Public School Takeovers – When Local Control is Marked ‘White Only’

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Do you like Democracy?

Then you’d better not be poor or have brown skin.

Because in America today we only allow self-government to rich white folks.

Sad but true.

American public schools serving large populations of impoverished and minority children are increasingly being taken over by their respective states.

People of color and people living in poverty are losing their right to govern their own schools. They are losing a say in how their own children are educated. They are losing elective governance.

Why? No other reason than that they are poor and brown skinned.

The most recent example is Holyoke Public Schools in Massachusetts.

Just two weeks ago, the state education board moved to place Holyoke schools in receivership.

So later this spring out goes the elected school board and in comes either an individual or non-profit organization to take over running the district.

On what grounds?

Well, Holyoke is a city of about 40,000 residents in the western part of the state. According to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau figures, 31.5% of the city’s residents live below the poverty level – nearly three times the state average.

Nearly half of Holyoke students do not speak English as a first language and nearly 30 percent are English-language learners. Eighty-five percent of Holyoke students come from low-income households.

But those aren’t the reasons given for the state takeover. It’s poor test scores and high dropout rates.

The state board can’t just come out and admit it’s waging class and race warfare against its own citizens. Instead, out comes the racist dog whistle of test scores and accountability.

If those kids had just filled in the right bubbles on their standardized tests, freedom would continue to ring in Holyoke. If more kids didn’t become frustrated and drop out, the district would be a haven to rival ancient Athens.

Never mind that poor students almost always score lower on standardized tests than rich kids. Never mind that children trying to learn English don’t score as high as kids who have been speaking it since before preschool.

However, these “alarming trends” are actually improving – just not fast enough for the state.

The graduation rate climbed from 49.5 percent in 2011 to 60.2 percent in 2014. The dropout rate also has improved. However, when compared with richer, whiter districts, this “performance” still leaves much to be desired.

But Holyoke isn’t alone.

In January, the Arkansas Board of Education did the same to the Little Rock district.

The state dissolved the local school board but at first kept Superintendent Dexter Suggs in an interim capacity.

Little Rock – one of the flashpoints of desegregation in the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s – is the state’s largest school district, with about 25,000 students.

Once again, African-American and Latino students are about three-fourths of the city’s student body. About 70% of students meet the federal government’s definition of poverty.

Yet the state cited low standardized test scores as the reason for the takeover.

About 45% of Little Rock high school students attend schools designated as “underperforming.” Last year, the Arkansas state board classified six of its 48 schools as being in “academic distress” after fewer than half their students scored at the “proficient” level on achievement tests.

So out with democracy and in with bureaucracy.

Does it work?

Not really.

Across the country, more than half of all states have laws allowing the dissolution of local control for districts that meet certain academic and economic parameters. However, even after decades of receivership, most districts still don’t improve their test scores.

In New Jersey, for instance, the Newark school district has been under state control since 1995 but still registers low test scores and graduation rates. Pennsylvania took over Philadelphia’s public schools in 2001, and test scores have actually dropped while the creation of new charter schools have drained state coffers. In 2013, district officials had to borrow $50 million to avoid delaying the beginning of the new school year.

Nationally, takeovers tend to improve administrative and financial practices but have less of an effect on classroom instruction, according to a 2004 report from the Education Commission of the States.

Academic performance for state-controlled districts is usually mixed, the report concluded, with increases in some areas, and decreases in others. “The bottom line is that state takeovers, for the most part, have yet to produce dramatic and consistent increases in student performance,” the report concluded.

Q: If state-takeovers don’t actually improve academic outcomes, why do we continue to allow them?

A: It’s cheaper than actually fixing the problem – poverty.

Poor students need resources they aren’t getting.

Fact: across the country, we spend more money to educate our rich children than we do our poor ones.

Fact: Poor students need MORE resources to learn than rich ones. They need access to food and nutrition, stability, tutoring and wraparound social services.

In short, we’re ignoring the needs of our impoverished children, because many of them are children of color.

And we’re selling this whole-sale neglect as the impartial product of “accountability” measures. We say that schools and teachers aren’t doing their jobs, so we’re taking over poor districts – where nothing much improves – but at least we made a show of doing something.

The people behind this sham are actually selling it as a Civil Rights issue. And it IS a Civil Rights issue – but not the one they claim. Standardization and privatization of public schools and the blatant government overreach involved in state takeovers are Civil Rights ABUSES.

We should be helping high-poverty schools meet the needs of their students. Instead we put on a show and hope no one peeks behind the curtain.

We liberally dole out blame and conservatively hide our pocketbooks. We point the finger at easy targets – poor and minority parents and children. We demonize the one group devoting their lives to actually helping improve the situation – teachers. And instead of empowering neighborhoods, we steal their vote and call it “help.”

Until we recognize these facts, our public schools will remain “separate but equal.” Ensuring an adequate education for all will remain a privilege of the elite. And the dream of racial and social equality will remain stifled under the boot of false accountability.


NOTE: This article also was published on the Badass Teachers Association Blog.

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