School Takeovers Hurt Kids & Communities
HB2808, a bill moving through the Arizona state legislature, will force school takeovers and closures based on standardized test scores. This will punish struggling schools and disproportionately harm low-income, rural and Native communities instead of giving them the resources they desperately need. This massive piece of legislation has long-term ramifications but is being pushed through the legislature quickly with little to no input from education experts or the affected communities.
If this program were being modeled after successful programs with similar populations in other states, perhaps an argument could be made for a pilot program. However, school takeovers in other states have already been broadly unsuccessful. In fact, many areas are moving away from failed takeover policies, including Detroit, Newark, Philadelphia, and St. Louis, which have all returned schools to local control in recent years. Read on to find out more about states that have tried similar programs, their failures, and the wake of destruction these programs have left behind.
In 2010, Tennessee created an Achievement School District (ASD) similar to the one being proposed here in Arizona. The state has poured $1 billion into this state-run, top-down model that pulled local schools from school district control with promises from state bureaucrats and third-party operators to turn things around.
Schools are currently being returned to district oversight with no significant improvements in test scores after a decade of broken promises. The schools under the ASD report just 4.5% of students performing at grade level. The transition back to local control is creating a new round of chaos and hardship for families and educators. Because the transition involves everything from people and property to finances and governance, state officials have found it almost as hard to return schools as it was to take them away.
According to Tennessee state representative Antonio Parkinson, “The state has failed miserably in running schools and the state should not be in the business of being a school district, period. The Achievement School District came in and aggressively divided these communities and took over these schools, and then they performed worse than the schools they actually took over.”
Chris Barbic, the Superintendent of Tennessee’s ASD, resigned after only 4 years, admitting that achieving results in low-income areas is much tougher than building a charter in a chosen, more affluent zip code. “As a charter school founder, I did my fair share of chest pounding over great results. I’ve learned that getting these same results in a zoned neighborhood school environment is much harder.”
In 2017, the Indiana legislature transferred control of Gary public schools from their locally elected school board to a state-hired bureaucrat. Similar to Arizona’s proposed legislation, this law made no mention of an exit strategy or future path to allow for transition back to local control.
This year, a bill in the Indiana legislature (HB1187) would double down on this failed approach. The Mayor of Gary wrote an excellent OpEd detailing his opposition to the model. Mayor Prince said, “Five years later, and now serving as Mayor, I can say the state’s experiment with Gary’s children has been an objective failure. Gary’s schools are performing worse than ever before, despite our teachers and staff following the directives and guidelines mandated by the state’s emergency management team. Data shows the state’s efforts have resulted in record-low graduation rates and the state’s worst standardized test scores.”
Indiana HB1187 would create a permanent state-appointed school board for Gary schools, despite these deep failures to the community and children. A third-party operator would take over and appoint the superintendent. This bill would ban the existence of a teachers union and ban collective bargaining altogether.
The Ohio legislature established a similar model called academic distress commissions (ADCs) in 2015, creating a takeover process for school districts that received low test scores for 3 years in a row. Any school placed in an ADC receives an appointed CEO and is removed from the locally elected school board’s oversight.
Local communities have rejected this third-party school management and the Ohio legislature is now considering various ways to pause the takeovers or end them altogether. A local school board member says that the ADC model has stripped “millions of dollars from classroom instruction,” removing STEM and arts instruction, eliminating after-school programs, and hurting teachers. From 2015-2019, the takeover model showed no significant improvement in academic outcomes for students, and in some cases takeover schools fared worse.
Dayton public schools were also put into an ADC model, and from 2017-2019 saw cataclysmic changes to their school communities. During that time, “Dayton Public Schools have seen the hiring of a new superintendent; changing 20 of 25 building principals; complete overhaul of the human resources and special education departments; and new directors of safety, health, transportation, communication, federal programs and athletics. There have been dramatic changes to teacher pay and training, plus the closure of two schools.”
Texas passed a law in 2015 giving the state authority to take over an entire school district if a single school in that district fails to meet state education standards for 5 years, replacing the Superintendent and school board of the entire district. In 2017, the state attempted to take over the entire Houston Independent School District because one high school did not meet state standards (where 94% of students were economically disadvantaged) – despite the fact that the district as a whole earned a B rating and is the largest district in Texas serving 200,000 students in 280 schools.
This attempted takeover led to various lawsuits that shielded Houston ISD from state takeover. In 2021, the Texas legislature passed a new law which allows the third-party operator to take over districts with schools that wobble between D and F rankings.
Michigan established an “Education Achievement Authority” (EAA) for 15 of their lowest-performing schools in 2012. The takeover of school districts has had generally negative results in improving district fiscal health, raising test scores, and gaining the support of the community. This EAD program was shuttered in 2016 amidst falling enrollment, lackluster academic performance, and fiscal mismanagement. The 15 schools originally targeted continued to be among the lowest performing in the city.
The EAA struggled in its infancy. At the high schools it took over, four-year graduation rates decreased from 64 percent to 54 percent after the first year, rising only to 62 percent in the second year. And ACT scores in those schools have remained at 13.7, far below the national average. Also, MEAP test results were grim for EAA schools, which in many instances scored worse than their public school counterparts.
Bottom line: School takeovers hurt kids and communities. HB2808 is not the answer for Arizona students. Data conclusively and consistently shows that low-income students need significantly more resources in order to succeed. In comparison to schools in wealthier districts, schools in high-poverty districts require three times more per pupil in additional funding to bring performance up to average.
The Arizona legislature must focus on prioritizing public education and funding the large-scale interventions that would be needed in order to improve outcomes for students.
Arizona is currently one of only 9 states nationwide that does not allocate any additional funding to low-income students. Children in struggling schools deserve more resources and quality teachers in every classroom, not hostile takeovers that divide their communities.