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State takeover of ineffective schools: piece of cake or can of worms?

''Where's the beef?'' An educational version of the popular hamburger commercial is cooking in the Kentucky General Assembly. But it isn't about the hot lunch program.

Kentucky lawmakers, questioning where the learning is in some schools, want authority to take over individual school districts judged to be ''academically bankrupt.''

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Very few states have, or even seek, so direct a statutory link between academic performance and state control. Most have broadly worded laws that allow for a state to take over a school district only in extreme financial situations or other unusual circumstances.

Kentucky seeks a much more active role in making sure schools meet academic standards by stating what the performance of students must be - instead of merely having a say in what they should be.

''The crisis in confidence on the part of the public about education is still the biggest problem we face,'' says Alice McDonald, Kentucky superintendent of public instruction. ''It is absolutely necessary to move accountability legislation through before we can go back to the legislature and ask for more of the public's money. We need to have the proof in hand that we have been doing a good job.''

The state Senate recently passed an academic deficiency bill that would allow the State Board of Education to step in and run a school district that shows significant failure in providing its students with a sound education. The bill is almost certain to pass in the House, say education observers there, and it has the full endorsement of Gov. Martha Layne Collins.

The academic-bankruptcy bill would empower a state accreditation team to determine whether citizens' complaints about a school district are valid or whether deficiencies do exist, even if there has been no complaint. If so, the state board would send in consultants to develop, with local school officials, an ''educational-improvement plan'' that states how the problems would be solved in a given period of time.

But the need for improvements would be based on more than just standardized-test scores. Dropout and attendance rates, accreditation reports, teacher certification requirements, and other factors would be considered, says Barbara McDaniel, speaking for the state Department of Public Instruction.

The bill would allow the state to allocate up to 25 percent of a district's money to meet the goals of the improvement plan. Ultimately, the state would also have authority to remove the superintendent and school board members.

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''We aren't going to rush right into a school and close it down,'' says Ms. McDonald. Direct state control would take place over a period of two to three years, she says. And if the state ever does declare a school bankrupt, ''We're pretty sure it would only happen once. Other problem districts would get the message,'' she says. Ms. McDonald emphasizes that the overwhelming majority of Kentucky's schools are doing a good job and that the proposal is really a way to offer help to a district experiencing difficulties.

''It can be a can of worms,'' says Bill Honig, state superintendent of public instruction in California. His state is considering a similar proposal. Three things must be very clear from the beginning for such a procedure to be effective, he says:

The state must pinpoint the problems it sees in a given district and then notify the district that ''if you want some help here's what we propose to do,'' says Dr. Honig. Then, if the deficiencies continue, the state would require an improvement plan from the district and provide technical assistance. Finally, the state could require an alternative management system in the district and remove the superintendent or the school board. The ultimate authority lies in the state's ability to cut off funds.

New Jersey has had an elaborate system for monitoring academic performance since 1975. The Arkansas General Assembly passed a law last November stipulating that if fewer than 85 percent of the students in a given district pass promotion tests the district must submit an improvement plan to the state. If there is no ''reasonable progress'' in two years the state can dissolve the district, forcing students to attend school in another district.

Next month New York will consider extending the accreditation authority of its state board of education. The state Board of Regents wants to require all public school districts and each non-public school to submit a comprehensive assessment report on student performance. The state plans to use the results to help identify the bottom 10 to 15 percent of its schools so that it may then target them for special assistance.

Private schools in New York are watching the proposals very carefully. Any attempt to limit curriculum or impose teacher certification requirements strikes at the heart of what ''private schools are all about,'' says a spokesman from the National Association of Independent Schools.

Joseph M. Cronin, president of the Massachusetts Higher Education Assistance Corporation and former Illinois superintendent of education, sees a silver lining in the ''academic bankruptcy'' debate. It amounts to much more, he says, than politicians wanting to look as if they are concerned about schools.

First, Dr. Cronin explains, the success of the educational system in bringing so many people through high school and college since World War II has caused ''a significant taste for quality education.'' Second, the needs of technology are being translated into a demand for higher academic standards. ''We are proud of our accomplishments but frightened Germany and Japan will outproduce us.'' And third, simple demography is at work.

There are fewer children in school now, he says, so each one counts more. There will be fewer graduates for the rest of this century and fewer jobs for undereducated students, increasing the need for better-educated citizens. ''Even people tending robotics machines have to know more today,'' says Cronin.

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