Experience shows danger of state takeover of shaky schools

I am opposed to any state takeover of local schools, no matter what it is called.

For me, the state of Georgia’s effort to take control of 27 DeKalb County schools — and schools elsewhere — is déjà vu all over again.

When I became superintendent of the Kansas City Public Schools in 2011, my team and I found ourselves in a desperate fight for survival and for control of public education. An appointed Missouri state employee was attempting to take over the school system under a conspiratorial smokescreen – by creating a special statewide district for low-performing schools.

Sound familiar?

In Georgia, the state wants control of schools it has stigmatized as “failing,” based on standardized testing. This takeover effort comes despite strong evidence that standardized tests can’t fairly take into account — or accurately measure — the extreme complexity of teaching and learning in a district like DeKalb County, with 135 schools and 102,000 students from 180 nations and with 144 languages.

We fought — and won — the battle to keep schools in Kansas City under control of parents and professional educators and out of the hands of politicians. I am probably the only school superintendent in Georgia to lead a system through this unique experience. Key members of today’s DeKalb schools leadership team also worked beside me in Kansas City. These academic professionals are battle-tested in holding onto local control of schools.

Striking parallels can be seen between the struggle in Missouri and ours in Georgia.

The real issue in Kansas City involved powerful, ambitious officials exploiting a political situation rather than working with local school systems to address root causes of underachievement and provide what schools needed to succeed.

It was ruthless aggression – like predator and prey. A rapacious state political system wanted to take over the weakest, most vulnerable schools.

Georgia feels painfully similar. We see racial, socioeconomic, and political parallels. The names and titles are different, but the goal is the same – seize local control of public education.

The Missouri Education Commissioner attempted her takeover as soon as my predecessor left the superintendent’s post. This predatory commissioner perceived me, my team (the cabinet, principals, and teachers), and the school board as new and vulnerable. The state considered inconsequential the positions of parents, the American Federation of Teachers, the NAACP, and other organizations knowledgeable on the advantages of local school control.

Still, we fought the takeover.

We knew how high the stakes were. We’d seen the failed results of state takeovers of local schools in New Orleans and Memphis. After being unable to take over schools in Kansas City, the Missouri commissioner did manage to take over the school system in Normandy, a suburb of St. Louis. That state-controlled education experiment failed miserably – students performed more poorly under the state regimen than under local control. It was also abundantly clear to us that too much power and secrecy concentrated in the hands of a detached, uninformed, faceless state bureaucracy would ultimately fail students, schools, and society.

Media investigated the Missouri state takeover effort. They found hidden plans and bid-rigging concerns in state dealings with schools. The Missouri Education Commissioner eventually retired, suddenly and sensationally, following a scandal that involved a contract to overhaul public schools.

Local control doesn’t mean loss of quality. In Kansas City, all we needed to fix our problems was time and the support of our stakeholders. Within two years, our district score jumped from 22.5 to 84 points on the Missouri Annual Performance Report, with the highest statewide gains in college/career readiness, attendance rates, and graduation rates. Our overall academic achievement rose nearly 43 percent. The following year, our Missouri Annual Performance Report scores soared even higher – to 94.5 points. We shed the shackle of being unaccredited, and we regained respect.

This progress came by design – our team made strategic, systematic, intentional, student-by-student improvements. The key? We built a foundation of trust and a sense of purpose among parents, school leaders, teachers, and the community.

Here in DeKalb, our own progress in just two years using this same model has already earned national and international attention. Of the specific 26 DeKalb schools targeted for takeover, 15 are within five points of the 60-point threshold. Ten others need more intensive support, and we’ve launched strong remedial measures. In all schools, we’re laser-focused on the classroom experience, where any lasting improvement in education must start.

There are no quick fixes, no short cuts. Turning around schools takes deep, hard, intimate work. It means fighting poverty and all that it brings. It means helping new arrivals to our country anchor lives and hopes to our communities and country. It means giving special needs and pre-school students and others among our most vulnerable the schooling, security, and stability that allows them to be their best.

That’s the kind of work going on right now with our most challenged schools and at others all through our system.

We stand for something in DeKalb County – education with rigor, relevance, and relationships. Our goal is nothing less than to be recognized nationally for academic excellence and for world-class service to kids, caregivers, and communities.

In my opinion, you’ll look far and wide before you find a politician in Georgia who goes to bed at night and gets out of bed in the morning with this same ambitious goal.