The Fact-Check: Not Every State Takeover of a Troubled School District Deserves an F
The Fact-Check is an ongoing series presented by The Seventy Four that aims to analyze how journalists, politicians, and leaders misuse or misinterpret data and research related to education. For a comprehensive list of our fact-check pieces, please refer to our Fact-Check archive.
Is it beneficial for students when state takeovers occur in schools? This is a question that elected officials all over the country are grappling with. Recently, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner has put forth a proposal to take control of Chicago Public Schools, the third-largest school district in the nation, which is currently facing a significant deficit and the possibility of its second teacher strike in four years. In Georgia, there is a ballot initiative that seeks to establish a state-run district comprising over 100 schools that have been identified as low-performing.
Many people are skeptical about the idea of state takeovers. An op-ed piece published in EdWeek on January 27 claimed that state takeovers should be given a "failing grade." Additionally, an article in The Washington Post on February 1 stated, "Takeovers in Newark, Detroit, and Memphis have not improved test scores — in fact, some schools have regressed."
While The Washington Post article does not provide any examples of takeovers leading to improved student achievement, there are actually a few cases where positive outcomes have been observed. However, it is important to note that the research on state takeovers is complex. Instead of focusing on whether state takeovers are inherently "good" or "bad," policymakers should delve into what factors have contributed to successful takeovers and why others have failed.
Let’s begin with the positive aspects. After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, nearly all of the city’s schools transitioned into charter schools under state control. Initial research conducted by economist Doug Harris from Tulane University revealed significant improvements in student achievement following the state takeover. This transformation also coincided with a substantial increase in per pupil spending. Harris, who previously spoke with The Seventy Four, stated, "I have never witnessed an impact of this magnitude before," comparing the charter reforms to initiatives like reducing class sizes.
The op-ed piece in EdWeek argues that "New Orleans still reports some of the lowest achievement scores and graduation rates in the nation." However, this argument is not a valid response. The starting point for student achievement in New Orleans was extremely low, and it is more appropriate to assess the gains made as a result of the state takeover.
There are still many unanswered questions regarding student outcomes in New Orleans and how to measure them. For example, Harris has yet to publish his full study, making it difficult to thoroughly examine his methods. Nevertheless, the evidence from New Orleans currently leans towards positive outcomes.
Another success story comes from Lawrence, Massachusetts, which has been under state control since 2012. According to a recent working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, the takeover has led to significant improvements in math achievement and slight gains in reading. Interestingly, the researchers found that a significant portion of the improvement could be attributed to additional learning time provided to struggling students during vacation breaks, despite the package of reforms implemented, including efforts to enhance teacher quality.
Unfortunately, research on state takeovers beyond these two cities yields less promising results. A recent study conducted by Vanderbilt University found no evidence of academic gains in Tennessee’s state-run district comprising nearly two dozen schools in Memphis. The state takeover of Detroit has not been successful in alleviating the district’s severe financial distress. Another takeover attempt within the already state-controlled Detroit schools has also encountered challenges, although determining its impact on student achievement is difficult.
In 2007, a study revealed mediocre results from a state takeover of Philadelphia schools. Although some gains were made, they were not significantly greater than those observed in similar schools located in districts that were not taken over.
To the best of my knowledge, there are no recent studies indicating that state takeovers have a negative effect on student achievement.
In conclusion, the track record of state takeovers is mixed. Unfortunately, there is insufficient evidence to determine why some turnaround efforts have produced positive results while others have not.
There may be other reasons to oppose takeovers aside from their impact on student outcomes, such as concerns about political disenfranchisement. However, it is unjustifiable to condemn all such efforts solely based on student achievement, given the existing evidence.
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