When States Take Over School Districts, Disaster Usually Ensues
There is a disturbing trend taking place in school districts all over the United States. The pattern that I am referring to involves state departments of education wrestling control of low-performing school districts from local school entities. For a state to seize control of a school district, an emergency, either academic, environmental, or financial, etc., must exist and place students in harm’s way. Each state has its own definition of conditions that justify or trigger a takeover, as well as policies and procedures that must be followed during this process.
We will begin this piece with an overview of state takeovers in the United States and then look at a case study of the state of Mississippi’s botched takeover of its Jackson Public Schools district.
An overview of state takeovers
Before school districts are taken over, they usually know that they are in jeopardy of being taking over, and may have had several years to get their act together and show improvement. What makes this even more complicated and troublesome, is that struggling districts have no way of improving, as they usually do not have the expertise or capacity to facilitate change.
Many states have technical assistance teams that assist struggling districts in getting back on track. However, in many cases, these teams don’t have the capacity or expertise to foster school reform or change initiatives. The end result, many districts get taken over by the very entity that failed to offer them structural and strategic support, when they desperately needed it. As a colleague of mine put it, “it’s the blind leading the blind.”
States often announce state takeovers to great fanfare and make bold claims about the transformation that will occur under their watch. The results are usually less the underwhelming. School districts that are taken over find themselves in a comparable place academically in the next 3-5 years, and achievement either slightly improves, stays flat, slightly decreases or in the worst case scenario gets markedly worse. The problem is almost always that states make structural changes to these districts, but forget to, or don’t have the capacity to make strategic moves. The results are the results. And who ends up getting hurt? The students.
What makes this even more sickening is the fact that when states takeover school districts, they seem to strategically target districts with large populations of black and brown students. In some states, these school districts are either in sum or in part are turned into charter schools and exploited for financial gain. What makes this even more troublesome is that these charter schools end up failing miserably, and states usually do not have a mechanism for monitoring their progress or offering them support and technical assistance. They are left to their own devices, continuing to make millions of dollars and failing to educate black and brown students properly.
If you are keeping score, these poor and disenfranchised black and brown students have now been failed twice, once by their original school district and the state, and then by their new charter school and the state. While the scenario above may not be how things play out in your state, I am sure you will notice similarities.
An example of a state takeover disaster waiting to happen
Let me give you an example of a state takeover that is a disaster waiting to happen. The Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) is currently in the process of taking over Jackson Public Schools (JPS), located in the city of Jackson, MS, after an 18-month investigation. Mississippi is my home state, and I once worked in Jackson Public Schools, so this one is near and dear to my heart. Jackson Public Schools is a large urban school district, comprised of 58 schools.
This story starts in April 2016 after a cursory audit by MDE that found that the Jackson Public Schools district was violating 22 of the state’s 32 accreditation standards. The standards that were violated ranged from safety concerns to ineffective leadership. In August 2016, this information was presented to the Mississippi Commission on School Accreditation, which accredits public schools in Mississippi, and they voted to downgrade JPS’s accreditation status to probation.
This essentially means that JPS did not uphold the state’s accreditation standards and was forced to create a corrective action plan (CAP) within a specified amount of time. The Mississippi Commission on School Accreditation also voted to approve a full audit of all JPS schools, to be conducted by MDE. What makes this problematic, is the fact that JPS was simultaneously asked to create and implement a corrective action plan to get back on track, while being provided with technical assistance from MDE.
In September of 2016, JPS’s then-superintendent Cedrick Gray told its constituents at a town hall meeting, that JPS had created a corrective action plan and submitted it to the State Board of Education, and was well on its way to correcting all of its deficiencies. Then a month later in October 2016, Gray resigned as superintendent in the wake of an “F” accountability rating by the state and the looming possibility of another downgrade in accreditation status. Essentially, the person whose ineffective leadership created this mess was suddenly out the door.
In November 2016, the JPS Board of Trustees picked Fredrick Murray as interim superintendent and unveiled its plans to find a permanent replacement. Later on that month, the State Board of Education rejected the district’s CAP because it was not specific enough in certain areas. You would think that the state would be sympathetic to the district’s situation, and the issues that can arise during a transition of leadership. Not the state of Mississippi. Finally, in December 2016, the State Board of Education decided to accept JPS’s revised CAP, but board members warned the district of the urgency of this matter and reminded them that they were still at risk of takeover and losing their accreditation.
From January 2017 to July 2017, minimal movement occurred. Four JPS school board members resigned during this period, which increased JPS’s leadership vacuum. In February 2017, the board voted to hold off on the superintendent search until the end of the 2017-2018 school year and to allow Dr. Frederick Murry to continue as interim superintendent. In May 2017, JPS hired the Bailey Education Group to help it navigate the audit process. They were forced to do this when the state failed to provide the technical assistance that it is legally required to provide. I would be remiss if I did not point out that during the state takeover process, the relationship between JPS and MDE soured tremendously. In my opinion, it reached the status of unprofessional. This further complicated JPS’s school improvement efforts and sealed its fate.
Fast forward to August 31, 2017. The full audit that was ordered by the Mississippi Commission on School Accreditation was released, but it was not a complete audit, and MDE cited safety concerns at several of the state’s high schools as the reason. In September 2017, MDE reported its findings to the Mississippi Commission on School Accreditation, and the committee voted to recommend that the State Board of Education declare a state of emergency in the school district.
Why? Because JPS was found to still be in violation of 24 of 32 of the standards, 2 more than the initial audit of 2016. In September 2017, MDE presented its findings to the State Board of Education and recommended that the body declare a state of emergency in JPS, which would, in essence, trigger a state takeover. The board approved the measure on September 14, 2017, and announced Dr. Margie Pulley as interim superintendent. Yes, you read that correctly. Within 24 hours of hearing MDE’s case, they made a decision and also announced an interim superintendent.
The next step in the process is for the edict to be sent the governor for his signature. For a state takeover to become a reality, he has to agree that an extreme emergency exists. Initially, he said that he would not make a rash decision, and to his credit, he did not. Part of his justification for stalling the decision was the unavailability of one critical piece of data, the 2016-2017 MDE Accountability Ratings, which is an annual assessment of the academic achievement and growth of all Mississippi school districts. During the fall of each year, the rating system issues each district a letter grade from A-F.
The ratings were announced on September 19, 2017, and as expected, JPS was rated an F. We knew this because, during JPS’s September hearing with the Mississippi State Board of Education, MDE’s attorney mentioned that the preliminary data indicated that JPS would be receiving a grade of F. She disclosed this information, even though it was supposed to be embargoed until September 19, 2017. To be honest, I always thought her unethical disclosure was a political ploy. After receiving this information, the governor decided that he needed more time to make his decision.
In Mississippi, after the governor declares a state of emergency in a district, MDE takes control of and leads the struggling district (through an interim superintendent or conservator), until that district demonstrates sustained improvement, and when that happens, local control is reestablished. The average duration in of a state takeover in Mississippi is three years. The state of Mississippi has a charter school law, so all school districts rated below a C are eligible for charter schools to apply for a charter and operate schools in that district. MDE has created the perfect environment for this to happen in JPS. Time will tell if this was their objective all along.
Let me be frank, I worked in JPS for three years, and I can personally attest to its serious issues. However, MDE’s behavior during the state takeover process was anything but professional and does not lead one to believe that a takeover is not the correct move. During their audit of JPS, MDE failed to follow their own policies and procedures, and when they were called out on it, they covered their tracks. Next, state law required that they provide technical assistance to JPS as the district worked to implement their corrective action plan. However, JPS never received the full technical support that they requested, as MDE could not do so.
How on earth can you be in charge of auditing a school district, while also providing support to it? On top of that, how can you take over a district that you were in charge of helping it to improve, and failed miserably? Also, Dr. Margie Pulley, whom MDE has charged with leading JPS if it is indeed taking over, was the interim superintendent of Tunica County Schools during the 2016-2017 school year. Why is this important? Because Tunica County Schools received an F rating for the 2016-2017 school term. It seems highly unlikely that a leader of a district that was just rated an F can help transform a struggling district like JPS, who also received an F rating. This debacle in Mississippi is a cautionary tale of how greed and power grabs can lead a state and its education system down a path of destruction.
A Hollywood ending?
But wait, there is actually a happy ending to this story. Instead of signing off on a state takeover of Jackson Public Schools, Governor Phil Bryant has formed an alliance to develop a cooperative, comprehensive plan to improve the state’s second-largest school district. What happens to the MDE request for a state takeover of JPS schools? It remains active. Each member of the JPS Board of Trustees has resigned, per the Governor’s wishes. The plan forms a collaborative that includes the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Education Commission of the States and the Mississippi Economic Council.
Also included is the creation of a Project Commission, which is made up of JPS stakeholders. The commissioners and local, state and national partners will host a series of focus group sessions for the community. With consultation from ECS, which will disseminate best practices developed from successes in other states, an RFP to perform an external evaluation of the JPS system will be distributed. The Kellogg Foundation will support the ECS’s efforts, including the external assessment and focus group sessions
The external review will be led by data collection and the focus groups. Its results will inform the creation of a plan that addresses all of JPS’s issues. The Project Commission will discuss the findings and work with stakeholders to identify current resources within JPS to apply toward the plan’s implementation. Episodic evaluations will then be conducted. Hopefully this collaborative will work, and become a model for the rest of the United States.
This disturbing trend has to stop. States must realize that local control is essential, and the idea of a state takeover should only be broached if a real emergency exists, not a manufactured one. A state takeover should always be the last resort and only attempted if the state has the capacity and expertise to help the seized district succeed. Otherwise, it’s a recipe for disaster.
You would think that this would be common sense in education circles, but as we all know, common sense is not all that common.