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Here's Why Hillary Clinton's 'Education SWAT Team' Plan Could Face Pitfalls

One of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's more notable lines about education during the March 6 debate was her vision for an "education SWAT team." This team of teachers and principals, active and retired, would be backed by the U.S. Department of Education to go into struggling schools to provide emergency support and resources, according to the former secretary of state.

It wasn't immediately clear if Clinton was floating a plan specifically for helping Detroit schools, the subject of a question during the debate broadcast by CNN, or for low-performing districts in general. (We reached out to Clinton's campaign for more details on Monday, but it has yet to respond). Watch her remarks below:

Clinton did not pitch this idea explicitly as a federal intervention in schools. But unless Clinton handles it the right way, the proposal, it could face political blowback. Why?

One issue could be the new Every Student Succeeds Act and the priorities of the people who wrote it.

Conservative lawmakers like Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., and Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the respective chairmen of the House and Senate education committees, have touted ESSA as a rightful return of K-12 policy power to states after a long, damaging period of Washington meddling. Generally speaking, the new federal education law gives states more authority over several accountability policies, including teacher evaluations and school turnaround efforts. On the latter, while ESSA lays out several criteria by which low-performing schools must be identified, such as high schools with relatively low graduation rates, the interventions that can be used to try to help those schools are left up to districts and states. 

In fact, Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., stressed this point during a back-and-forth she had with Acting Secretary of Education John B. King Jr., during a House hearing on ESSA late last month

So if lawmakers, advocates, and others begin to believe that this plan (however general and whatever its intentions) could involve federally backed groups swooping in to put their footprint on a district, then the idea of a SWAT team may not get far at all. 

At the same time, it's important to stress that Clinton didn't say a SWAT team could tell districts what to do. Clinton suggested the teams would provide support where desired. And, again, Clinton never indicated her support for a federal takeover of schools or districts. Detroit is also under state control, a concept that Clinton said she opposes, so perhaps only state-run districts would qualify for these SWAT teams and not most schools deemed low-performing under federal law. 

Clinton is not the first person to use this same language as part of a plan to fix schools.

Way back in 1988 in Florida, for example, Dade County Superintendent Joseph Fernandez unveiled a "SWAT team" of principals, curriculum experts, auditors, and others who would examine struggling schools and prescribe cures. 

As Education Week reported at the time, Fernandez was inspired by the "academic bankruptcy" law used in New Jersey to have the state take over struggling school districts. Although he was operating on a smaller district scale, Fernandez said when he unveiled the plan that schools with the most extreme difficulties could have their principals removed and teachers transferred, depending on the SWAT team's findings.

"If my team of experts goes into a school and finds that the problem is management, you can bet the management won't be there the next day," Fernandez said.

If Joseph Fernandez's name sounds familiar, it's because after his time in Dade County, he took over New York City public schools in 1989. The New York Times noted that, among other actions, Fernandez gained attention for transferring several principals and dismissing one principal during a visit to an elementary school because the school was too dirty. The Times makes no mention of any "SWAT team," however.

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