hostile takeover

When states take over school districts, they say it’s about academics. This political scientist says it’s about race and power.

Debates about states taking over school districts are often deeply fraught.

“The right to vote to select your own representation is a right of what we call freedom,” said Dwight Gardner, a pastor in Gary, Indiana, where the state recently removed all sway from elected school board and gave even more power to the state-appointed emergency manager.

Race and racism is usually not far from these disputes. “Legislation adopted for ‘these people’ in ‘that place’ is how Jim Crow became law of the land,” Gardner said last month, pointing out that in some respects Gary, a predominantly black city, was being treated differently than Muncie, a majority-white district also being taken over.

In a new book, “Takeover,” Rutgers political scientist Domingo Morel concludes that the prevailing logic for takeovers is indeed tainted with racism. That’s based on an examination of data from every school district taken over by a state over a 30-plus year period, and case studies of the takeovers of Newark, New Jersey and Central Falls, Rhode Island.

Domingo Morel

Predominantly black school districts are more likely to be taken over, Morel documents, and those takeovers are more likely to fully remove the elected school board. He also finds that cities with a greater share of black city council members are more likely to face takeovers, with state leaders arguing they must wrest control of chaotic local politics.

“Unlike previous groups, which had the opportunity to govern their cities for decades and fully participate in patronage practices, black communities and their political leaders were castigated for engaging in political practices as old as American politics,” Morel writes. Still, Morel concludes that school takeovers have been empowering for some communities of color.

They are provocative claims, and timely ones. A number of school districts taken over years or decades ago, including Detroit, New Orleans, Newark, and Philadelphia, have recently returned to local control. And debates are still live across the country — in Indiana, Kentucky, and Mississippi — about when states should intervene in districts where students appear not to be learning necessary academic skills.

Morel’s analysis has some key limits. He can’t prove why some districts are taken over or others are not, and “Takeover” focuses on political, not academic, ramifications of the moves — though some research has found takeovers do improve academic outcomes. He also doesn’t spend much time in the book backing up his claims that collaboration between schools and communities is a better strategy for improving academics.

Chalkbeat asked Morel more about his book and his conclusions. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Chalkbeat: One thing that surprised me that I learned from your book was the relative recency of state takeovers of school districts as a strategy. Can you tell me when and where the idea started and how it spread?

Domingo Morel: I go back and I trace the idea to New Jersey, which happens to be the first state to take over a school district, and that idea going back to at least the 1960s. But states actually passing laws to take over school districts — that doesn’t start happening until the 1980s. New Jersey being the first state in 1989; they take over the Jersey City school district. But then it spreads out beyond New Jersey.

My research is based on data looking at the 1980s up to 2013. Up to that point, we’ve had about 100 takeovers. Since then there’s been a couple more — probably 105, 107 or so.

How many states have takeover laws currently?  

So as of 2017, 33 states had takeover laws and by then 22 states had actually taken over school districts.

What is your overarching thesis about state takeovers?

I think people don’t pay enough attention to how political education is — that education in the country is a political project. I think that’s the most important thing that I think we need to understand. And so if education is a political project, when we think about reforms, we need to think about them as political objectives as well. And so if we’re going to take over a school district, it just doesn’t seem consistent with what the literature says about improving schools that you just remove a community from the entire decision-making process. Because what the literature tells us in education is — and it’s just very intuitive — if you look at school districts across the country who are doing well, everybody has a stake in the school district.

Source: Takeover, by Domingo Morel. Graphic: Sam Park

But then we get still the expansion of takeovers. It suggests that there’s something else there. And this is where I come in and say that we need to understand historically role that education has played in communities and what type of power it gives a community.

If we look at education as a political problem and we see how important the schools are to communities’ political empowerment, then we can start to see how how takeovers make sense for two major reasons: Conservatives had consolidated within the Republican Party by the 1970s and blacks became an important part of the Democratic coalition by the 1970s. Moreover, the schools served as the political foundation for black political empowerment. This provided the context for increasing political tension between increasingly conservative state governments and cities. The schools were a major part of this political struggle.

Second, cities began to win court cases to secure more school funding from state governments, which led to further tensions.

Reed Hastings, the Netflix founder, charter school advocate, and education reform funder, has said that “the school board model works reasonably well in suburban districts” but that the politically ambitious “use the school board as a stepping stone to run for higher office” in cities. And I take your argument to be, yes it’s true that the school board can be a stepping stone, but that has proven crucial for the political empowerment of communities of color. Can you speak to that?

Let’s think about that comment and put it in perspective. So what he’s saying is democracy works for certain communities but it can’t work for others. Yes, you have ambitious people, but you also have people who are just interested being school board members. But even if you have ambitious people who want to be city council people, mayors, and so forth, why is that a justification for saying that school boards are not important?

And so the message that sends is that democracy is worth fighting for and worth having in certain places and not in others because it may seem like it’s more messy in big cities and urban areas. And I say it “may seem” like that because I don’t think there’s any evidence that you find more corruption or people are not as prepared to be school board members in urban localities compared to suburban or rural — there’s just no research to support that.

You make a connection in your book between school funding and takeovers, arguing when school districts push for more resources, they face a greater chance of being taken over. Can you explain that?

What I find in the research and this period, in what I call the incubation period from 1982 to 2000, there were 18 states where plaintiffs actually won school funding court cases. And in 14 out of those 18 states, we see takeover laws pass after they win these court cases and the only states where they didn’t were some of the whitest states in the country: Montana, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming. In this incubation period, if plaintiffs did not win court cases securing more resources for the school, we actually don’t get takeover laws passed during this time.

Has that trend continued?

Between 2000 and 2015, you had about 17 other states that passed takeover laws, and I haven’t studied all of them as related to state funding litigation. What I do know is that most takeovers that have happened across the country happened in those first 14 states.

One response might be, there may be different motives, but it really is true that places that have seen state takeovers, also had low academic achievement. And why not just take that at face value as the reason why?

I think that’s a fair point, as these school districts have struggled. My response will be multi-level here. The first is that we have a lot of students who have struggled and are currently struggling but they don’t experience takeovers. Takeovers are relegated to a particular community.

The second part is that if we’re interested in improving schools, I go back to what we know works with improving schools, which is a collaboration. That doesn’t mean that a state doesn’t intervene, that a state is not involved.

What I’m suggesting here is that if we look historically at the reasons why schools struggle, the premise behind the takeover is that the community is the problem, whereas I say if we look at it historically, we see that the community is not the basis for the problem, that in fact communities have been doing what they should be doing to improve schools. There are models of collaboration that are out there to improve school districts that do not involve coming in and taking it away from the community.

Let’s talk about the research on academic gains from state takeovers. I know that’s not the focus of your book, but advocates for state takeovers could point to studies of New Orleans and in Newark, after three years, to say look, it has been successful in boosting test scores in some contexts.

My response to this is multi-level. The first is that it’s contested to what degree these academic scores actually improved. But I spend very little time on this because as a political scientist, I’m interested in the politics of this mostly. What I will say is, OK, so let’s just agree that test scores have improved. What has been the cost of test scores’ improvement in New Orleans for example?

In New Orleans, 25 percent of the black teachers lose their jobs. Seven thousand people lose their jobs. The school board  was removed from the political process. The school governance  was based on a two-tier level: one is the state-created board made up of people that are not from New Orleans and the second is actual charter school governing bodies, 60 percent of which have white members although 67 percent of the community is African-American. And so all of that is the price that the city of New Orleans — that black New Orleans — has to pay for contested improved test scores.

You do talk about some contexts where, in your view, the state takeovers have been successful and that is often with Latino communities. Can you talk about one or two cases where you’ve seen it as successful and why it’s been successful?

The city of Central Falls is a community that was essentially marginalized before the takeover. The takeover comes in and the state is invested in helping that community become part of the decision-making process. And over time, you have a state government working together with city officials and school boards to improve outcomes.

And so what I find is that this is most likely to happen in states where you have Democratic state administrations that essentially rely on that particular city for its political power. You have what I call cohesive regimes, where state government doesn’t take for granted that local government because it needs that local government in order to to be in power and vice versa. That’s why Central Falls is a case where a takeover has not been detrimental to that community.

Scholars in Harvard have looked at the city of Lawrence, Massachusetts and have shown how that has led to improved academic measurements there. Lawrence is another place where I would argue, for the most part, state government has not treated the city of Lawrence and its leadership there the way that you see Chris Christie treat Newark or Louisiana treat New Orleans and so forth.

And you show that in Central Falls and in Newark that Latino representation on the school board actually increased after the state takeover, correct?

Absolutely. The data that I have over time from the 1980s to 2013 show it’s consistent with this — that Latino communities actually benefit in their representation on school boards actually increase after takeovers.

And the opposite is true for black communities.

Yeah, we see that over time takeovers lead to decreased representation for black communities.

One thing that I think is interesting is that once school choice and charter models are put in place through state takeovers, it becomes difficult to fully remove them or go back. The departing superintendent in Camden said in an interview after he announced that he was leaving — talking about “renaissance schools,” which are these charter–district hybrids — he said, “Those are schools that have already over a thousand students and families who have supported and advocated for it. You can’t unwind that.” I thought that was really interesting in the sense that even after a district maybe returned to local control, the system is set up to be politically sustainable.

Absolutely. I think that’s the reason why we’re seeing the recurrence of local control in districts and we’re going to continue to see more of them.

Obviously, it’s the case in New Orleans, where 95 percent of the schools are charter schools. It’s the case in the case of Philadelphia; to some degree it’s the case in Newark. I think that these folks are like, this is in place and it is not going to go anywhere, essentially because the train has left the station.

I go back to Newark: 30 percent of the schools are now charter schools. From the perspective of charter critics in the community, now the political struggle is to prevent that 30 percent from going to 50, 60, or 70 percent.

One thing that might be surprising to some people is that at the end of your book, you advocate for an increased federal role in schools. That seems at tension with the skepticism of state takeovers. Can you talk about that?

It’s a good point. The major issue for the communities is twofold. One is lack of resources and two, when you ask for these resources, it makes you susceptible for intervention that leads to your removal. In thinking about the potential solutions to these two problems, there’s ample opportunity and space there for the federal government to provide funding, since right now they only provide about 10 percent of funding to these localities. And then on the political side, for the federal government to provide the protections to keep local communities able to decide what happens here.

The proposal here is not saying that the federal government comes and intervenes in the way that states have intervened — all I’m saying is more funding and political protection.

turnover

The principal of Denver’s South High School is leaving due to health concerns

PHOTO: Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post
South High Principal Jen Hanson will not return this fall.

The principal of Denver’s second-largest school, South High, has said she won’t return this fall. In a letter to families, Jen Hanson cited “personal health concerns” as the reason for her departure.

“It greatly saddens me to write this,” Hanson said in the letter, dated June 18. “A strong school is never about the leader but the staff and students inside who make it thrive, and that is South.”

Denver Public Schools has named Bobby Thomas the interim principal for the 2018-19 school year. Thomas has been principal of a small alternative high school in southwest Denver called Summit Academy for six years, according to a separate letter from the district.

The letter says the district will work with the South community to choose a permanent principal for the 2019-20 school year.

South has been on an upward trajectory for the 2½ years Hanson has been at the helm. The letter lists several bright spots, including a rising graduation rate, the second-highest college matriculation rate in the district, and being named a “School of Opportunity” by the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado – an accomplishment that netted South some positive press in the Washington Post.

The award was based on South’s success in educating all students, regardless of their background. South is a district “newcomer center” for refugee and immigrant students from more than 50 countries. A book published last year by Denver journalist Helen Thorpe follows the lives of 22 immigrant teenagers there. In 2016, Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai made a surprise appearance at the school.

Almost 70 percent of the 1,600 students at South this past year were students of color, and more than half were from low-income families. Hanson’s letter notes that the number of students of color taking college-level classes at South increased from 72 in 2016 to 592 in 2018, one of the reasons cited by researchers in naming it a “School of Opportunity.”

In January 2017, shortly after President Trump announced a travel ban on citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries and temporarily suspended the U.S. refugee program, South invited local journalists to speak to a group of students in the library. Seated in a semi-circle, the students talked about how South was a safe and welcoming place.

“Even if you are a minority student or a student who’s being targeted by politicians or told you don’t have a right to be here, we want you here at South,” said then-senior Cherokee Ronolo-Valdez, who was born and raised in Denver.

In her letter, Hanson said she knows South will continue to distinguish itself locally and nationally. “South is truly the epitome of what a public school can and should be,” she said.

The district’s letter says interim principal Thomas has family ties to South: his wife, mother-in-law, and father-in-law are alumni of the school. It also points to Thomas’s track record, noting that he oversaw the improvement of Summit Academy from a low-rated school to a high-rated one. (The district’s school ratings are largely based on test scores.)

Summit assistant principal Juan Osorio will take over as principal there, district officials said.

The letter says South families should expect more information in the fall about the process of choosing a permanent principal. The district is also still searching for a permanent principal for another of its high-profile schools, Manual High School in northeast Denver.

student activism

Five Chicago student activists on why they will be in your face this summer

PHOTO: Courtesy of Diego Garcia
Diego Garcia outside Trump Tower earlier this week

Trevon Bosley’s brother was murdered while attending band rehearsal at church. Shot from the street while helping a friend with drums in 2006, he was just one of the 471 people killed by gun violence that year in Chicago.

Through a peer youth council at St. Sabina Church in Auburn Gresham, Bosley, 20, became an outspoken student activist, and tonight he will join hundreds of students converging for an annual peace march that starts at the church. Chicago’s tradition of youth activism will be on full display, but the local students are getting a high-powered boost. Joining them are Chicago musicians Chance the Rapper and Jennifer Hudson and former Arizona House Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in 2011 at a public meeting with constituents. There will also be another set of special guests: the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fl., where a February shooter killed 17 students and teachers.

All week long, local student activists have been rallying and some Parkland students have lended an assist. Several staged a sit-in in City Hall on Monday to protest the proposed construction of a $95 million police academy on the West side and call for an elected school board. Others staged a die-in on in front of Trump Tower on Tuesday to commemorate the second anniversary of the Pulse nightclub shooting.

Chalkbeat sat down with five Chicago student activists to hear why they take action and what they hope to achieve.


"Gun violence isn’t mainly just about mass shootings. These kinds of things happen in Chicago, Baltimore 24/7."Alycia Moaton

East Woodlawn resident Alycia Moaton, 17, attends Kenwood Academy. She’s part of Good Kids Mad City, a new advocacy organization formed by Chicago and Baltimore students. This past Monday, Good Kids Mad City members were central figures in the City Hall sit-in this past Monday.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Alycia Moaton
Alycia Moaton outside City Hall earlier this week

On becoming an activist: I grew up in Oak Park for about 10 years of my life. Then I moved into Chicago. Going to public schools on the South Side, it was like a completely different world. A lot of the students—their first thought is whether or not they’ll be able to go to school that day because they’re worrying about getting shot on the way there. When I got to experience both sides, experience what it’s like to not fear going to school, I could see just how messed up it is.

Starting off around three years ago, I went to a lot of protests and youth summits, and that turned me into wanting to be part of an organization. That’s how I got in touch with Good Kids Mad City. Good Kids Mad City came to be after the Parkland shooting, from the idea that gun violence isn’t mainly just about mass shootings. These kinds of things happen in Chicago, Baltimore, 24/7, and it’s as national as a mass shooting.

What she hopes to achieve: One of my main goals is that [the rally tonight] gets a lot of national coverage. The Parkland students are allowing us to make the narrative about Chicago. I hope people leave with the idea of not treating gun violence as just a local issue, with the idea that this isn’t normal. This shouldn’t be viewed as “Oh, this is just how Chicago is, Chicago is just a violent city.”

The big goal is to have people change their narrative about what gun violence in Chicago is, that it has to be taken way more seriously than just a local issue.


"When people think of Chicago, they think of the most violent city. I hope that they think of it as the home of the young leaders."Diego Garcia

Brighton Park resident Diego Garcia, 16, led 15 local teenagers to the March for Our Lives rally in Washington, D.C. in March. Earlier this week, he participated in the die-in outside Trump Tower. He is also a member of Chicago Strong, the citywide youth group organizing tonight’s rally.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Diego Garcia
Diego Garcia outside Trump Tower earlier this week

On becoming an activist: The parents in my community are immigrants, and so are my teachers and my friends. After Trump became president, they felt like, if they speak up for what they believe in, they’re putting themselves in danger of being targeted by the government.

I decided that if I really had nothing to lose, then I would be the voice for them. I’m a citizen of the U.S., and just being a citizen, I have many rights that a lot of other people feel like they don’t have—the right to voice my opinion, to vote about my future.

After the Parkland shooting, my priest said that he would support me in taking 15 teenagers to Washington, D.C., for March for Our Lives. It was one of the best times that I’ve had in my life, because not only were my peers standing up for what they believe in, but also I knew that I wasn’t alone. There was, visually, all around you, people who cared about you.

What he hopes to achieve: I hope that, after the rally, people realize that we young people in Chicago, we want something to change. A lot of the adults like normalizing the violence. The 14-year-old that got shot, or the adult that was going to the store and got shot for no good reason—no one talks about these small things because it happens so often.

I hope that people’s perspective of Chicago changes, because when people think of Chicago, they think of the most violent city. I hope that they think of it as the home of the young leaders.


"It takes everybody. We need people from every region to contribute so we can get total change."Alex King

Austin resident Alex King, 17, just graduated from North Lawndale College Prep. At North Lawndale, he was a Peace Warrior, a youth ambassador for violence prevention. After the Parkland shooting, he traveled to Parkland to visit student survivors. Alex is also part of Chicago Strong.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Alex King
Alex King on a radio interview

On becoming an activist: It started with me wanting a shirt. At North Lawndale College Prep, we have to wear these button-up shirts with collars, and it’s hot. One Thursday, I was seeing these different shirts, regular long-sleeve shirts. It had “Peace Warriors” going down the sleeve, a peace sign on the back, and I was like, “I want one of those.” Then I also heard that Peace Warriors get pulled out of class sometimes, and I’m like “Yeah, if we can get out of class, for sure!”

After joining Peace Warriors, it got to a point where I felt that family connection—these were some of the people I went to when I couldn’t even go to my own family. I’ve been shot at multiple times and I didn’t go to my family, because I didn’t want to put that burden on their shoulders. I went to the Peace Warriors because I knew some of them experienced the same thing, and it’s also easier to connect with people in your age range.

My nephew was shot and killed on May 28, 2017. Shot twice: once in the back of the head and once in the back. I feel like I would have done something that would have put me in a way worse spot than I’m in now if I didn’t have Peace Warriors. They came to me every day, and were like “We are here for you no matter what.” I was known as the one with all the energy. When those people saw me down, they told me,”‘You were always the one to cheer everybody up, so we have to be here for you, to get you back like that.”

What he hopes to achieve: I want people to walk away [tonight] and believe that change can happen. We might be different in a lot of ways, but we are alike in more ways than we are different. I want people to see the fact that we can’t be independent, if we want to make change across the world, we all have to come together to make this work.

We can’t try change the world with only Chicago, we can’t try to change the world with only Florida. It takes everybody. We need people from every region to put their input on so we can get total change.


"Be smart with campaigns. If you’re gonna march, make sure you’re doing it in a community that can really change something."Trevon Bosley

Roseland native Trevon Bosley is a rising junior at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. He joined Bold Resistance Against Violence Everywhere, or B.R.A.V.E., a peer youth council run through the St. Sabina youth program, in 2010. He is also a member of Chicago Strong.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Trevon Bosley
Trevon Bosley at March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C. earlier this year

On becoming an activist: On April 4, 2006, my brother was murdered while attending band rehearsal at church. He was outside helping a friend with drums. Someone fired shots at them and he was shot in the shoulder. After that, my parents got in contact with (the Rev.) Michael Pfleger at St. Sabina, and he introduced me to B.R.A.V.E.

The main things that the older B.R.A.V.E. members told me was to be smart with campaigns. If you’re gonna march, make sure you’re doing it in a community that can really change something. They told me to just be effective when you’re planning and strategizing your movement.

A while back [around three years ago], we did a voter registration campaign. The strategic thing was how we planned to tackle violence. We know that we have a lot of gun violence in Chicago, but we have to understand why. We noticed that the elected officials at the time weren’t allocating resources to anti-violence initiatives, and the only way you can get politicians to listen to you is to vote. We identified what the problem was and how to go about addressing it.

What he hopes to achieve: We’ve been doing this for a long time and we’ve been fighting for change in the community for a very long time. Tonight’s rally is going to be bigger because of the Parkland influence. We’ve been fighting in Chicago for a very long time for peace, but only recently has the national media really wanted to cover our everyday shootings. The Parkland influence is giving us the platform, it’s led to our voices finally being heard about everyday shootings.


"I want to make sure that we tell our stories ourselves, and not have social media or the news tell our stories because they always twist it around, and then you’re like: That’s not me."RieOnna Holmon

RieOnna Holmon, 15, attends Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep in Rosewood, and she lives in Woodlawn. She joined B.R.A.V.E in 2017, where she received mentorship from older members such as Trevon. Most recently, RieOnna became the president of B.R.A.V.E.

PHOTO: Courtesy of RieOnna Holman
RieOnna Holman speaking at St. Sabina in March

On becoming an activist: I joined B.R.A.V.E. last summer when I did an internship at the ARK of St. Sabina. I just started going to the meetings and taking part in all of the rallies. I see myself in these children [that I mentor], how I was naïve and didn’t really know anything. Being able to teach them about what is really happening out there really shows me that the youth need to be educated about what’s going on.

What she hopes to achieve: [Tonight,] I want to make sure that we tell our stories ourselves, and not have social media or the news tell our stories for them because they always twist it around and you’re always like, “That’s not me.”

It happens a lot. People will talk about someone they lost, and [media outlets] will turn it around being like, this “x” gang member. But we didn’t tell you that. I know now that I have to actually get out there and tell it for myself, because otherwise what’s out there could not be true or another side of the story.