Arizona Considers Takeover of Failing Local School Districts

Published June 1, 2008

Arizona state officials’ proposed takeover of a notoriously poor-performing Phoenix school district has stirred a far-reaching debate about local school governance.

House Bill 2711 would allow a state-appointed turnaround superintendent to take charge of school districts with a majority of schools rated “underperforming” and at least one school rated “failing” under state accountability measures. At press time, the legislation was on its way to Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) for her signature.

Fixing a Train Wreck

Under the bill’s terms, five school districts would be eligible for sanctions. But proponents say it’s specifically targeted to improve Phoenix’s Roosevelt Elementary School District, with a 95 percent racial minority student population.

“The district has been seen as [one that’s failed] kids for at least 30 years, and every attempt at improvement has failed because of the toxic political atmosphere,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne.

Matt Ladner, Ph.D., vice president of research at the Goldwater Institute for Public Policy, agrees.

“Roosevelt is a train wreck of epic proportions,” said Ladner. “Things just can’t get any worse in the district.”

Aiming Higher

But Arizona School Boards Association (ASBA) lobbyist Janice Palmer disagrees, pointing to modestly improved third- and fourth-grade reading scores on the 2007 Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards (AIMS) test.

“I feel confident change is happening,” Palmer said. “People just have a disagreement as to how fast.”

Roosevelt’s AIMS scores are still well below the state average. ASBA analyst Michael Martin publicly argued in a newspaper column that Roosevelt students’ underachievement is because of widespread lead poisoning, but he introduced no evidence to support the claim.

“It’s just a really pathetic example of the myth of helplessness,” said Ladner, referring to a belief espoused by many government education officials and apologists that schools simply are unable to provide effective academic assistance to underprivileged students.

Horne also pointed to other Arizona districts with similarly challenging demographics that have produced better test results.

Strengthening Leadership

Under HB 2711, the state superintendent would recommend three qualified candidates to take over the helm of a failing district, subject to approval by the 11-member State Board of Education. Except for the state superintendent, all board members are appointed by the governor.

Palmer said while the proposed process is straightforward, proponents have not demonstrated a strategy for making the takeover successful.

“The superintendent has been saying we need to try something, and it needs to be drastically different than [anything] we’ve ever done, but as far as a clear plan that shows how it’s going to be done, I haven’t seen it yet,” Palmer said.

Horne said success would depend on a state-appointed leader visiting every teacher in every school and firing principals who fail to provide high standards of instructional leadership.

“If the turnaround superintendent is truly an outstanding educational leader, it would only be a couple years before you would see the district turning things around,” Horne said.

Shifting Control

Even so, Palmer says her association fundamentally opposes HB 2711 because it would violate the local community’s control over school district affairs.

“If people feel the board is not doing what they want, there’s a process to take care of that,” Palmer said. “There shouldn’t be a hostile takeover by one individual.”

Horne said that principle, at times, should be set aside.

“Local control is appropriate if the kids are learning; then the state should not interfere,” Horne said. “But it’s the state’s responsibility to help the students learn.”

Bringing Change

Horne said previous attempts have failed to persuade the Roosevelt school board to give a superintendent full power and accountability to implement an effective instructional program.

“My view is, if we come in from the inside and put an outstanding instructional leader in charge, that person will demonstrate how much higher the students’ scores can be,” Horne said. “The community will see the difference that can be made, and the political culture can change.”

But Palmer hopes change can be accomplished through current accountability mechanisms that would enable the district to receive help from the state education department in crafting a school improvement plan.

“If they need additional help to move it faster, we’d absolutely be supportive of moving within the confines of the current law,” said Palmer.

Horne counters by noting Roosevelt already receives more state resources than any other Arizona district. He accused legislative opponents of standing in the way of badly needed reform.

“The failure of schools to deliver education to students who come from poor homes is the biggest moral issue of our time,” Horne said. “The determination of the school boards association to defend the status quo at all costs is fundamentally an immoral position.”

Exploring Competition

Ladner said school choice would accomplish more for students in the failing district.

“The competitive pressure on Roosevelt is minimal,” Ladner explained. “What we have done to date is inadequate to put any bottom-up pressure on the Roosevelt School District.”

Local public charter schools, Ladner said, aren’t enough because they are plagued with long waiting lists. He believes a more promising approach would be to meet parents’ demands for more successful alternatives.

“I think the record on state takeovers is mixed at best,” Ladner said.

Ben DeGrow ([email protected]) is a policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, Colorado.

For more information …

Arizona HB 2711:

“The Myth of Helplessness,” by Matt Ladner, Ph.D., Goldwater Institute, April 14, 2008: