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Should Illinois Take Over Chicago's Schools?

Probably not.
A school bus drives by the Jean De Lafayette Elementary School on March 21, 2013, in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

A school bus drives by the Jean De Lafayette Elementary School on March 21, 2013, in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Earlier this month, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner announced he would push for legislation that would allow the state to take over Chicago Public Schools. The nation's third-largest school district, run by a board appointed by Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel, has barely enough money to make it through the year and is rated as less-than junk by all three major financial rating institutions. Saying Emanuel has "failed" to manage the city's schools, Rauner, a Republican, proposed that the head of the state's education department appoint a new board tasked with fixing the budget crisis.

Sound familiar? It should. When times get hard in urban public school districts, politicians often decide that matters would be better off in the hands of the state. Philadelphia, Detroit, Newark, Camden, Oakland—all have been subject to state interventions.

Chicago's school district has already been the subject of a major state intervention, from 1979 until 1995, also due to financial woes. That period ended when the state handed off power to Chicago's mayor and established the current system, known as mayoral control. (Most school districts are run by elected, not appointed, school boards.)

States take over school districts for two stated reasons: financial trouble or academic failure. Most state constitutions require states to provide, in some iteration, an adequate education, so when local leaders seem to be struggling, state leaders often say they are compelled to intervene.

"It will be a major disruption if they change the governance system again."

But do state takeovers actually work? Would Chicago's students and schools likely wind up in a better situation if Rauner gets his way?

Probably not, according to Kenneth Wong, a professor of education policy at Brown University who studies urban school district governance. For one, Wong points out, the track record of state involvement in Chicago is not good. The district's union went on strike numerous times while the state was involved. And while not everyone agrees with the current mayor's policies, Wong says the district's academics have been steadily improving under mayoral control, and that there are other ways for the state to address the budget crisis.

"It will be a major disruption if they change the governance system again," Wong says.

How have other states fared? A new review from the Pew Charitable Trusts suggests that big changes in who runs school districts do not, in fact, tend to improve academic or financial issues.

Pew's study of 16 city school districts found there's no evidence that any particular system of governance in urban schools, or switching between systems of governance, improves academics or finances. In a few places, such as New Jersey, a takeover addressed immediate financial woes. But in others, like Detroit, financial and academic problems lingered long after the state intervened. In Philadelphia, where Pew is based, state and local leaders are considering transitioning the school district back to local control after more than 15 years.

The Pew authors' main caution: Whatever form governance takes, care should be taken to ensure that there is public trust and clear accountability—which is exactly what has historically not happened when the state gets involved.

According to Wong, it can be challenging for state appointees to build relationships with local stakeholders. Author Dale Rusakoff tracks that distrust in Newark, which has been run by the state of New Jersey for more than 20 years, closely in her recent book The Prize: Who's in Charge of America's Schools?; in Tennessee and Michigan, a newer form of state takeover, in which states assume command of individual schools instead of entire districts, has also led to consistent accusations of a disconnect between state leaders and community needs.

Meanwhile, the Pew researchers found that the factors seemingly driving academic improvement—the quality of principals and teachers, parental involvement, the availability of good textbooks—were too varied to attribute to state takeover, and many cities' students were still floundering long after state intervention.

This is bolstered by another new study from a group of researchers at Harvard University, who found that a state takeover in Lawrence, Massachusetts, did seem to improve students' academic achievement—but that those improvements were tied to very specific pedagogical approaches, like small-group instruction, rather than the fact of the district being run by the state.

Entangled with all of this, of course, is politics. In Illinois, Rauner seems to think that bankruptcy, achieved through the takeover and a series of new legislation, is the best solution to the Chicago district's budget crisis. Bankruptcy would also conveniently allow the staunchly anti-union Rauner, or whomever he appointed to run the district, to re-do the district's contract with its teachers union. Chicago leaders say, however, that the way the state funds education and teacher pensions is a direct factor in the current budget crisis, and that Rauner and legislators could address this without taking over the district. To complicate the politics even further, Rauner is dangling the prospect of eventually returning Chicago to an elected school board, which the union also supports.

The political dynamics in Illinois mean Rauner's plan may not come to fruition, even if he wants it to. The speaker of the house, the head of the teacher's union, and Emanuel all oppose the takeover, and the memory of previous state intervention may be just fresh enough to scare off politicians and stakeholders who might otherwise be interested.

But the research seems to indicate that, even if the political stars align, Rauner should think twice before shaking up school governance again.