MSU Researchers Examine State Takeover in Detroit and Memphis Schools

Written by: Amy Auletto

Primary Source:  Green & Write – April 25, 2016

The Education Policy Center at Michigan State University has released a working paper written by Mary L. Mason and Sarah Reckhow. The paper, titled Who Governs Now? Takeovers, Portfolios, and School District Governance, compares state involvement in two districts, Detroit and Memphis. This Green & Write post highlights key findings from the paper and considers the future of state takeover in cities such as Detroit and Memphis. The full paper can be found here.

About the EAA and ASD

In response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, New Orleans Public Schools were brought under state control through the Recovery School District (RSD). The RSD follows a portfolio management model, with a high level of involvement from charter management organizations. In the years following Katrina, both Detroit and Memphis also experienced state takeovers through models similar to the RSD. Prompted by Race to the Top (RTTT), a federal grant program, the Achievement School District (ASD) was created in Tennessee and the Education Achievement Authority (EAA) was created in Michigan. The ASD was created directly through legislation while the EAA resulted from an interlocal agreement.

Following RTTT, Tennessee created the Achievement School District (ASD) and Michigan created the Education Achievement Authority (EAA). Each of these districts is state-run and composed of low-performing schools located in primarily Memphis and Detroit, respectively. These districts have a number of similarities. As Mason and Reckhow point out, both Memphis and Detroit are majority-black cities with long histories of poverty, racial inequality, and segregation. Both districts also rely heavily on Teach for America (TFA) to help supply teachers.

Method and Findings

In their study, Mason and Reckhow look at the development of the EAA and ASD through legislation and legislative hearings, documents, reports, and newspaper articles. They also interviewed individuals familiar with the EAA and ASD, looked at district enrollment figures, and examined philanthropic involvement and other financial support in each district.

A number of differences between the two states were identified in their research. First, the way in which each of these districts was funded is different. While Tennessee had funds from RTTT to allocate to the ASD, Michigan’s EAA relied on private donations for start-up costs. Eli Broad and The Broad Foundation led these efforts. While both districts have received a similar level of philanthropic support, the lack of federal funding in Michigan has led to less overall financial support for the EAA. Because the ASD was able to use federal dollars to support its start-up, philanthropic dollars could be directed towards other endeavors, such as charter schools and teacher/principal training programs.

Implementation also looked different. While Michigan took a centralized approach, establishing district-wide policies, Tennessee was more decentralized, with gradual expansion. In the first year of operation, the EAA had 15 former schools from Detroit Public Schools while the ASD started with 6 schools, 5 in Memphis and 1 in Nashville. While the ASD has gradually added schools since its inception, the EAA has continued to manage the same number of schools, struggling to maintain enrollment. Another key difference is the ASD’s strategy to transition schools back to their home districts while the EAA does not specify any such plan.

The Future of State-Run School Districts

Mason and Reckhow conclude their paper by questioning the sustainability of the EAA and ASD. While there are a number of differences between these two districts, both have relied heavily on philanthropic support, high numbers of TFA teachers, and the support of Republican governors. Academic gains in both districts have been lacking and public support is weak. Since the release of this paper, Michigan has announced a plan to end the EAA and superintendent Chris Barbic resigned from the ASD at the end of last year.

School board members in Detroit discuss the devastation that the EAA has caused in Detroit. Photo Courtesy of FreeOurDetroit

School board members discuss the devastation that the EAA has caused in Detroit.
Photo Courtesy of FreeOurDetroit

There has been an abundance of pushback from local communities across the country against state takeover of their schools (see here and here). Local communities have historically governed their schools and this recent trend towards state takeover of low-performing schools clashes with this long-standing local governance structure. As state takeover continues to impact local districts, it is important to consider which communities specifically are impacted. As is the case in Detroit and Memphis, states appear to be targeting historically marginalized populations with a long-standing history of disenfranchisement. While some argue that state takeover has been effective, there is a price to pay – the silencing of local voice.

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Amy Auletto
Amy Auletto is a doctoral student in Educational Policy. She is interested in the impact that equitable funding and access to effective teachers have on the educational outcomes of disadvantaged student populations. Prior to beginning her studies at Michigan State University, she taught middle school math in Detroit. Amy earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology, master of Social Work, and MA in educational studies from the University of Michigan.