The proof is just not in the pudding when it comes to state takeovers of school districts. The ultimate goals of these often traumatic takeovers are, of course, to improve student achievement and achieve financial stability but, when it comes to the former, a growing body of research finds little evidence for success.
Educators and community members are leveling charges of racial and economic discrimination as Texas officials prepare to take over its largest district, Houston ISD, later this year. Republican state leaders are citing poor performance while Democrats see nothing but a political move against a liberal-leaning community.
In California, Stockton USD is now staring down a stake takeover as it faces accusations of fraud and runs the risk of insolvency, according to The Record. The district has been accused of understating expenses by not listing vacant positions in its budget and not being transparent on its use of ESSER relief funds, The Record reported.
But research shows recent takeovers have not resulted in big turnarounds. As the state of Massachusetts was threatening to take over Boston Public Schools last year, The Boston Globe found that state officials had not improved grades, test scores and graduation rates in several smaller districts they had brought under their control.
Massachusetts took over Lawrence Public Schools in 2011, Holyoke Public Schools in 2015, and Southbridge Public Schools in 2016, and now all three communities want state control to end. “It has not helped us at all,” Martena Shea, a Southbridge School Committee member and retired teacher, told The Globe.
Tracking state takeovers
“We find no evidence that takeover generates academic benefits,” is the conclusion of a sweeping 2021 study by the Annenberg Institute at Brown University. In the early stages of state takeovers, the researchers actually uncovered evidence of declining achievement, particularly in English. Also, they said that larger concentrations of African American students were a better predictor than academic achievement of whether a district would be taken over.
“Before learning what makes a state takeover more or less successful, policymakers should be careful about deploying takeover as a strategy for improving academic achievement,” Brown’s researchers wrote.
Schools in Tennessee’s state-run Achievement School District have performed no better or no worse than other schools between 2012-2018, according to a Vanderbilt University study. The researchers found, however, that achievement improved moderately—particularly in math—in district-led iZone schools that had previously been among the state’s lowest performers.
School districts governed by and serving a majority Black population are 11 times more likely to see their local school boards abolished in a state takeover, according to the Intercultural Development Research Association’s summary of several studies of state takeovers. The organization pointed to research that shows takeovers can destabilize a school district by causing higher teacher and staff turnover and cutting parents out of the decision-making process.
They also uncovered racial disparities: “School districts governed by and serving a majority Black population are 11 times more likely to have the local school board abolished,” they concluded. “About 85% of state takeovers across the country affect majority Black and majority Latino school districts.”