Education's Silver Bullet -- Not!

Somehow the idea got around that states know how to fix failing schools. In New Jersey, when inner-city schools were doing a dismal job, the New Jersey State Education Department took them over. In St. Louis just last month, the state of Missouri took over the St. Louis public schools with the expectation that state control would raise achievement and balance the budget. In the No Child Left Behind law, one of the final sanctions for a persistently low-performing school is state takeover.

What is the magic that the state has? Is state takeover a silver bullet, a magic formula?

Sadly, no. In the dozen or so instances where states have taken over a school or a district, not much has gotten better. The state can add more money, can get the classrooms painted, can fix the physical facilities, but there are no instances where state takeover has turned a "failing school" into a high-performing school. The easiest way to achieve that miracle, by the way, is to replace the student body with a different student body that has higher scores, attends class more often, and presents fewer problems for educators. But that is not what the public expects. The public expects that the state can come in, take over the school or the district, and turn it around without changing the student enrollment.

Consider what has happened in New York, which is one of the highest-spending and most enlightened of states. Five years ago, the State of New York--that is, the State Education Department--assumed control of the Roosevelt, Long Island, school district because of its low achievement and financial troubles. This was the first time that the state had ever taken over a school district. The state commissioner of education has had the power over five years to choose the district's superintendent and its school board.

In 2002, when the state took control, the Roosevelt Union Free School District had a deficit of $5.8 million. Now, under state control, the district has a deficit of $12.3 million (in a budget that totals $63 million). Achievement remains stubbornly low, and the four-year graduation rate is less than 50%.

The state commissioner of education Richard P. Mills paid his first visit to the district to attend a public meeting. Students and parents complained that there were not enough textbooks, not enough supplies, not even toilet paper in the bathrooms. Mills promised to take action. One of the actions he pledged to take was to reduce staff, according to an account in the New York Times on April 13, 2007. With the state auditing and picking staff and leaders, it is hard to imagine how the district managed to overspend its budget by additional millions.

All in all, not an inspiring demonstration of the power of state takeovers to fix the basic educational problems of low-performing schools and districts. The silver bullet turned out to be brass. Some say the answer is to create new charter schools and let the motivated students bail out. That has already happened in Roosevelt at the elementary level, where a new charter elementary school is doing well. What will happen to the students who don't bail out? And what will happen to public education?