Another Disaster of the Accountability Era? State Takeovers of High-Poverty, Majority-Minority Schools

Louisiana and my home state of South Carolina both share a historical struggle with high-poverty, racial minority public schools. In recent years, however, New Orleans has become a model for a drastic form of education reform, in which the state takes over schools and entire districts from local control.

These takeovers often include reconstituting schools as charters, replacing entire faculties and administrations, and even handing over operations to private entities — which is precisely what is now being proposed in Charleston, SC, where education and poverty were given close examination via the 2006 documentary Corridor of Shame: Neglect of South Carolina’s Rural Schools.

In that film, South Carolina novelist Pat Conroy narrated his own experience teaching in a high-poverty, majority-black school on a coastal SC island. The experience, Conroy explains, “shook me to the core”; the extreme poverty and failure of formal education Conroy witnessed during the late 1960s to early ’70s included children who had no lived experiences beyond the coastal islands they inhabited and literacy skills that suggested their futures would be dim.

By the 1980s, my home state had made a decision about how to treat education inequality: South Carolina became one of the first states to adopt high-stakes accountability for education reform, and in effect, committed to the belief that in-school only reform could overcome the negative consequences of poverty and racism.

Unsurprisingly, nothing changed. By1993, high-poverty districts were suing the state over inequitable education funding — the very suit that is the basis of the documentary Conroy participated in.

It took over two decades for the courts to rule finally in favor of those districts, most of which lie along the I-95 corridor along SC’s coast. As Denisa R. Superville reported for Education Week:

In a 3–2 ruling, the state high court upheld an earlier Circuit Court decision that said South Carolina officials failed to live up to their constitutional obligation to adequately fund poor and rural schools. The state’s failure to address the “effects of pervasive poverty on students within the plaintiffs’ school districts prevented those students from receiving the required opportunity,” the ruling said.

Yet, in the wake of that ruling in late 2014, an editorial in The State (Columbia, SC) called for SC leaders to remain committed to the state’s demonstrably faulty accountability measures, even as states transition from No Child Left Behind to the Every Student Succeeds Act (which gives states more flexibility regarding accountability measures), warning that “[r]emoving that oversight [NCLB] provides a tremendous temptation for states to lower the bar. We must not let that happen in South Carolina.”

In short, the editorial suggests that policymakers in SC and many states should continue to cling blindly to the same old approaches to reform, ones that focus on making changes only inside our schools (think new standards and tests), despite the lack of evidence that these reforms can create the sorts of outcomes promised. Conservative leaders have also encouraged the state to increase choice initiatives such as charter schools, and in a move relatively new for SC, to look closely at takeover models from other states.

The solutions may sound different, but the problem with them is just the same: from high-stakes accountability, to school choice, to state takeovers, each approach fails to address the social and educational inequity at the core of public schools that serve high-poverty and black/brown students. While takeover strategies have gained popularity of late, the implementation of those takeovers has failed to either raise student achievement or solve other problems, like school segregation, that continue to harm schools and their students.

Beware the Takeover

While high-stakes accountability and school choice policies have been around for decades, the state takeover strategy is relatively new, and seemingly very politically inviting.

The most prominent takeover has been New Orleans’ Recovery School District (RSD), which was created after Katrina destroyed the city, but many advocates of takeovers also champion the Achievement School District (ASD) in Tennessee, which appears to gain support simply based on “the policy,” not the outcomes. Both districts have proven to be mostly about public relations spin, and thin on evidence of actual success.

In fact, New Orleans’s RSD, run by the state of Louisiana, eventually became an all-charter district with schools’ test scores remaining very low and segregation continuing to plague the education system — problems that were cited as justification for forming the RSD in the first place. As Frank Adamson, Channa Cook-Harvey and Linda Darling-Hammond have concluded:

Based on respondents’ experiences and district data, as well as a review of existing research, policies, and documents, we find that the New Orleans reforms have created a set of schools that are highly stratified by race, class, and educational advantage, operating in a hierarchy that provides very different types of schools serving different “types” of children.

Nonetheless, Georgia, for example, has begun calling for a state takeover modeled on how New Orleans, Tennessee, and others have approached the task. As a result, the Southern Education Foundation (SEF) has issued a report, Investing in What Works, detailing the failures of state takeovers.

In Education Week, Kent McGuire, Katherine Dunn, Kate Shaw, and Adam Schott argue:

[B]oth Georgia and Pennsylvania are poised to implement sweeping school turnaround plans in the form of state takeovers. These plans draw inspiration from systems operating in very different contexts elsewhere in the country and are based on a fundamental misreading of the evidence on effectiveness of these models. Just as concerning, the proposals double down on unproven governance strategies that reduce community voice in education and apply a cookie-cutter approach to the specific challenges confronting individual schools. Both plans rely on the same criteria for intervention, the same menu of reforms — even the same “Opportunity School District” name.

The SEF report cautions Georgia against its Opportunity School District (OSD) plan, in part, due to the “misreading of evidence” noted above about Louisiana (RSD), Tennessee (ASD), and Michigan (Education Achievement Authority).

Key in the concerns raised about state takeover policies is that these strategies target almost exclusively high-poverty, majority-minority schools that have been labeled “failures” based on high-stakes testing data, which are strongly correlated with poverty. Thus, the starting point for the reform is both circular and misguided.

State takeovers of schools, then, suffer the same core problem as accountability approaches like ever-new standards. The research on takeovers so far shows that they fail to address the root causes of low and measurable student outcomes: community and home poverty, unstable work, food insecurity, unsafe and unstable housing, and inequitable access to healthcare — all outside the control of schools — along with inequities within schools such as access to experienced and certified teachers, access to advanced courses, and inequitable discipline policies.

Based on the current data, it is fair to say that takeover districts have produced outcomes no better than the public school outcomes motivating such policies — and sometimes the outcomes have been worse. Like accountability and school choice, state takeovers should be understood as political solutions that fail to address the real problems at hand — largely because we too often refuse to acknowledge what those problems actually are.

What Are the Alternatives?

“[W]e do not seek equal outcomes in America, [but] we do aspire to equal opportunity, at least in theory,” notes Jared Bernstein, a former chief economist to Vice-President Joe Biden and a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “We have, however, never come close to that ideal, particularly as regards minorities and those with few resources.”

Instead of the politically popular but ineffective takeover strategies, Bernstein calls for making early childhood education a priority — one of the “strategies that work” identified in the SEF report.

Further, the SER report calls for an emphasis on school leadership that is stable and collaborative, quality teachers with both experience and expertise in the subjects they teach, restorative practices that focus on students, rich curriculum that is also culturally sensitive, social programs that support students and their families, stronger relationships between schools and the communities they serve, and greater, more equitable funding.

While these all have evidence to support their potential effectiveness, the key to making a commitment to a different brand of education reform is shifting from accountability to equity of opportunity.

As an educator in SC for over 30 years, I have worked in the real world of education, where the schools, including those in takeover districts, mostly reflect and perpetuate — but do not change — the communities they serve. SC cannot be swayed by nearby Georgia or North Carolina, trapped, it seems, in the allure of misguided politics. Instead, we must set aside labeling and ranking students and their schools, and we must admit, finally, that education is not the great equalizer.

Once we reject provably bad policy based in false ideology, we must find ways to address social and educational inequity so that children have a much better shot at starting on equal footing — so that schools can, in fact, make the differences we have always promised.

Originally published at on February 29, 2016.

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education Furman University, taught high school English before moving to teacher education.

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education Furman University, taught high school English before moving to teacher education.