No Size Fits All in School District Takeovers

April 5, 2023 By Audrey Breen, audreybreen@virginia.edu Audrey Breen, audreybreen@virginia.edu

In March, the state of Texas made a big move in announcing its takeover of the Houston Independent School District, the state’s largest.

Among the methods used to help turn around low-performing schools, state takeovers of struggling school districts are high-stakes. State officials taking over the decision-making power of local school boards and district leaders, as happened in Houston, is an effort to make a dramatic, positive impact on student achievement. 

However, according to a new article by Beth Schueler, an assistant professor in the University of Virginia’s School of Education and Human Development and its Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, the average state takeover does not result in improved student achievement.

Instead, Schueler’s research shows what matters significantly is how states handle takeovers. They can bring positive results if done well, but come with risks, especially for communities that are home to large shares of Black students.

We sat down with Schueler to learn more about state takeovers and what her research has uncovered.

Q. Can you explain what a state takeover is and how frequently it happens?

A. Each state has legislation that defines what exactly a state-level takeover can mean. For example, in Massachusetts, the state can ignore current collective bargaining agreements during a takeover. But they are currently considering legislation to change that.

One thing they do have in common is that state takeovers are almost always temporary. Regardless of where it happens, state takeovers are not typically understood as a permanent solution. 

As far as frequency, takeovers are pretty rare events, so it is important when we talk about this research that we remember sample sizes are relatively small within any one state.

Q. You describe state takeovers of struggling school divisions as often being contentious. At what point is that decision typically made?

A. Typically, states are usually targeting districts where multiple things are going wrong and where challenges have been consistent over time. 

But there are two common reasons states give for why they are enacting takeover. One is that there has either been some kind of financial challenge, which could include financial mismanagement or something similar. Second, especially in the last couple of decades, takeovers have often been used as a means of accountability for addressing low academic performance.

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Portrait of Beth Schueler
UVA’s Beth Schueler warns that state takeovers of struggling local school districts most often do not lead to higher student achievement. (Contributed photo)

Q. You’ve written about takeovers in Louisiana and Massachusetts, both of which have seen positive results. What can we learn from those examples?

A. There are some interesting contrasts between Lawrence, Massachusetts, and New Orleans, Louisiana. Both had positive results, but the communities were quite different and the states went about trying to improve the school systems in very different ways. 

Leading up to the reforms, New Orleans was a predominantly Black community with high levels of intergenerational poverty that had been devastated by Hurricane Katrina. The state opted for mass firings of teachers, and the district became nearly completely charter. Charters are public schools of choice that are managed by independent operators and have significant autonomy and flexibility from many of the regulations that apply to traditional public schools. Most often, charter school teachers are not unionized. This path to becoming an all-charter district was unusual. There are no other districts in the country that are made up entirely of charter schools. 

Lawrence, Massachusetts, served an almost exclusively Hispanic student population, including significant numbers of recent arrivals from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. There, the state actively replaced only 10% of the teachers while more aggressively replacing principals. No schools technically became charter schools, though they recruited charter organizations to manage a small number of schools. However, even the charter-managed schools in Lawrence remained neighborhood-based and unionized. 

These two examples help to show how different approaches to reform can lead to academic achievement gains. But the differences in both the reforms and the contexts themselves makes it difficult to draw out patterns and lessons about “what works,” which may vary depending on the context, based on a small number of case studies. 

Q. When expanding the scope beyond New Orleans and Lawrence, what do researchers see when comparing the impact of takeovers of predominantly Hispanic districts versus predominantly Black districts? 

A. We find evidence that the racial composition of the district’s student population plays a role in the likelihood of state takeovers. Even when you control for academic performance, majority-Black school districts are more likely to be taken over than majority-white school districts performing at the same level.

The research also reveals that the impact of takeover varies depending on the racial and ethnic composition of the targeted community. 

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Great Minds Put to Good Use, Learn More

For example, I studied the effect of takeover on student academic outcomes. The more successful takeovers – takeovers improving math and language arts scores – historically occurred in communities serving larger Hispanic student populations and the least effective ones have been implemented in majority-Black communities. We don’t yet know why that is the case. It is a similar pattern not just with takeovers, but with other kinds of school and district improvement efforts. Turnaround policies, when adopted in majority-Hispanic communities, have historically resulted in more significant gains than when implemented in majority-Black communities. We see similar patterns when looking at the effect of takeover on district finances. Takeover does not seem to increase spending or improve fiscal health when undertaken in majority-Black communities.

Q. Can you offer some insight into the general impact of state takeovers? 

A. On average, our work shows that takeovers have no benefits to student achievement, and in some cases, in fact, make things worse. So, states should be cautious about using these authorities for the purpose of addressing low academic performance. That said, we do see some positive proof points. 

State takeovers work most effectively for the very lowest-performing school districts. Our study suggests takeover is not as promising for districts that are not among the very lowest-achieving in the country. What is tricky, however, is that the lowest-performing school division in one state may not be nearly as low-performing as the lowest in another state, meaning one state may not see as much benefit in targeting their lowest-performing school district as another state might.

While my research so far looks at the impact of what happens when a state actually takes over a district, it is important to also consider what impact there might be in having a law on the books that allows for a state takeover. It is possible, for example, that the threat of takeover can also help improve districts that might be at risk of a state takeover, even if the state does not actually take over the district.

Those are two different policy questions. It could be that there is reason to have a state takeover law, but also limit the state’s use of that power. That is a possibility, but we need more evidence to know whether this is what happens in practice.

Media Contact

Audrey Breen

Senior Writer and Research Communications Strategist School of Education and Human Development