School state takeover a ploy

“Public schools all over the country have problems, charter schools have problems, independent schools have problems, private schools have problems. They have problems with curriculum, they have problems with race, they have problems with gender, they have problems with history. It’s up to us to fix those things,” Dr. Ricky L. Jones said, explaining why he opposes a state takeover of Jefferson County Public Schools.

State takeovers are a trend, which Gov. Matt Bevin seems intent on following — confirmed Monday when his newly-appointed state education chief recommended a state takeover.

Why?

Bevin is the conservative, ideological tool of others who are interested in more publicly-funded, privately-operated charter schools and religious organizations… as well as busting the teachers’ union.

History shows that a state takeover of JCPS would give him — and them — just that, but it wouldn’t solve the problems Dr. Jones so eloquently outlined.

It might even make it worse for students.

In the last three decades, about 30 states have adopted some sort of legislative process to allow for a state takeover of a school district, or an individual school. Generally, takeovers are conducted for one of three reasons: natural disaster (such as in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina), budgetary/economic insolvency or chronic failing performance in a school district or school.

State takeovers have shown mixed results, but they share themes: more charter schools, less public accountability, new performance standards, new curricula (possibly with greater religious focus), fewer teachers and administrators and a greater reliance on entities outside of the local community. Those outsiders include the federal government, foundations and even corporations.

Most important — state takeovers do not magically improve student performance.

Newark, New Jersey is in the process of reclaiming local control of its school district after 20 years of state rule. The results seem impressive at first glance. Since the state took over, graduation rates increased to over 73 percent from 54 percent. Statewide assessment scores rose — by 6 percent for students meeting expectations in math and by 2.5 percent in English, last year alone.

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But there is a catch, as a Politico story explained: “ … the overall percentage of students testing at or above grade level was still only 28.4 percent in English and 19.8 percent in math.” This progress also took 20 years. While the increase in graduation rates is positive, it is only 1 percent per year and covers an entirely new generation of students, teachers and administrators.

A 2013 Atlantic magazine story described the underwhelming results of state takeovers, which, in some cases, mean trying to replace the superintendent with a more effective one. “Given that several large urban districts are already looking for new superintendents — never mind saviors — it could be tough to find a superstar leader interested in taking on the challenge.”

The article also points to the risks of empowering an administrator who has little, or no, experience in education.

What does our governor do?

Courier Journal recently reported of Bevin’s picks, “None of the state education board’s new members have experience in public education in regards to teaching.”

Bevin’s newly-appointed, interim education commissioner is an educator. Not surprisingly, he also is a charter school advocate. This leads us to wonder if he was appointed for his qualifications or his ideological alignment with Leader Bevin.

A New York Times article in September said this is what happened in Newark, as “low-performing schools were closed while charter schools expanded.”

It’s clear Bevin is more concerned about a systematic overhaul of JCPS than he is about student performance. Bevin entered office calling JCPS an “unmitigated disaster,” and verbally and legislatively attacking teachers and teachers’ unions.

If he were truly concerned about solving the district’s problems, he would have waited to see the conclusions of the comprehensive audit — set to be released in the coming weeks — before positioning the powers of government to take over the state’s largest school district.

JCPS has problems, but they don’t amount to a state of emergency that should provoke a governor to usurp control of the district, ignoring our elected school board and parents’ voices.

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