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Struggling Schools Targeted For Takeovers


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, for Sampson Davis, ending the health care crisis in America's inner cities isn't just a professional goal. It's a personal mission. He'll talk about serving the Newark, New Jersey neighborhoods where he grew up and his new book, "Living and Dying in Brick City."

But, first, we want to look at urban schools. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie recently announced the state there will take over the public schools in the city of Camden. That's the fourth New Jersey city to lose control of its education system, but the first under Governor Christie. Camden schools have the second lowest graduation rate in the state.

But do takeovers of failing schools actually help students and teachers perform better? That's the essential question. Joining us now to answer it, hopefully, is Emily Richmond. She's the public editor for the National Education Writers Association.

Welcome to the program.

EMILY RICHMOND: Thank you so much.

HEADLEE: So, first of all, let's talk about Camden, in particular. Why is the governor stepping in? There have been mayoral takeovers in lots of different cities. Is Camden's situation different than, say, Kansas City or anywhere else?

RICHMOND: Well, it's different in the sense that the frustration has reached a boiling point that it's triggered this action. It's questionable whether student learning or achievement is actually worse in Camden than it might be in Kansas City or Cleveland, for example, where they're also talking about a takeover of the schools. It has to come to a point that the public says what's happening here isn't acceptable and we must make a drastic change.

HEADLEE: And what evidence do we have from - I mean, there's plenty of cities, at least 20 across the nation where the mayors have taken over the city schools and, in fact, just in New Jersey, the three other cities that had school takeovers - that's from the '90s. It's been quite a long time. What evidence do we have that that actually works?

RICHMOND: Well, there is some evidence that there can be improvements with mayoral takeovers, but what we're talking about with a state takeover is less clear and the track record for those are much more shaky.

As you've mentioned, New Jersey had taken over other districts and, for example, it's had control of the Newark public schools since 1995 and those schools are still performing right down at the bottom next to Camden.

There really are two triggers that happen for a state or a mayoral takeover of a school district and that is either financial bankruptcy or academic bankruptcy and financial bankruptcy is pretty easy to define. We all sort of understand that, if your assets don't match what your liabilities are, you're bankrupt and the way to solve that is to bring in a really good financial manager, get your books balanced and then you turn control back over. But academic bankruptcy is much more difficult to define and much more difficult to solve.

HEADLEE: And that's the case in Camden and they actually have a lot of resources. There's more spent per student in Camden, New Jersey than the state average in other schools.

RICHMOND: That's true. And the question then becomes, who is defining academic bankruptcy and can everyone agree on what the terminology is? You know, I spoke with Mike Griffith, who's a consultant for the Education Commission of the States. That's a research and policy clearinghouse that works with lawmakers to try to come up with solutions to education issues and he worked directly with the Michigan legislature to try to come up with a definition of academic bankruptcy so that they could take over the Detroit Public Schools.

The problem they had was every definition they came up with, it ended up including another five or six school districts in the state and, really, you want that takeover to be for the absolute worst district, worst case scenario. The state does not want to be running the schools.

HEADLEE: And that actually has become an issue in Michigan, which we're going to talk about on this program. But explain to me why it's so difficult to judge when a takeover - in this case, in New Jersey's case, by the state - or by a mayor. Why can't we tell if that works or not?

RICHMOND: Well, in Cleveland, actually, the takeover is being triggered by a constitutional requirement and that constitutional requirement is that, if a school district posts a certain number of consecutive years of failing student performance, the state is responsible to step in. So, because Cleveland has gotten F grades on the state standardized tests and performance measures, they're saying, take it over.

But the Cleveland school superintendent is pushing back. He's asking for a waiver. He's saying, look, these test numbers don't tell the whole story. It doesn't talk about the growth and change that we're making and the progress that we're having.

And the trouble is that a lot of school reform measures most people will agree take many years to take effect. We're talking three to five years, so are they really going to be interrupting a positive trend in Cleveland by taking over now? Is it possible that the Cleveland turnaround is really just a year away if only the state will be patient?

HEADLEE: And, in many cases, part of the controversy of either a state takeover or a mayoral takeover is that they're suddenly able to get rid of teacher contracts. It steps on the toes of the teachers' union and the other thing is that the local school board no longer becomes a deciding body, right? They're just an advisory panel in many of these cases, so people feel like they've lost local control. Is that generally a bad thing in terms of what happens in the classroom?

RICHMOND: Well, the question is, how much local control do they really have to begin with? Let's talk about school board elections. They tend to have the lowest voter turnout of anything on the ballot. You know, I covered Clark County, which is the nation's fifth largest school district.

HEADLEE: You're talking about Clark County in...

RICHMOND: Nevada, where I worked for nine years. Just a tiny number of people - hundreds, sometimes maybe 1,000 people - would elect a school board member who would then oversee a district with 300,000 kids and an operating budget of over $2 billion. So how much involvement do people really have in what's happening in the schools?

But then the flipside of that is, how much local control is there if the state comes in? How much say do parents have about what's going to happen? But I think what we need to also focus on is it's not just who has control, but what they do with it. We don't know what's going to happen in Prince George's County. We have no understanding...

HEADLEE: Maryland. Yeah.

RICHMOND: Maryland. We have no understanding of what the county executive is planning if he does take over the schools. He's just said he wants that control. Are students going to suddenly get a longer school day? How is he planning to improve instruction? Will there be more opportunities and remedial services for students who are coming to school hungry and tired or potentially homeless?

HEADLEE: One of the arguments for control by either the state or a larger body than the local school district is that they can leverage more resources, but the other argument that I find interesting is that the problems in our schools are so complex, they're so holistic that they involve poverty and truancy and many other things that affect an entire neighborhood that only by leveraging the power of a state to bring in all those resources could you actually address what's going on in the school. Is that one of the stronger arguments for takeover?

RICHMOND: I think it - I mean, it's certainly a compelling argument. My question be, why can't we have that state support and have local control at the same time?


RICHMOND: Why can't there be a symbiotic relationship as opposed to a hostile one? And I think that's a question that communities need to ask themselves. We're seeing a lot more now, these sort of public-private partnerships where foundations and community groups are giving money to school to ask, you know, who needs help, for example, and services and programs that they can't get from the state because there's no money. But those private foundations and organizations are now asking for new accountability measures. They're not just saying, we're going to give you money. Good luck. They're saying, we're going to give you money and we want to see that you have proven success with it. And that's the kind of relationship I think we need to see more of in the public sector between school districts and states.

HEADLEE: All right. So where has this worked? I mean, we talked about New Jersey. As you say, Newark, New Jersey - those schools were taken over sometime in the mid '90s. They're still struggling, so where has mayoral or state takeover actually helped a school to get so healthy that the state or mayor no longer has to exercise control?

RICHMOND: Well, Kenneth Wong, who's a researcher at Brown University, contends that Boston and Chicago and New York are all examples of where mayoral takeover has improved test scores. People find fault with some of his evidence. They don't always agree with him, but he has made that case.

In terms of a state takeover, I think you're going to have to search pretty hard to find one...


RICHMOND: ...that's worked. And, again, it's a relative measure. By what measure are you saying the state takeover improved? Did student test scores get better? Did truancy rates decline? Did parents report that they felt teachers were more responsive? Did students say they were learning more? We have to come up not only with what are the measures, but then, of course, you need an exit strategy. What's going to happen when the state stops taking over and turns back over local control? What provisions are being put in place? Is the state planning to be a permanent school provider or is this going to be a temporary measure?

In New Jersey, unfortunately, it looks like it's become a permanent situation and I think that's what has a lot of people in Camden worried.

HEADLEE: Emily Richmond is the public editor for the National Education Writers Association. She joined us here in our Washington studios. Thank you so much.

RICHMOND: Thank you.

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