State seizures of local schools

When Texas passed a law in 2015 allowing the state to assume control of an entire school district even if only one school was persistently failing, it went one step further than what has occurred elsewhere in the country (“Takeover of Schools Stirs Turmoil in Houston,” The New York Times, Nov. 28). If the experience of other states is any indication, however, little will change.

 In 1989, New Jersey became the first state to assume full control of a local district when it seized the schools in Jersey City.  It followed up in Paterson and Newark.  Taxpayers overall considered the moves to be hostile takeovers.  Although scores rose slightly, more than a decade later they are still below the statewide average.

 Similar outcomes were seen in New York in 2002 when the state wrested control of the Roosevelt district on Long Island from its dysfunctional local board, and in 1993 when California intervened in Compton after test scores hit rock bottom and the district’s books were about $20 million in the red.

It’s understandable why the tendency is to look to the state for a remedy, but based on the evidence to date, they are no likely to be successful in turning around persistently failing school districts.  That’s a hard but necessary lesson to learn.

(To post a comment, click on the title of this blog.)



2 Replies to “State seizures of local schools”

  1. Counties, cities and school systems are each subordinate parts of the state govt — that is, the state govt is responsible for providing govt services throughout the state and the state govt delegates authority to provide govt services to the county, city or school system. However, the state govt cannot delegate responsibility — or, at least it should not be allowed to delegate responsibility. If/when the subordinate part screws up, the state govt should be held responsible. It follows that the state govt should also have the power to revoke its delegation of authority and resume direct operational control of the county, city or school system. This principle is particularly critical in situations where a county, city or school system decides to declare bankruptcy and thereby default on its pension obligations to local govt employees, including teachers. Applying this principle, the state govt would/should be held financially responsible for the pension debts owed by the defaulting subordinate part.

    However, this fact — that the state govt has the legal power to revoke its delegation of authority and resume direct control of the subordinate part — is separate from the issue of whether/when the state govt should exercise this power.

    In the “failing” school system situation, it’s rarely the school system that is failing. Rather, the problem is that the students who attend school in that school system are very weak students. A state takeover of the school system will have zero impact on the quality of the students. If the problem was weak student quality, a state takeover will not improve the “failing” school system; we will just have the state govt operating schools full of bad students rather than the local school system operating schools full of bad students. And, other things being equal, it’s usually better for the local citizens to have control over their local school system.

    Of course, a school system may have institutional problems — i.e., corrupt or incompetent officials operating the school system. Ideally, the local voters will solve such an institutional problem at the ballot box by throwing the bums out and electing local govt officials who will clean up the corruption and/or incompetence. If for whatever reason the local voters prove unable to throw the bums out, that would be a valid reason for the state govt to revoke its delegation of authority and resume operating the school system, ideally for only a limited time period.


  2. Labor Lawyer: That is correct. The state possesses no more ability to turn around failing schools than the local district. That has been proved time and again. If students were allowed to be tracked, the chances of their creating problems would be minimized or eliminated. But differentiation in this country is anathema, which is why it will never happen.


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