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February 1, 2005
Vol. 62
No. 5

The Trouble with Takeovers

In light of NCLB, New Jersey's problematic experience with state takeovers has increasing national relevance.

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Credit: Credit: Catchlight Visual Services / Alamy Stock Photo
It was the opening day of the 2002–2003 school year, about six months after the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was signed into law. After 25 years of teaching English and journalism to high school students in one of New Jersey's poorest school districts, I had a new job. I was the lead teacher of a small school-within-a-school project inside my large comprehensive high school and a facilitator for the whole-school reform efforts that had grown out of a school funding case known as Abbott v. Burke.
One of my new roles as a facilitator was to clarify for the staff sitting before me what NCLB could mean for our school. I explained that our adequate yearly progress (AYP) targets would be tied to the state's new high school proficiency assessment and that if we missed those targets for several years in a row we could face sanctions, including the implementation of student transfers and supplemental tutorial plans. I added that if we continued to fall short of the targets, we could face more severe sanctions—up to and including state takeover.
I looked up from my notes and smiled as the audience broke into a big laugh. Our school and district had already been under state takeover for more than a decade.
In 1989, New Jersey became the first state in the United States to take full operational control of a local school district. Jersey City was first; Paterson, where I teach, was second; and Newark was third. In all three districts, low test scores and fiscal mismanagement led to the replacement of the superintendent, central office administrators, and the local school board by a new, state-appointed superintendent with broad powers to implement reforms.
Today, the state's three largest school systems remain under state control, but the takeover strategy has been widely discredited as a road to school improvement. In May 2002, Paul Tractenberg, a cofounder of New Jersey's Education Law Center and a central figure in the state's long legal struggle for education equity, directed a comprehensive study that concluded that “New Jersey's approach to state intervention in school districts seems ill-conceived and poorly executed” (p. 12). The report recommended substantial changes in the state takeover law. The New Jersey Department of Education has been searching uneasily for an exit strategy from the three districts where, despite some indicators of progress, many problems remain.
Twenty-nine U.S. states currently have state takeover laws. NCLB identifies state takeovers as one potential sanction for schools that fail to reach their AYP targets for five consecutive years—a status many schools will reach unless current regulations are substantially rewritten. A report for the National Association of State Boards of Education identified 30 state and city (or “mayoral”) takeovers of local districts since the early 1990s and noted that takeovers “have also grown broader in scope over time,” extending beyond fiscal and management issues to include education planning and operational tasks (Wong & Shen, 2002, p. 20).

A Narrow Vision

NCLB's tighter linkage of federal aid to state standards and tests and its inclusion of state takeovers as a potential sanction have focused renewed attention on states' role in initiating and implementing school reform.
In New Jersey, persistent failure on the part of the three largest school districts to meet state monitoring standards triggered the takeovers. The state's assertion of its authority, however, was accompanied by an inadequate commitment to the tasks involved.
The New Jersey takeover law was passed by a state legislature dominated by legislators from white, suburban communities. The law authorized the state to disenfranchise the state's three largest urban school districts, each with overwhelming black and Hispanic majorities, and to seize control of the schools. There was no shortage of education horror stories to justify the need for state intervention, but the state's history of funding inequity and ineffective oversight was a shaky foundation to build on. Although some teachers and parents hoped that state action would finally lead to long-overdue progress, the New Jersey interventions were decidedly hostile takeovers.
Under the best of circumstances, the authority of those in charge of urban school systems often has dubious legitimacy in the eyes of both staff and community. The New Jersey state takeover process exacerbated these attitudes by replacing the local administration with politically imposed outsiders who lacked roots or credibility in the community. At the school and district levels, the bureaucratic character of the state takeover process was reflected in an unhealthy mix of cynicism, anger, and anxiety on the part of the locals being taken over and frustration, impatience, and arrogance on the part of the state officials doing the taking. At times, these elements reached toxic levels, and they led to many squandered opportunities for positive change.
The contentious political climate that accompanied the takeovers was, in part, a product of serious limitations in the state's monitoring system. As the Tractenberg report noted,The system's emphasis, even upon takeover, on accountability . . . and assessment . . . rather than on intervention with the goal of providing assistance in the provision of quality educational programs has resulted in long-term, seemingly hopeless struggles to achieve even minimal educational improvement. (2002, p. 13)
Although the takeover law outlined the monitoring process that led to state intervention, it provided little direction about what to do once this intervention took place. There were no stated goals or guidelines for action and no standards for measuring progress toward eventual return to local control. Unlike those states in which intervention was limited to fiscal matters or other areas identified before takeover, the New Jersey takeovers put total control in the hands of the state-appointed superintendent, dissolving the local school board and replacing or demoting local administrators.
This poorly conceived intervention plan has not been well suited to building local capacity for school improvement. As the Tractenberg study concluded,Since a district's inability or unwillingness to change or improve—i.e., incapacity—is the trigger for takeover, then building the district's capacity should be the main focus of state operation. Yet that does not seem to be the focus. Little or no attention is paid by the state to building local capacity in state-operated districts. To the contrary, rather than enhancing local capacity, state takeover seems to diminish it. (2002, p. 14)

Compliance Versus Capacity

The state has never successfully made the transition from its traditional role as monitor of local performance to its new responsibilities as a provider of needed education services or as the catalyst for developing local capacity. It has instead relied largely on imposing external standards for school and district performance. The new state report cards have been much better at handing out poor grades than at providing extra help. The state has also relied on giving key responsibility to third parties, such as state-appointed superintendents, for tasks it is unable or unwilling to assume.
The subsequent obsession with test scores as the most tangible indicator of progress, especially for public political consumption, was predictable. This preoccupation did more to expose the limits of the state's ability to promote local school improvement than to demonstrate improvement itself. Pressure on state-appointed administrators to boost scores quickly—and thereby provide a rationale for the state to escape its increasing entanglement—led to quick-fix approaches. Test preparation programs spread through the curriculum like weeds; efforts to standardize curriculum and instructional practices proliferated in a top-down, largely bureaucratic fashion. A kind of education triage artificially (and temporarily) boosted scores by juggling the testing pool, sometimes pushing struggling students out of school. Prescriptive curriculum and teaching practices hindered the development of effective instructional skills and alienated classroom teachers.
But the low test scores, which helped precipitate the takeover, reflected deeply rooted education and social problems that neither the state nor its newly adopted “core curriculum standards” could easily resolve. Testing, like monitoring, is not school improvement. Recently, NCLB's unattainable AYP formulas have swamped the districts' modest relative progress on state tests.

Funding Equity and the Abbott Decision

In 1998, the New Jersey education landscape changed dramatically with another decision in the Abbott v. Burke funding case. The New Jersey Supreme Court issued what is arguably the most progressive standard for funding equity in the history of U.S. school finance litigation. Essentially, the New Jersey court ruled that the state's system of school funding had denied children in the state's urban areas equal access to the “thorough and efficient” education that the state constitution guaranteed, and it was the state's obligation to redress this inequality.
Where Abbott really blazed new ground was in the standard it set for this equity mandate. The court ordered the state to raise the spending level of its poorest urban districts to the average level of the 100 richest and most successful school districts in the state. Citing deep social problems and years of deprivation, the court also directed the state to compensate by spending above and beyond parity in poor districts for regular education programs. Abbott remains, as the Education Law Center declared, the first decision in the “history of school finance reform to establish an equality standard for the allocation of education resources to poor urban children” (1996, p. 5).
This extraordinary decision opened up a new era of reform in New Jersey's urban districts. Average per-pupil spending in the 30 Abbott districts (which included the three take-over districts) rose from less than $8,000 to more than $11,000. Several billion dollars were allocated in the five years following the 1998 Abbott decision for court-mandated investments in early childhood programs, whole-school reform initiatives, supplemental health and social services, extended-day and summer programs, a massive program of school construction, and technology upgrades and other improvements.
This was the kind of state intervention that urban teachers like myself had dreamed about for a lifetime. But it also raised new challenges about the state's capacity to implement local education improvement. Turning the Abbott funding formulas into real education progress meant creating capacity that did not previously exist at both the state and local levels—a task that the state had not yet proved it could accomplish.
In some ways, Abbott tended to confuse the takeover issue. The unprecedented court mandates required massive state intervention and investment in 30 districts, instead of administrative takeover in 3. The takeovers gave the state control as a result of local district failure to meet monitoring standards, but Abbott obligated the state to provide dramatically improved education programs as a matter of constitutional entitlement. The scope of the Abbott mandates dwarfed the original state takeover effort and blurred distinctions between takeover districts and Abbott districts.
Abbott also underscored New Jersey's inability to deliver the education equity and excellence that the court said the state's urban children were entitled to. Having fought against Abbott for two decades, the state found itself responsible for implementing a decision it had hoped would never come to pass.
This ambivalence manifested itself in a variety of ways. Instead of taking on the responsibility for the court's mandate for “comprehensive whole-school reform” in Abbott districts, an outgoing Republican administration came up with a hastily designed plan to outsource the task. It required every Abbott school to adopt an approved whole-school reform model; a private developer would presumably supply the professional expertise and education programs required to jump-start school improvement. State funding would pay for the whole-school reform contracts, but the schools and the developer would negotiate the terms of the plan.
Like the takeover law, this whole-school reform initiative was deeply flawed. The patchwork of “approved model developers” entering into individual contracts with local schools, often bypassing the central office, added another confusing layer to the jumble of school improvement processes and agendas in urban districts. Thus, the state once again sidestepped the central issue of how it would meet the responsibilities that first the legislature, and then the courts, had stipulated.
Fiscal pressures and the state's continued reluctance to fully embrace the scope of the tasks involved have repeatedly derailed progress. In an effort to circumscribe the scope of the Abbott mandates, the state has tried to severely limit approval of “supplemental services” beyond the parity per-pupil funding. It regularly requires districts to submit voluminous documentation supporting requests for supplemental aid and then routinely turns down the requests. It has tried to make state tests and standards the near-exclusive focus of school improvement efforts.

Sidestepping School Improvement

With the New Jersey takeovers well over a decade old and still spinning their wheels, the state has begun shaping proposals for a way out. It is currently proposing the “New Jersey Quality Single Accountability Continuum,” which would attempt to integrate the maze of monitoring and accountability procedures associated with takeover districts, regular districts, the Abbott mandates, and NCLB into one regulatory system. But the proposal remains essentially focused on the state's monitoring functions. It does not address the central issues raised in the Tractenberg report about the state's role in and capacity for leading school improvement efforts.
That report called for efforts to “redefine the state's role to emphasize support of and technical assistance to districts delivered in a collaborative manner” and to “make local capacity a cornerstone of the state's interactions with districts.” It spelled out both the conceptual shift in approach and the specific tasks involved in moving from monitoring compliance with state standards to building local capacity for school improvement:Whenever the state decides to intervene in, or to take over, a school district, it should focus its efforts on building local capacity, which involves: (1) clearly defining local responsibilities; (2) employing adequate numbers of competent, committed staff to carry them out; (3) providing them with the necessary resources, support, training, professional development opportunities, and technical assistance; (4) augmenting employee capacity through collaborations with area higher education institutions, businesses, and community organizations; (5) requiring efforts to involve parents and community members to the maximum extent possible in all aspects of local decision making; (6) monitoring performance and results; and (7) achieving accountability by a system of rewards and sanctions, as appropriate. (2002, pp. 19, 22)
These recommendations outline a broad plan of action, led by the state, to mobilize professional resources and organize ongoing public engagement in the service of local school improvement. Although their adoption would not guarantee success any more than Abbott funding formulas can, such steps would contribute to making success possible in ways that traditional state takeovers never have.
State intervention in New Jersey and elsewhere has too often been limited to the functions of monitoring and sanctions. The Abbott funding formulas give New Jersey an extraordinary opportunity to reinvent state action to support sustained school improvement. But Abbott's vision has not yet come to pass because of fiscal pressures that threaten to erode Abbott before it is even fully implemented, and because a lack of political and education vision has led to a retreat from the broad public campaigns and professional efforts needed to turn its promise into reality.
Similarly, NCLB encourages New Jersey and other states to use their expanded roles in narrow ways. It forces them to focus their oversight on monitoring flawed and counterproductive testing systems and to use the predictable inability of schools to measure up to inappropriate and unsupported test-score targets as a basis for imposing dubious sanctions. Like many of the sanctions identified in NCLB—such as the imposition of private management on public schools or the wholesale dismissal of school staff—traditional state takeovers have no record of success as school improvement strategies. In fact, many of these sanctions are not education strategies at all, but rather political strategies designed to bring a kind of market reform to public education. In New Jersey, the Abbott framework, with its expansive delineation of state responsibilities, has helped limit moves toward privatization. In other places, however, such as Chicago and Philadelphia, takeover efforts have increasingly led to privatization and an erosion of the state's commitment to its public schools.
NCLB and Abbott represent opposite directions for the future of state intervention in low-performing districts. NCLB uses test scores and achievement gaps to label schools as failures and to impose punitive sanctions that open the door to privatization and weaken the public school system. Abbott, in contrast, is about identifying education needs and putting programs in place to address them in an expanded public commitment to excellence and equity for all. If states are truly concerned with leaving no children behind, there is little doubt about which road they need to follow.

Education Law Center. (1996, October). Wiping out disadvantages: The programs and services needed to supplement regular education for poor school children. Philadelphia: Author.

Tractenberg, P. L. (2002, May 23). Developing a plan for reestablishing local control in the state-operated school districts. A final report to the New Jersey Department of Education. Newark, NJ: Institute on Education Law & Policy.

Wong, K. K., & Shen, F. X. (2002, Spring). Assessing the effectiveness of city and state takeovers as a school reform strategy. The State Education Standard. Alexandria, VA: The National Association of State Boards of Education.

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