States should abandon their responsibility to provide high-quality education to all children, never take over failing traditional districts,and keep in place a model of education that no longer works for any child. That’s the only takeaway possible after reading a report released this week by the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, one of many front groups for the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers whose membership includes several of their vassals. Given that state takeovers weaken the influence of the Big Two teachers’ unions and their affiliates, that message isn’t exactly unexpected.
Yet the Alliance does have one point: That state takeover efforts have, in most cases, done little to reverse systemic educational failure of the targeted districts. One reason why? Because states themselves have continued the very traditional district bureaucracies — and the dysfunction inherent within them — that have led to the faltering. Moving away from the traditional district model, along with embracing Parent Trigger laws that allow families to restructure schools as they see fit, is the step that must be taken to transform education for the benefit of children.
The Alliance spends 24 pages attempting to argue that state takeovers of districts have somehow been more-damaging than the failures of the districts under school boards before then. Complaining that state takeovers of districts are only targeted against poor and minority communities, the Alliance declares those efforts are “undermining the financial health and stability” of districts, and have “dismantled connections” between schools and communities.”
The Alliance is also exorcised by the creation of state-operated school turnaround districts such as the Recovery School District in New Orleans and Tennessee’s Achievement School District, which have stepped in within the last decade to take over and overhaul failure mills previously under district management. From where Alliance sits, the presence of these districts are horrifying because they “[remove] the ability of local communities to govern their own schools.” The fact that these districts transform the schools into public charter schools — the bane of the existence of NEA and AFT — and essentially hand over the turnarounds to charter school operators is especially vexing.
There are several problems with the Alliance report. Let’s start with the most-obvious one: It’s a total mess, with misstatements of facts, citations of examples that aren’t tangential to the argument the Alliance and its backers are trying to make.
On one hand, the Alliance cites Michigan’s Educational Achievement Authority as a takeover of a district (even though it only runs a smattering of schools formerly run by Detroit’s spectacularly-inept district), but ignores the state’s all-but-full takeover of the main district’s operations. The omission of Detroit from the discussion isn’t a surprise. The failures of the Detroit district have been long-documented by your editor. This includes a 54 percent decline in its enrollment between 1999-2000 and 2008-2009, and the fact that it was taken over by Wolverine State government for a second time after the school board was once again caught engaging in such spectacular episodes of graft and mismanagement such as the acquisition of five floors in the landmark Fisher Building for $4 million more than the $21 million price tag paid by its owner for the entire building.
On the other hand, Alliance cites Chicago’s traditional district as an example, even though it admits that it isn’t a state takeover at all, but an example of mayoral control undertaken by the Second City’s mayor 20 years ago. This misstatement isn’t shocking; after all, the AFT and its Second City local have spent the past four years agitating to end mayoral control, including unsuccessfully spending $2.3 million on ousting current Mayor Rahm Emanuel. But this sloppy work essentially renders the report unworthy of consideration from jump street. [Even if Chicago was germane to Alliance’s report, the fact that Chicago’s district has improved dramatically since mayoral control — including an 11 percentage point decline in the number of functionally-illiterate fourth-graders between 2003 and 2013 (according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress) and a 27-percent increase in graduation rates between 2005 and 2013 — would weaken its case.]
Another problem with the Alliance’s report is its failure acknowledge the reality that the districts they cite weren’t exactly exemplars of either high-quality education or were in good financial condition before taken over. Philadelphia, for example, was in an educational state of emergency by the time Pennsylvania’s state government took over the district in 2001; this included half of its original graduating Class of 2001 dropping out by the time the district handed out sheepskins. The traditional districts in Newark, N.J., and Jersey City were basket cases for decades before falling under state control. As for tearing apart connections between schools and communities?
When it comes to state-operated turnaround districts, Alliance fails to admit that most haven’t been around long enough to draw any conclusions (other than that they can serve as exemplars of what should happen to public education in the long run). Three of the five turnaround districts cited have just come into existence this year, while the proposed turnaround district for Georgia must still be approved by voters next year. But in the particular case of RSD, the evidence so far shows that it is doing well by the Crescent City’s poor and minority children.
The percentage of New Orleans students performing at proficient levels (as measured by Louisiana’s battery of state tests) increased from 39 percent to 63 percent between 2007-2008 and 2013-2014, while the percentage of Crescent City kids attending failure mills declined from 51 percent to 13 percent between 2008-2009 and 2013-2014. Certainly RSD isn’t an unquestioned success. Far too many of its schools are warehouses of mediocrity instead of cultures of genius. Families also have a right to be upset that the implementation of these reforms happened with little of their input. But for Alliance (and ultimately, NEA and AFT) to argue that RSD hasn’t been successful for children in New Orleans is to engage in pure intellectual dishonesty.
The biggest problem of all with Alliance’s argument lies with its embrace of two myths: That of local control, the fantasy that traditional districts and the school boards are in charge of structuring education; and of the fallacy that communities have ever had real control of traditional district operations in the first place.
When it comes to local control, Alliance fails to acknowledge is that state constitutions, along with the U.S. Supreme Court’s century-old ruling in Hunter v. Pittsburgh, and federal education policy (including the No Child Left Behind Act), have long-ago established that state governments are charged with the role of providing education in one form or another, from deciding how schools should be financed to how it should be delivered to children and families. As local governments, districts are merely arms of their respective states, only given as much latitude to operate as state governments decide. This means that a state can intervene in the operations of a district — or even take them over — any time it wants.
As for the idea that communities have ever had real control over district operations? This has also been a mirage. One reason: NEA and AFT locals that have long been the most-influential players within school districts. Thanks to state laws governing collective bargaining and teacher performance management, hefty campaign donations from their coffers, and compulsory dues laws that force teachers to pay into locals regardless of their desire for membership, the Big Two have the leverage needed to stifle the will of families and other citizens. Another reason lies with the nature of traditional school district bureaucracies. School officials and teachers have long treated the families they serve, especially those from poor and minority households, with disdain. Add in the nature of bureaucracies in general to be byzantine, and thus, able to insulate those who run them from public account, essentially makes a mockery of voting. This can be seen in efforts by districts, both in big cities as well as in suburbia, to stifle intra-district choice (and the desires of families to choose schools fit for their kids) within their own boundaries.
Put simply, Alliance report is just another effort by NEA and AFT justify going back to an old order that has damaged poor and minority children decades before states stepped in to stop educational malpractice. The fact that the Alliance’s biggest backers have locals and state affiliates in all of the traditional and turnaround districts mentioned in the report — all of which have lost significant clout in the process — also ensures that the report fails to meet the smell test. Add in the reality that all but one of the members of the Alliance (including the Schott Foundation for Public Education‘s Opportunity to Learn Campaign and League of United Latin American Citizens) are NEA and AFT dependents, and suddenly, it is clear that this group is just another bit of Big Two Astro-Turf.
Yet the Alliance report does hit upon an important reality: That state takeovers of traditional districts — from Jersey City to Philadelphia to Baltimore — have largely been a failure. This is because state education departments never dismantle the bureaucracies that, along with the intransigence of NEA and AFT locals, caused the dysfunctions in the first place. The traditional district model has long ago proven to be obsolete in an age in which the focus must be on providing high-quality teaching and curricula along with addressing particular learning needs in order to help all children attain lifelong success. That state education departments are ill-equipped to run day-to-day operations makes the already-marginal chances of success even less so. The very creation of RSD and other turnaround districts, which remove schools from control of failing districts, is tacit acknowledgement of the failure of earlier state takeovers.
Yet the solution lies not with the Alliance’s sophistic call for returning districts to control by elected-yet-unaccountable school boards. It lies with embracing what Dropout Nation calls the Hollywood Model of Education, which ditches the traditional district model altogether. Under such an approach, a district would only exist to provide buildings, deliver school lunch services, distribute funding, and serve transportation to an array of school operations.
This includes charter school operators as well as schools directly controlled by families in the communities they serve. The latter can be achieved by two means: The development of a school fund that families and communities can tap to launch their own schools, and the passage of Parent Trigger laws that allow families to take over and overhaul failure mills within their communities. Both approaches would actually achieve the family and community control of schools that Alliance proclaims it desires by abandoning an outdated approach that has never allowed for families to be lead decisionmakers in education.
Perhaps if Alliance and its backers were actually interested in building brighter futures for all children, their claptrap would actually be worth considering. What they should acknowledge is this: The traditional district model has never worked for children and families, especially those black and brown, and it is time to move towards something better.