Takeovers Don’t Bring Turnaround in Student Achievement

Published May 1, 1999

Taking over district leadership from an elected school board is a popular solution to urban public education ills. Mayor Richard M. Daley took over the schools in Chicago in 1995, and now Mayor Dennis W. Archer has taken over the schools in Detroit. In California, Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown may get that authority over his city’s schools, which enroll 54,000 students. In Texas, some state lawmakers have called for a state takeover of the Dallas Independent School District. In Maryland, the poor performance of schools serving 130,000 students in Prince George’s County has prompted calls for a state takeover there. Mayoral takeover is under consideration in Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Buffalo.

But do takeovers work? While CEO Paul Vallas has improved financial control over schools in Chicago, academic improvements have been modest at best. The record of school district takeovers during the past decade suggests that, while takeovers may bring immediate satisfaction by replacing an incompetent board and management team, longer-term results in terms of academic improvement are virtually non-existent.

The best example of continuing failure under new management is the 44,000-student Jersey City School District, which in 1989 was the first troubled school district in the nation to be taken over by state government. The New Jersey Board of Education booted out the elected school board and its superintendent and–after six years–began to improve test scores. But after ten years, the district’s test scores still fall well below the state average.

The story is the same three thousand miles west, where the 29,000-student Compton, California school district was taken over by the state in 1993 after a severe budget shortfall. After the district had five different state administrators in six years, a team of outside reviewers earlier this year awarded the district a D for progress, saying the school system had a long way to go before it could resume operations on its own.

“What you’ll find in looking at all the cases that have happened so far is that there has been no effect on the improvement of student achievement,” National School Boards Association Chairman Michael Preston recently told USA Today. “In other words, state takeovers are more about power, money, and control than about student achievement.”

Across the nation, 19 school districts with almost one million students in more than 1,500 schools are under state control after being taken over during the past decade.

Taking Over Failing School Districts
Year State District Students Schools Takeover Action
1988 Kentucky Pike County 12,029 32 State superintendent of education given OK to take control of schools.
1989 Massachusetts Chelsea 4,763 11 Legislature passed law allowing Boston University to run the district on a long_term contract.
1989 New Jersey Jersey City 31,666 37 State officials took over, charging district administrators with patronage in hiring and other violations.
1991 Massachusetts Boston 63,293 123 State abolished the elected Boston School Committee and gave Boston’s mayor the power to appoint committee members.
1991 New Jersey Paterson 23,408 35 State officials took charge.
1992 West Virginia Logan County 7,464 27 State officials took over the district after years of poor management.
1993 California Compton 29,000 ? State took over in the wake of a severe budget shortfall.
1994 Illinois East St. Louis 12,964 29 State appointed a three_member panel to clean up financial and academic problems.
1994 Kentucky Letcher County 4,391 15 State officials assumed control.
1995 District of Columbia Washington 79,802 186 Congress created a financial control board, which appointed a new superintendent and school board.
1995 Illinois Chicago 412,921 555 Legislature gave control of schools to mayor.
1995 New Jersey Newark ? ? State officials assumed control.
1995 Ohio Cleveland 74,380 131 State shifted control to Cleveland’s mayor.
1996 Texas Wilmer_Hutchins 3,837 8 State appointed a management team to run the district.
1997 Connecticut Hartford 23,791 35 Governor appointed a new school board.
1997 Maryland Baltimore 109,980 180 State legislature entered into a partnership with the city of Baltimore to run the schools.
1998 Kentucky Floyd County 8,144 20 State superintendent appointed three board members to the county school board, which then voted to accept a state takeover.
1998 Massachusetts Lawrence 11,355 17 State entered joint selection process for new superintendent and opened an office to oversee operations.
1998 West Virginia Mingo County 6,551 25 State officials took over the district, citing budget deficits and low student achievement.
Total     968,472 1,552
Source: The Education Commission of the States
Copyright 1999 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News.