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Beware of State Takeovers of Schools

Chronic underperformance by local school districts is often seen as a problem that can be solved by state takeovers.  New Jersey, in particular, serves as a case study of why this strategy has never panned out ("A New Start for Newark Schools," The New York Times, Oct. 20).  

The state seized control of schools in Jersey City in 1989, followed by those in Paterson in 1991 and then those in Newark in 1995.  I wrote about what happened thereafter ("When States Seize Schools: A Cautionary Tale," Education Week, Jun.12, 2007).  In all cases, the moves were seen by local residents as a hostile action.  But more importantly, little changed for the better. Yes, test scores improved slightly at first, but they soon flattened out.

It's with this disappointing track record in mind that Ras Baraka, the mayor of Newark, wants local control.  He is asking for a short-term transfer of authority to himself.  Once this is done, he says he will appoint a new superintendent. As I wrote, the state possesses no more inherent wisdom than local authorities.  That's why I support the change.  But I hasten to point out that schools alone cannot overcome the huge deficits that disadvantaged students bring to the classroom.  I'm not arguing that poverty is destiny.  However, I think it's important to be realistic in what can be achieved by even the best schools.

New Orleans serves as a model.  After Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005, the state formed the Recovery School District to seize control of 102 of 117 traditional public schools. This created the nation's first all-charter school system.  (The last traditional public schools were shuttered at the start of the present school year.)  Even if test scores continue to rise, can that be attributed to the state takeover or to the all-charter school system?  There's a distinct difference that needs to be taken into account. 

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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