Realizing the True Power of State-Run School Districts

As the nation reflects on the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the impact of Louisiana’s Recovery School District (RSD) has been the subject of reasoned, evidence-based analyses as well as fiery, often baseless, attacks.

Meanwhile, the record of the Louisiana RSD seems to be speaking for itself. In state legislatures across the country, laws establishing state-run school districts are becoming more and more common. This year Nevada joined Louisiana, Tennessee, and Michigan in creating state-run districts, and at least another four states have active legislative proposals. Though they differ in specific names and authorities, these new state agencies take the lowest-performing schools away from their host districts and try to improve or replace them.

Formerly helpless in the face of district failures and deference to “local control,” states have found a way to restore themselves to active duty status. State governments finally have a plausible mechanism for meeting their constitutional responsibilities for educating all kids. This approach is a far cry from failed “state takeover” efforts in the past, when states assumed control of whole districts but had too little authority and access to too little talent to make the changes needed. The new state-run districts leave districts in charge of schools that are performing, but act on behalf of kids the district has failed to serve well.

State-run districts can target their actions on a limited number of schools, and they have all the authority they need to close schools or re-open particular schools under new management. By tapping into the capacities of charter networks and national talent pools, state-run districts can accomplish things that state departments of education couldn’t dream of doing.

State-run school districts can also operate across many districts, so local school boards know that all schools are possible candidates, not just those in the worst districts. In light of possible action by the state, local leaders can try to get ahead of events, taking needed actions to transform or replace struggling schools so they won’t get taken away. (See for example, this response by Atlanta Superintendent Meria Carstarphen.) This marks the state-run districts as the most effective kind of governmental action—a narrow intervention that can cause a broad voluntary response.

Of course the state-run district idea has its limitations. Its leaders can squander their influence by getting bogged down in one place—as Michigan’s ASD did when it committed to directly running a few schools in Detroit. State-run districts can also misstep by threatening to take charge of schools in many localities all at the same time. This can cause a backlash in the legislature, and also demonstrate the limits on the number of good schools the state-run district can put into place in a short time.

State-run districts are most effective when they motivate local districts to do what they should have done but either wouldn’t or couldn’t. Possible education department action can strengthen the hands of local reformers and weaken the position of district leaders who refuse to change.

Successfully taking over and improving some schools is an indispensable proof point. But state-run districts can only plausibly fix a small number of all the schools that need improving. The real payoff is getting localities to adopt serious reform strategies. For that to happen, states can’t just circumvent school districts forever. Local leaders will eventually demand some return to local control. And local school boards will rightly argue that in order to improve all their schools, they and their most effective school leaders need to have the same kinds of authorities that the state-run school district has.

For that reason, states need a complementary tool if they are hoping to achieve dramatic, statewide improvement. They need a state law that makes it much easier for local leaders—whether self-motivated or scared or emboldened by the threat of state action—to take bold action on behalf of kids stuck in weak schools by giving all qualified schools high levels of autonomy in exchange for accountability for results. At CRPE, we call this strategy portfolio management. It empowers highly qualified teachers and leaders to do their best work. It allows parents to find the best fit for their child among an array of different options. It allows local boards to focus on managing performance, rather than interest group politics.

Ashley Jochim and Paul Hill describe how a local framework like this would work in A Democratic Constitution for Public Education. Readers interested in a model state law should email Jordan Posamentier.

Bold new state-run school districts have proven to be game-changers in New Orleans, Memphis, and other cities. More success stories are surely on the horizon if states thoughtfully recreate the necessary conditions to make them succeed. But the long game can’t just be about circumventing a broken system. States can fix thousands of schools, not just dozens, by rewarding and empowering motivated local reformers.

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