local board in Newark promptly began rolling back changes made under state control. Georgia voters rejected a 2016 ballot measure that would have given the state new powers to take over struggling schools.

But as we documented in a recent report, the authority to intervene in local districts remains an essential tool if states want to continue playing a meaningful role in improving local schools.

More than a decade ago, state legislatures on the left and the right empowered state superintendents with new authority to take dramatic actions on behalf of students.

Headline-grabbing takeovers followed. It was an era of muscular leadership by state chiefs who rolled up their sleeves and made major changes in local school systems.

In some cases, including Newark; Camden, New Jersey; Lawrence, Massachusetts; and New Orleans, researchers found that these efforts led to meaningful improvements. But other state interventions became mired in conflict and left students no better off.

The mixed results have emboldened critics of state takeovers on the right, who say takeovers empower “distant and unaccountable bureaucrats” and that local leaders should be left to their own devices, and on the left, who say that such interventions are meant to “dismantle” public education.

This pushback has left many state leaders decidedly weaker and less willing to take dramatic action in the face of dysfunction.

This is a mistake. Despite the challenges that come with any major effort like a state takeover, we know what a world without a strong state role in school improvement looks like.

Just rewind to the early 1990s, when most states lacked authority to take over local schools for academic reasons, and state education departments focused mainly on compliance and implementing federal programs rather than pushing for improvement in schools. The result: Local schools were unable to shake persistent low performance.

It’s true that state takeovers can carry steep political costs. For example, as political scientist Domingo Morel shows, state takeovers of local schools serving high concentrations of black students can result in the troubling loss of black political representation.

And Newark’s recent efforts to roll back teacher performance pay show that state takeovers might sideline unions and other local interest groups temporarily, but they are bound to reassert their influence eventually.

As a result, state officials must prioritize building community buy-in for their reform strategy. It’s not enough to point to poor results, or even corrupt behavior, under local officials. And they must develop a strategy to ensure that key elements of their reforms last after state control ends.

The impact of any state takeover hinges upon the details of implementation and the work of educators, leaders, families and nonprofits within school systems. Like any reform strategy, a takeover does not offer a guarantee of success.

But states cannot stand idly by while local districts struggle to meet the needs of students or taxpayers.

They cannot, and should not, rely on takeovers exclusively to effect change. But takeover authority, even if unused, can make other state efforts more potent.

The same Texas Education Agency that is gearing up for a potential takeover in Houston is also encouraging other districts in the state to make fundamental changes voluntarily, through its Systems of Great Schools initiative.

Takeovers remain a powerful tool when used thoughtfully. States risk irrelevance if they abandon them altogether.

Ashley Jochim is a senior research analyst at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington Bothell. Paul Hill’s research focuses on reform of public elementary and secondary education. A former federal policy adviser on education, he founded the Center on Reinventing Public Education.

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