hostile takeover

When states take over school districts, they say it’s about academics. This political scientist says it’s about race and power.

Debates about states taking over school districts are often deeply fraught.

“The right to vote to select your own representation is a right of what we call freedom,” said Dwight Gardner, a pastor in Gary, Indiana, where the state recently removed all sway from elected school board and gave even more power to the state-appointed emergency manager.

Race and racism is usually not far from these disputes. “Legislation adopted for ‘these people’ in ‘that place’ is how Jim Crow became law of the land,” Gardner said last month, pointing out that in some respects Gary, a predominantly black city, was being treated differently than Muncie, a majority-white district also being taken over.

In a new book, “Takeover,” Rutgers political scientist Domingo Morel concludes that the prevailing logic for takeovers is indeed tainted with racism. That’s based on an examination of data from every school district taken over by a state over a 30-plus year period, and case studies of the takeovers of Newark, New Jersey and Central Falls, Rhode Island.

Domingo Morel

Predominantly black school districts are more likely to be taken over, Morel documents, and those takeovers are more likely to fully remove the elected school board. He also finds that cities with a greater share of black city council members are more likely to face takeovers, with state leaders arguing they must wrest control of chaotic local politics.

“Unlike previous groups, which had the opportunity to govern their cities for decades and fully participate in patronage practices, black communities and their political leaders were castigated for engaging in political practices as old as American politics,” Morel writes. Still, Morel concludes that school takeovers have been empowering for some communities of color.

They are provocative claims, and timely ones. A number of school districts taken over years or decades ago, including Detroit, New Orleans, Newark, and Philadelphia, have recently returned to local control. And debates are still live across the country — in Indiana, Kentucky, and Mississippi — about when states should intervene in districts where students appear not to be learning necessary academic skills.

Morel’s analysis has some key limits. He can’t prove why some districts are taken over or others are not, and “Takeover” focuses on political, not academic, ramifications of the moves — though some research has found takeovers do improve academic outcomes. He also doesn’t spend much time in the book backing up his claims that collaboration between schools and communities is a better strategy for improving academics.

Chalkbeat asked Morel more about his book and his conclusions. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Chalkbeat: One thing that surprised me that I learned from your book was the relative recency of state takeovers of school districts as a strategy. Can you tell me when and where the idea started and how it spread?

Domingo Morel: I go back and I trace the idea to New Jersey, which happens to be the first state to take over a school district, and that idea going back to at least the 1960s. But states actually passing laws to take over school districts — that doesn’t start happening until the 1980s. New Jersey being the first state in 1989; they take over the Jersey City school district. But then it spreads out beyond New Jersey.

My research is based on data looking at the 1980s up to 2013. Up to that point, we’ve had about 100 takeovers. Since then there’s been a couple more — probably 105, 107 or so.

How many states have takeover laws currently?  

So as of 2017, 33 states had takeover laws and by then 22 states had actually taken over school districts.

What is your overarching thesis about state takeovers?

I think people don’t pay enough attention to how political education is — that education in the country is a political project. I think that’s the most important thing that I think we need to understand. And so if education is a political project, when we think about reforms, we need to think about them as political objectives as well. And so if we’re going to take over a school district, it just doesn’t seem consistent with what the literature says about improving schools that you just remove a community from the entire decision-making process. Because what the literature tells us in education is — and it’s just very intuitive — if you look at school districts across the country who are doing well, everybody has a stake in the school district.

Source: Takeover, by Domingo Morel. Graphic: Sam Park

But then we get still the expansion of takeovers. It suggests that there’s something else there. And this is where I come in and say that we need to understand historically role that education has played in communities and what type of power it gives a community.

If we look at education as a political problem and we see how important the schools are to communities’ political empowerment, then we can start to see how how takeovers make sense for two major reasons: Conservatives had consolidated within the Republican Party by the 1970s and blacks became an important part of the Democratic coalition by the 1970s. Moreover, the schools served as the political foundation for black political empowerment. This provided the context for increasing political tension between increasingly conservative state governments and cities. The schools were a major part of this political struggle.

Second, cities began to win court cases to secure more school funding from state governments, which led to further tensions.

Reed Hastings, the Netflix founder, charter school advocate, and education reform funder, has said that “the school board model works reasonably well in suburban districts” but that the politically ambitious “use the school board as a stepping stone to run for higher office” in cities. And I take your argument to be, yes it’s true that the school board can be a stepping stone, but that has proven crucial for the political empowerment of communities of color. Can you speak to that?

Let’s think about that comment and put it in perspective. So what he’s saying is democracy works for certain communities but it can’t work for others. Yes, you have ambitious people, but you also have people who are just interested being school board members. But even if you have ambitious people who want to be city council people, mayors, and so forth, why is that a justification for saying that school boards are not important?

And so the message that sends is that democracy is worth fighting for and worth having in certain places and not in others because it may seem like it’s more messy in big cities and urban areas. And I say it “may seem” like that because I don’t think there’s any evidence that you find more corruption or people are not as prepared to be school board members in urban localities compared to suburban or rural — there’s just no research to support that.

You make a connection in your book between school funding and takeovers, arguing when school districts push for more resources, they face a greater chance of being taken over. Can you explain that?

What I find in the research and this period, in what I call the incubation period from 1982 to 2000, there were 18 states where plaintiffs actually won school funding court cases. And in 14 out of those 18 states, we see takeover laws pass after they win these court cases and the only states where they didn’t were some of the whitest states in the country: Montana, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming. In this incubation period, if plaintiffs did not win court cases securing more resources for the school, we actually don’t get takeover laws passed during this time.

Has that trend continued?

Between 2000 and 2015, you had about 17 other states that passed takeover laws, and I haven’t studied all of them as related to state funding litigation. What I do know is that most takeovers that have happened across the country happened in those first 14 states.

One response might be, there may be different motives, but it really is true that places that have seen state takeovers, also had low academic achievement. And why not just take that at face value as the reason why?

I think that’s a fair point, as these school districts have struggled. My response will be multi-level here. The first is that we have a lot of students who have struggled and are currently struggling but they don’t experience takeovers. Takeovers are relegated to a particular community.

The second part is that if we’re interested in improving schools, I go back to what we know works with improving schools, which is a collaboration. That doesn’t mean that a state doesn’t intervene, that a state is not involved.

What I’m suggesting here is that if we look historically at the reasons why schools struggle, the premise behind the takeover is that the community is the problem, whereas I say if we look at it historically, we see that the community is not the basis for the problem, that in fact communities have been doing what they should be doing to improve schools. There are models of collaboration that are out there to improve school districts that do not involve coming in and taking it away from the community.

Let’s talk about the research on academic gains from state takeovers. I know that’s not the focus of your book, but advocates for state takeovers could point to studies of New Orleans and in Newark, after three years, to say look, it has been successful in boosting test scores in some contexts.

My response to this is multi-level. The first is that it’s contested to what degree these academic scores actually improved. But I spend very little time on this because as a political scientist, I’m interested in the politics of this mostly. What I will say is, OK, so let’s just agree that test scores have improved. What has been the cost of test scores’ improvement in New Orleans for example?

In New Orleans, 25 percent of the black teachers lose their jobs. Seven thousand people lose their jobs. The school board  was removed from the political process. The school governance  was based on a two-tier level: one is the state-created board made up of people that are not from New Orleans and the second is actual charter school governing bodies, 60 percent of which have white members although 67 percent of the community is African-American. And so all of that is the price that the city of New Orleans — that black New Orleans — has to pay for contested improved test scores.

You do talk about some contexts where, in your view, the state takeovers have been successful and that is often with Latino communities. Can you talk about one or two cases where you’ve seen it as successful and why it’s been successful?

The city of Central Falls is a community that was essentially marginalized before the takeover. The takeover comes in and the state is invested in helping that community become part of the decision-making process. And over time, you have a state government working together with city officials and school boards to improve outcomes.

And so what I find is that this is most likely to happen in states where you have Democratic state administrations that essentially rely on that particular city for its political power. You have what I call cohesive regimes, where state government doesn’t take for granted that local government because it needs that local government in order to to be in power and vice versa. That’s why Central Falls is a case where a takeover has not been detrimental to that community.

Scholars in Harvard have looked at the city of Lawrence, Massachusetts and have shown how that has led to improved academic measurements there. Lawrence is another place where I would argue, for the most part, state government has not treated the city of Lawrence and its leadership there the way that you see Chris Christie treat Newark or Louisiana treat New Orleans and so forth.

And you show that in Central Falls and in Newark that Latino representation on the school board actually increased after the state takeover, correct?

Absolutely. The data that I have over time from the 1980s to 2013 show it’s consistent with this — that Latino communities actually benefit in their representation on school boards actually increase after takeovers.

And the opposite is true for black communities.

Yeah, we see that over time takeovers lead to decreased representation for black communities.

One thing that I think is interesting is that once school choice and charter models are put in place through state takeovers, it becomes difficult to fully remove them or go back. The departing superintendent in Camden said in an interview after he announced that he was leaving — talking about “renaissance schools,” which are these charter–district hybrids — he said, “Those are schools that have already over a thousand students and families who have supported and advocated for it. You can’t unwind that.” I thought that was really interesting in the sense that even after a district maybe returned to local control, the system is set up to be politically sustainable.

Absolutely. I think that’s the reason why we’re seeing the recurrence of local control in districts and we’re going to continue to see more of them.

Obviously, it’s the case in New Orleans, where 95 percent of the schools are charter schools. It’s the case in the case of Philadelphia; to some degree it’s the case in Newark. I think that these folks are like, this is in place and it is not going to go anywhere, essentially because the train has left the station.

I go back to Newark: 30 percent of the schools are now charter schools. From the perspective of charter critics in the community, now the political struggle is to prevent that 30 percent from going to 50, 60, or 70 percent.

One thing that might be surprising to some people is that at the end of your book, you advocate for an increased federal role in schools. That seems at tension with the skepticism of state takeovers. Can you talk about that?

It’s a good point. The major issue for the communities is twofold. One is lack of resources and two, when you ask for these resources, it makes you susceptible for intervention that leads to your removal. In thinking about the potential solutions to these two problems, there’s ample opportunity and space there for the federal government to provide funding, since right now they only provide about 10 percent of funding to these localities. And then on the political side, for the federal government to provide the protections to keep local communities able to decide what happens here.

The proposal here is not saying that the federal government comes and intervenes in the way that states have intervened — all I’m saying is more funding and political protection.

game plan

After years of school voucher rejections, backers consider another approach in Tennessee

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
The State Capitol in Nashville is home to the Tennessee General Assembly.

The campaign to introduce school vouchers to Tennessee has come up short for so many years that supporters are looking closely at another voucher-like approach to give families more control over public funding for their children’s education.

Education savings accounts have gained traction in some other states and are viewed as an attractive alternative for Tennessee in the debate about parental choice.

And with the inauguration soon of a new governor who promised to give parents more education options for their kids, this approach would fit the bill — and even offer a longer menu of services than traditional vouchers would.

“I would like to help lead the charge,” said Rep. Bill Dunn, a Knoxville Republican and fierce voucher proponent, who this week was elected speaker pro tempore of Tennessee’s House of Representatives.

“Education freedom, if it’s done correctly, gives students opportunities to do better, and public schools rise to the occasion through competition. Everybody wins,” Dunn added.

Not so fast, say public school officials who view any kind of voucher program as a major step toward privatizing education.

“Outside interests pushing ‘school choice’ options have learned that when ideas like vouchers become toxic to the public, they can be repackaged as education savings accounts, which might be more palatable to lawmakers,” said Amy Frogge, a Nashville school board member who opposes vouchers.

Both approaches raise the same concerns, said Frogge, citing a drain of funding from public schools, increased student segregation, and a lack of accountability for students whose families choose that route.

Education savings accounts, or ESAs, allow parents to withdraw their children from public schools and receive a deposit of public funds into government-authorized accounts. The money could be used to cover everything from private school tuition and tutoring to homeschool materials and online learning programs.

A voucher is taxpayer money that’s restricted to paying for private school tuition and fees for eligible students.

For years, Tennessee lawmakers have tried to start a voucher program and came close in 2016 with legislation sponsored by Dunn. But an unlikely alliance of Democrats and rural Republicans have foiled every attempt.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
State Rep. Bill Dunn (center) looks straight ahead after tabling his voucher bill in 2016.

Dunn, who has since risen to the House’s No. 2 leadership position, thinks education savings accounts would be more appealing to rural legislators who see little local benefit in opening the door to vouchers in Tennessee.

“A voucher is dependent upon having a private school being available. But there’s more flexibility with an ESA and you could shop for a lot more educational services for your child no matter where you live,” he said, adding that a better educated workforce could lure more jobs to rural Tennessee.

A 2018 poll by the pro-voucher American Federation for Children found that voters are more open to voucher-like programs like education savings accounts  and “tax credit scholarships” than vouchers, even though all three would siphon off funding from public schools. That’s one reason that backers are avoiding the V-word and re-branding how they talk about “school choice.”

Leaders of the American Federation for Children say they wouldn’t be surprised to see legislation filed this year in Tennessee, whether for vouchers or education savings accounts.

“We’re supportive of both,” said state director Shaka Mitchell. “But because an ESA allows students’ education to be far more customized, I think it’s useful in some ways that a voucher isn’t.”


Do school vouchers work? Here’s what the research says


“School choice” advocates will have two powerful new allies in the governor’s office when Bill Lee is inaugurated on Jan. 19. The governor-elect has hired Tony Niknejad, former state director of the American Federation for Children, to be his policy director, while Brent Easley of TennesseeCAN, another pro-voucher group, is his legislative director.

But it’s uncertain whether Lee — a Williamson County businessman who won his first bid for office — will put his political muscle behind the divisive issue in his early months of governing, especially when he must develop his first proposed budget and a broader vision for his four-year administration.

PHOTO: Ned Jilton II/Kingsport Times-News
Bill Lee was elected Tennessee’s 50th governor in November and will take the oath of office on Jan. 19.

“There may be a lot of talk about vouchers or education savings accounts, but I don’t think it’s the right climate yet,” said Rep. Mark White of Memphis, who this week was named chairman of the House Education Committee.

One reason, he said, is accountability for recipients of education savings accounts and the services they choose.

“We’ve worked so hard making sure the public schools are accountable with testing that if we just give a parent money to go to a private school of their choice or to choose other services and we don’t have any accountability, then I would be against it,” White said. “If we’re talking about taxpayer dollars and we’re holding one group accountable, then we’ve got to hold everybody accountable.”

Tennessee already has one program that’s similar to education savings accounts. The state launched launched Individualized Education Accounts for students with certain disabilities in 2017, allowing families to receive up to $6,000 annually to pay for private educational services. This year, 137 students from 38 districts are participating, with 70 percent attending a private school and the rest homeschooled, according to the state’s most recent data.

“When we debated that limited-choice program, people got up and said it would be the end of the world and would destroy public education — but it hasn’t,” said Dunn.

Others point out that, although the state planned for more participants in the program, no one expected families to rush out of public schools. Anyone opting to use the accounts must waive their federal right to receive a “free and appropriate” public education. For students with disabilities, that usually costs far beyond the $6,000 a year allocated to participants.

One bill filed in the legislature’s first week seeks to expand the program to make more students eligible. Rep. Jay Reedy, a Republican from Erin, wants students who are already in private or home schools to be able to participate. Currently, families can apply only if their student is enrolled in public schools.

Full circle

On her first day as Denver superintendent, Susana Cordova visits the school where she was a student

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat
Susana Cordova addresses students at Barnum Elementary School on Jan. 7, her first day as Denver superintendent.

At a morning assembly marking the first day of Susana Cordova’s tenure as Denver schools superintendent, the most telling moment was not the speeches from current and former mayors pledging their support, or even the remarks from Cordova herself.

It was when Cordova whispered in the ear of third-grader Grace Sotelo. Grace was one of four students chosen to present Cordova with gifts, including a bouquet of flowers. Afterward, the third-grader stepped up for a brief turn at the microphone.

“Doctor — ” Grace said, then paused.

“Cordova,” the new superintendent whispered to her.

“Cordova,” Grace said. “We are proud of your success of being our — ”

“Superintendent,” Cordova whispered.

“Our superintendent,” Grace said. “We know you’ll be the best superintendent we’ve ever had.”

The interaction served as a reminder that the district’s new superintendent started her career in the classroom, teaching students like Grace.

The location of the event was also symbolic. It was held at the school that Cordova, a lifelong Denver resident, attended as a child: Barnum Elementary in southwest Denver. A printout of her fourth-grade school photo — straight-cut bangs, dimples, and a striped turtleneck — hung on a wall behind the risers.

PHOTO: Courtesy Denver Public Schools
Cordova in fourth grade

“When I was a student here at Barnum, one of my very favorite things to do was read,” Cordova told the first-, second-, and third-graders sitting criss-cross-applesauce on the gym floor.

“One of my favorite authors was a woman named Judy Blume. And she wrote a lot of good books. Maybe you’ve read some of them. But Judy Blume also said something that I think is really important. She said, ‘Our fingerprints don’t fade from the lives we touch.’

“That’s what education does. It touches lives. And I want to make sure that our fingerprints — all our fingerprints — are forever part of the story, so that our students are successful.”

Cordova, 52, officially assumed the role of superintendent of Denver Public Schools on Monday, making her the top boss of Colorado’s largest school district with about 93,000 students. Cordova was selected by the school board last month after a four-month national search. She succeeds Tom Boasberg, who served as superintendent for nearly 10 years.

Cordova was an internal candidate. A graduate of Denver’s Abraham Lincoln High School, she has worked for the district since 1989 as a teacher, principal, and district administrator. For the past two years, she served as deputy superintendent under Boasberg.

Cordova was the sole finalist for the top job, a decision that sparked accusations from some community members that the search was a sham. In choosing her, the school board noted her depth of experience, her willingness to listen to opposing viewpoints, and how she fit many of the criteria students, parents, and teachers wanted in the next superintendent.

Among them: Cordova is an educator. The previous two superintendents came from the business world. She is also Latina. The previous two superintendents were white men. Only 25 percent of Denver students are white, while 54 percent are Hispanic and 13 percent are black.

Cordova is also bilingual in English and Spanish, and started her career in Denver as a bilingual teacher. Currently, more than a third of Denver students are learning English as a second language. The most common first language spoken by students is Spanish.

Denver students, on the whole, have made academic gains over the past decade. Many people credit the progress to controversial strategies such as replacing struggling schools.

But Cordova faces several big challenges as superintendent, including narrowing persistent test score gaps between students of color and white students, and between students from low-income families and those from wealthier ones.

Last year, 69 percent of Denver students from high- and middle-income families met expectations on state literacy tests, compared with just 27 percent of students from low-income families. About two-thirds of Denver students belong to the latter category.

While Cordova has emphasized the importance of closing those gaps, she said on Monday that her sole focus for the next two weeks will be reaching an agreement on teacher pay with the Denver teachers union. The two sides have been negotiating changes to the district’s pay-for-performance system, called ProComp, for more than a year. The union has threatened to hold a strike vote if the two sides don’t reach an agreement by Jan. 18.

The union and the district are set to return to the negotiating table Tuesday for the start of several all-day bargaining sessions. Cordova said she plans to attend every one, a departure from her predecessor’s approach to contract negotiations.

“I’m very optimistic we can get to a good solution,” Cordova said in an interview following the event at Barnum. “My closest friends are DPS teachers. I deeply understand and know the complexities of what it means to be a teacher in the district.”

Toward the end of the interview, after the students had returned to class and the custodial staff was stacking the chairs, Cordova was approached by two women with district lanyards around their necks. They introduced themselves as teacher’s aides who’d worked for the district for more than 20 years each. One of them held out her cell phone.

“Could we have a picture with you?”

Yes, Cordova said. In the gymnasium of her old elementary school, festooned for the occasion with yellow and blue crepe paper, the new superintendent stood between them and smiled.