More state takeovers are likely on the horizon: Here’s what to watch for

State takeovers are at a crossroads years following passage of both the No Child Left Behind and Every Student Succeeds Acts. 

Taken together, the two successive federal laws heightened school accountability politics and granted states power over low-performing districts. Now, in light of a push for increased local control on one hand and scrutiny of districts after COVID-19 closures on the other, some states are likely to steer toward state takeovers, while others move away from them. 

“I think there is a likelihood that we will be seeing more state takeover of districts,” said Kenneth Wong, an education policy researcher and, in 2013-2014, an advisor to then-U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Wong has worked extensively on education governance and accountability, and is an education policy professor at Brown University.

State takeovers are commonly precipitated by a school district’s academic shortfalls or financial mismanagement. With districts currently facing widespread pandemic-induced lags in student academic performance and financial uncertainty following federal relief aid, it’s possible that states will take this opportunity to exercise control over districts. 

“If you were a state shopping for districts to take over, the pandemic provided a golden opportunity by putting more schools on the naughty list,” said Peter Greene, who spent four decades in education as a high school English teacher and has been tracking education reform issues for thirteen years. 

States to see ‘fair amount of bifurcation’ 

However, how this plays out might differ based on state and local political leanings. 

In conservative-led states, a new push for parent and community stakeholder control over education and tax dollars going to the sector could veer leaders away from state intervention. On the other hand, teachers unions, which have traditionally opposed takeovers, could sway the decision in liberal states. 

“I think, probably, we’re gonna see a fair amount of bifurcation between red and blue states in this regard,” said Chester Finn Jr., president emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, former vice chair of the Maryland State Board of Education and a former U.S. assistant secretary of education during the Reagan administration. 

Texas’ recent decision to take over Houston Independent School District highlights the politically charged nature of takeovers. In one of the biggest interventions ever attempted, Republican leaders moved in on a Democrat-led city that has a large minority population.

“Oftentimes, a state takeover is considered as hostile,” said Wong. “And that is because the state legislature may be governed by a kind of a political party different from the city.” 

In many cases, there are also racial and ethnic differences at play between the leaders taking over the district and the constituents, who are often low-income and students of color

“It does create this tension, and that is the sense of ownership on the part of the communities of color is now being taken away from them,” Wong said.

A takeover should be highly justified and its positive impact drastic for the political disruption to be worth it, say school system and accountability experts.

‘Track record is pretty depressing’

However, history suggests state takeover outcomes are a mixed bag, both Wong and Finn said.

A 2001 paper co-authored by Wong and sponsored by the Department of Education showed 24 states had allowed school takeovers of districts as of that year. Since New Jersey became the first to take over a district in 1989, more than 22 state governments and agencies have seized more than 100 school districts, according to a book published in 2018 by Domingo Morel, a political scientist who studies state policies.

However, state interventions don’t always result in better academic outcomes.

“If they want to clean up a financial mess, or they want to make a great big structural shift …then a state takeover can certainly make a difference,” Finn said. “But if you want to boost scores in thousands of kids who are not learning very well, I’m afraid the track record is pretty depressing on that front around the country.” 

In addition, changes resulting from takeovers are also often accompanied by mistrust from existing district staff and the broader community, can destabilize existing leadership and staff culture, and can take years to trickle down to the classroom, sources said. 

With Houston’s takeover already announced and similar efforts looming elsewhere, experts suggest watching for these approaches and red flags that can spell the difference in a takeover’s success:

  • Partnerships rather than power grabs

    States should try to facilitate partnerships between the new leaders coming in and the existing community. These partnerships should also come with transparency in academic and curriculum plans, and a sense of agency from the community affected, said Wong.

    “This partnering oftentimes is punctuated by this sense of urgency, because there is an inertia for the state to rush in and do things their way as a solution to the challenge,” Wong said. “Sometimes, we might have to slow things down just a little bit to listen to the voices of the community.” 

  • Cultural and academic benchmarks

    “If you want to know whether a state takeover is going to succeed, you have got to give it more than three years to demonstrate its efficacy,” said Finn. “People get very impatient.”

    But academic assessments, school climate surveys, student engagement and chronic absenteeism levels, and teacher retention and vacancies can all be indicators for whether a takeover is working in the meantime.

    “Creating a stable, predictable learning environment and a vibrant learning environment, I think, is part of the progress monitoring and assessment of improvement, as well,” Wong said. 

  • Exit strategies and timelines

    In many instances, states will initiate takeovers without a detailed exit plan. Developing targets with stakeholder input can both win community trust and set up the district for success post-takeover.

    “A plan that has no clear exit strategy — that is, ‘This is how we’ll know we’ve succeeded and when we hit that mark, and then we’ll hand the school back to the people of the community’ — is a red flag,” said Greene.

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