Mayraj Fahim examines the future of US education

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No magic solution available for
improved education in US cities

By Mayraj Fahim, Local government adviser

19 September 2005: At a time when it is almost fashionable for mayors to take over city school systems one should first wonder how such things have come to pass, especially as urban schools - until the 1940s - had set the desired standard.

Elected school boards are the norm
School takeovers are a rising phenomenon
Chicago’s modest improvements inspire nationwide emulation
Proactive state takeover and oversight mechanisms

In fact, as far back as 1919, Ellwood Cubberley, in Public Education in the United States – an examination of the state of the country’s education - reported that for almost half a century urban schools had been the best in the nation.

The changing dynamic over times hint at what is one of the root causes of the declining quality of urban schools. But, as scholarship on this issue has revealed, there is no single cause for the challenges that face today’s mayors. The causes are various and they have evolved and developed over time.

There seems to be no particular example that defines the rest, as each case is influenced by local conditions. Some city school histories illustrate the overall dynamics that have produced the conditions of today that are far removed from the now distant era when urban schools were considered in a different light.

Common features are political interference of various hues, as well as plain mismanagement. There are changing demographics to be considered as well. These have their origin in the post-Brown v Board of Education era that put an end to the ‘separate is equal’ approach that was in place during the 1940s. And then came the middle class flight to the suburbs, leading to concentrations of poverty in urban centres together with the growth of immigrant communities from non-European regions.

So a problem like this, with such an array of causes, cannot be solved overnight. What is certain is that before middle class flight can be arrested or reversed, then urban schools must be brought back to life. For that reason mayors across the US are willing to take that necessary step to help turn things around. Furthermore, city mayors are not acting in a vacuum, as the trend points to a general increase in the numbers of school takeovers.

Elected school boards are the norm
In the US, elected bodies are the norm and they are responsible for managing public education. The roots of this system extend to the locally controlled schools of the New England colonies and the common school movement of the mid-19th Century.

Currently, there are almost 15,000 school boards scattered across the nation. Large district boards are fundamentally different from their smaller, more plentiful, counterparts. Large districts (defined as those with 25,000 or more students), have school boards that are more politically oriented and run more costly campaigns. They have more attentive interest groups, more politically oriented candidates with more hotly contested elections. Boards in small districts, on the other hand, tend to be relatively apolitical bodies, attracting little attention and running inexpensive, frequently uncontested campaigns.

Urban violence and teacher shortages are a large district phenomenon, which constitute around two per cent of school districts as a whole. Whereas much media attention is given to high-profile efforts to increase the number of appointed school boards (notably in large, urban districts), over 90 per cent of school board membership is elected.

School takeovers are a rising phenomenon
In 1989, New Jersey became the first state to take full operational control of a local school district. As noted in a 2002 report for the National Association of State Boards of Education, a rising number of states and cities are permitting takeovers of school districts, either by a state authority or by a mayor. By 2002, some 24 states permitted state takeovers of local school districts, enabling state officials to intervene  in cases of “academic bankruptcy” or  low-performing schools.

School district takeovers have occurred in 18 states and in the District of Columbia. This growing trend has led researchers and policy-makers to ask the question:  “Do school district takeovers work?”  The answer is, “Sometimes.” And “sometimes” for a short term only, for long-term success is uncommon.

The report further noted that in general, research on the effectiveness of state takeovers lags behind the pace of policy and practice and that studies suggest that it is easier to improve finances and management practices than it is to influence student achievement.

This was clearly revealed by the experience of the East St. Louis School District takeover. After the state of Illinois took over this poor-performing district, it turned a $2.6 million budget shortfall into a $5.9 million surplus - but the district continued to rank among the bottom 10 of the state's 900 school districts in academic performance.

Another example of continuing failure under new management is the 44,000-student Jersey City School District, the first troubled school district in the nation to be taken over by the state government. After six years there was an improvement in test scores, but after a decade they remained well below the state average.

In the 29,000-student Compton California School District - taken over by the state in 1993 after a severe budget shortfall - five different state administrators were appointed to the district in six years. By 1999 a team of outside reviewers awarded the district a grade ‘D’ for progress, and observed that the system had a long way to go before it could resume independent operations.

The NASBE report, however, illustrates the fact that the number of takeovers has been increasing. Between 1988 and 1994, there were 12 takeovers, rising to 28 between 1995 and 2000, with a peak of takeovers occurring from 1995 to 1997 - including the highly publicised takeovers in Chicago (1995), Cleveland (1997) and Baltimore (1997).

In addition, the scope of such takeovers has broadened over time. Prior to the 1995-1997 peak periods, most of them were for financial and/or management reasons, while less than a third were comprehensive takeovers that included academic performance. But in the 1997-2000 period, the percentage of comprehensive takeovers rose to become the majority (at almost 70%), with the percentage of takeovers solely for financial and/or management reasons dropping to less than a quarter.

Furthermore, when a takeover occurs, its duration is linked to its scope. Most (10 out of 14) of completed takeovers (where local control has been re-established) were takeovers that did not involve academic reform. Only four of the 23 takeovers involving academic performance were completed. The rest remained in progress, and could remain so for many years.

Those comprehensive takeovers that include financial, managerial, and academic components tend to last the longest. Only one such comprehensive takeover has been completed - that of Logan County, West Virginia, which is the only one to show solid test score gains since the new trend started with the New Jersey takeover of 1989. 

So all in all, the results indicate that there is no magic carpet ride to the goal of productive, successful schools that have been made the subject of takeovers by either the state or city mayors.

Chicago’s modest improvements inspire nationwide emulation
Mayoral takeovers are a relatively fresh phenomenon in the recent spate of takeovers. The first big city example was the 1991 takeover in Boston. In 1995, Chicago’s mayor was awarded appointment powers over the City School District. However, as Jeffrey Mirel observes in his book on the history of the Detroit School District, many of the problems facing urban schools are directly related to urban, economic and social problems.

The Mayor of Chicago has undertaken reforms during a high point period for a city and his leadership has been crucial in bringing about improvements. However, as Mirel notes, Chicago has a long history of centralised control. It was only in 1988 that the system was decentralised, with the 1995 change effectively returning what was lost - with the mayor now appointing a five rather than an eleven-person board.

Mirel writes: “From the Progressive Era to the mid-1980s, the Chicago school board and the school system it ran was characterized by consistent political manipulation, bureaucratic stagnation, financial chaos and, by the 1970s, massive educational failure.”

It can safely be said that changes of the order required to turn around urban schools requires sustained long-term efforts that are not circumscribed by term-limited mayors.

Proactive state takeover and oversight mechanisms
By 2004, under proposed new rules, it was reported that the Massachusetts Board of Education could take over struggling school systems within months rather than years.

In California, a growing number of school districts veering towards bankruptcy caused state legislators to overhaul the state's fiscal oversight of troubled districts with the hope of avoiding bailouts that could cost state taxpayers millions of dollars. By 2004, the Department of Education's most recent watch list identified 45 such districts, including five in Southern California. Only 17 districts made the list in 1996. And in cash-strapped California, proactive crisis resolution was the prudent route chosen. The increase in troubled districts has been noticed for several years. From 2001 onwards, the number of districts on the watch list began to rise noticeably in tandem with the deterioration in state finances.

As school districts do not have the superior financial management skills possessed by local governments, financial floundering becomes inevitable over the course of time. California alone has recently seen financial mismanagement become the subject of media attention in Compton, South Gate, San Diego and Gardenia.

The California school oversights are in effect a North Carolina light approach. As the article on this website by this author on the North Carolina local government oversight system illustrates, this is an approach that has delivered above average results for decades. If California fails to deliver financially better managed schools, then it may behove the state to change its approach.

There is both a rising trend in school takeovers in the United States and in weakened school systems. Together, the two trends call for a more proactive approach to resolving difficulties in school board performance. But there is no ready-made cure.  Long-festering systemic rot and dysfunctionality are not easily and quickly dealt with. Consistent, sustainable effort is the need of the day. A more proactive approach could avoid the future development of weaknesses that once established, take a great deal of time to overcome.

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