Advocates of a state takeover of the Houston Independent School District tend to focus on the chronic low performance of some of the district’s schools as well as dysfunction in its school board. What those advocates virtually never consider is whether the remedy of a state takeover might be worse than the disease.
Experience with state takeovers across the nation as well as in Texas clearly shows that state-appointed boards fail to improve academic achievement. These takeovers also create significant political backlash that compounds over time as the state has difficulty returning to local control without having remedied the low academic performance that justified the takeover in the first place. It’s true that HISD faces significant challenges, but a state takeover is the wrong solution.
We’ve seen the problems of state takeovers here in Arkansas, where the state has been running the Little Rock School District since 2015. As is currently the case in Houston, Little Rock had a number of schools with stubbornly low academic performance and a poorly functioning school board. State officials were confident that they could do better, but five years into state control very little has changed. The district continues to lag state averages on English Language Arts and Math achievement tests and high school graduation rates by roughly the same amount as it did before the takeover.
Turning around failing schools was the justification for the state takeover, but, of the eight schools currently receiving a failing grade, only one has met the state’s goals for academic growth. Without any meaningful improvement, state officials are left without a clear exit strategy as community anger is boiling over. At a recent town hall meeting, members of the state board of education were shouted down by a crowd of more than 200 people, including leading community representatives, with slogans like “taxation without representation,” “no confidence,” and “free the LRSD.”
Houstonians can expect similar academic frustration and political turmoil if HISD is taken over. State officials in other states have had no more success than those in Arkansas. In fact, Texas has already had a disappointing experience with the takeover of Beaumont ISD. After financial mismanagement, state officials assumed control of the district in 2014. Test scores in math and reading actually declined, and graduation rates dropped after the state takeover. The financial condition of the district improved, but student achievement did not.
The problem with state takeovers is that they misdiagnose the causes of academic struggles and they overestimate the ability of state officials to fix them. Messy local governance can be frustrating, but rarely is it the reason that schools have persistent low performance. The causes of chronic academic failure are complicated and are typically entwined with endemic poverty and large, unresponsive school systems. Simply replacing the board that oversees that large, unresponsive system is unlikely to change how schools teach and attempt to engage their students nor does it resolve the poverty and other challenges those communities face.
State policymakers may imagine that they are smarter and better than the elected officials they would displace, but, even if they were right, the intelligence and goodness of the school board is hardly the issue. Distant and unaccountable bureaucrats, no matter how well-trained and well-intentioned, are unlikely to understand and address the specific needs of communities as well as locally elected officials are, no matter how fractious and chaotic they may appear. Conservatives have long understood this principle, which is why they have traditionally supported decentralization of responsibility over schools to local governments, communities, and families, so it is puzzling that self-styled conservatives in Texas would support state takeovers.
There is no simple solution to chronic low academic performance, but the problem is almost certainly better addressed by empowering communities and families rather than disenfranchising them. Texas should have known this before it set HISD on its current path to a likelytakeover. Empowerment could have included expanding options for families in areas with struggling schools with more charters and subsidized private school choices. It could also include breaking up HISD into smaller districts that would be more responsive to community needs. In addition to improving educational options, the state could empower local communities by working to expand economic opportunities in areas where endemic poverty contributes to academic failure. None of these alternatives will be a cure-all, but they have much greater chances of success than state takeovers, which have failed time and again.
This piece originally appeared at the Houston Chronicle
Jay P. Greene is a distinguished professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas. Follow him on Twitter here.