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Local Schools Thrive Best on Local Control

The author is right that as zany and even obstructive as some school boards may be, Local control is the basis of our education system, with locally elected or appointed school boards representing the public's voice in public education. Boards serve as the liaison between what the public schools need and what the community wants.

It's not surprising that the state of New York might consider a takeover of the Hempstead School District. All the elements seemingly are in place - academic and financial woes, a distrustful community, an uncertain future for its leadership and a deeply divided school board embroiled in political upheaval.

But would a state takeover - the death penalty for local control - cure Hempstead's problems? Not necessarily, especially if history is any indication, and certainly not quickly.

Consider the record in Roosevelt, where the state took over more than two years ago. It is mixed so far. Test scores are improving, for instance, but have remained mostly below target levels. Around the country it has taken up to 10 years for some districts to turn around.

The idea of takeover first became popular in the late 1980s for states and large-city mayors who were eager to "fix" schools. In a whirlwind period that has seen school choice - primarily the rise of charter schools - gain favor, it seems an acceptable option for keeping public schools competitive.

Today, 29 states have the authority to take fiscal and administrative control of school districts, a move that has taken place more than 50 times over the past 15 years. In some cases, especially in large cities, the state cedes control to the mayor, as in New York City under Michael Bloomberg.

In state-administered takeovers, the school board usually is eliminated or replaced, or sees its authority curtailed significantly. A new CEO or administrative team is often brought in, and the state strictly monitors academic and fiscal progress. The district is returned to community control only after the state has concluded that the problems have been resolved.

In today's quick-fix society, it's easy to see why these radical steps have appeal, especially to districts and states desperate to meet the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act, the wide-ranging federal law that threatens schools and districts with sanctions if they don't meet certain testing benchmarks. Why not take something that is obviously broken and start over from scratch?

Two words: Local control.

Local control is the basis of our education system, with locally elected or appointed school boards representing the public's voice in public education. Boards serve as the liaison between what the public schools need and what the community wants.

Are there dysfunctional boards? Of course. But if the schools are not producing, it is your right as a voter to select new board members. This is what we do in all other forms of citizen government.

By their very nature, takeovers bring an enforced structure to districts such as Hempstead and Roosevelt that have been in a state of chaos. Some of these top-down reforms have proven effective at the elementary level, where it is relatively easy to quantify their effects.

But structure, minus the personnel, community support and resources to back it up, does not bring substantive, long-term change. Control by outsiders without a vested interest in your community risks excluding or distancing you from key policy decisions that will affect your future long after the state has departed.

These observations are borne out in the limited amount of research available on the effects of state and big-city takeovers.

Vanderbilt University's Kenneth Wong, the acknowledged expert on this topic, says the results are a mixed bag. Achievement gains have been seen in some takeover districts, especially in large cities where mayors are held accountable by the public. But, Wong notes, this level of accountability doesn't exist in state takeovers, where the gains have come more slowly, if at all.

Larry Cuban, co-author of the 2003 book "Powerful Reforms with Shallow Roots," says that takeovers are not the panacea that some believe. He notes correctly that successful reform requires a "superintendent who understands conceptually what it will take to succeed" and a community "that's involved in your schools."

Community involvement is best accomplished with a local school board, and New York the state's hesitance to take over school districts - Roosevelt is the only one so far - reflects this belief.

State Education Commissioner Richard Mills believes - and rightly so - that other interventions should be tried first. Despite growing frustration, he has not yet pulled the plug on local governance in Hempstead.

As Hempstead board member Thomas Parsley Jr. said, "The talk of a takeover is premature, In the past, the state sent monitors, and that might be necessary. But there's a big difference between that and removing officials elected by the community."

In a world impatiently searching for miracles, a takeover does have appeal. But no matter the school district's history, it is a last-ditch step that should take place only after every other alternative has been exhausted.

Remember, takeover does not come with pixie dust and a magic wand.

— Glenn Cook, Managing Editor, American School Board Journal


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