A state takeover won’t help Gary, Indiana schools

Indiana House Bill 1187 would create a permanent state-appointed school board for the Gary Community School Corporation. It’s a power grab, not a move to improve Gary schools and help students.

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Rep. Vernon Smith, left, D-Gary, looks at his notes during the first day of the legislative session at the the Statehouse on Jan. 4.

Rep. Vernon Smith, left, D-Gary, looks at his notes during the first day of the legislative session at the the Statehouse on Jan. 4.

Darron Cummings/AP Photos

It’s hard to believe that there are still people out there who think state takeovers of public school districts have magical powers. There’s this wide-eyed belief that all you have to do is turn over the power to manage a challenged school district to the state — and in doing so, leave out the voices of an elected school board, parents, voters and teachers — and voila, your schools will miraculously show higher academic performance and more financial stability.

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That foolhardy dream is alive in Indiana House Bill 1187, which would create a permanent state-appointed school board for the Gary Community School Corporation, even after it is no longer considered a financially distressed district — terminating the elected advisory school board. It would enable the emergency manager to serve as the Gary school system’s superintendent, prohibit the existence of a teachers union and ban collective bargaining between the Gary Teachers Union and the Gary Community School Corporation. This would silence educators’ right to advocate for their students.

Should this become law, we believe it would violate the Indiana and U.S. constitutions. Indiana does not permit a law to specifically apply to one locality. The bill’s provisions on a state takeover and prohibiting school employees from joining a union and bargaining would only apply to Gary, no other school district in the state.

Takeovers are a power grab, plain and simple, with the arrogant idea that the state can do a better job from afar than local education officials, elected by the community to make genuine improvements. Most takeover proposals are about governance, not about actual fixes that benefit students and schools. Most fail.

No voices for the students

Here are three examples of takeovers that didn’t work. They should serve as a cautionary tale for lawmakers considering this bill, which would hurt, not help, Gary students.

From 1999 to 2015, the state of Michigan ran the Detroit Public Schools using an emergency manager. The district was suffering grave financial problems — the main reason for the takeover — but the schools also had chronic and severe academic problems and long-neglected school buildings with dangerous safety and health issues. The takeover was an abject failure by all accounts, with the era of state control ending in 2016. What the district’s low-income students needed were specific programs and services to help them overcome their circumstances, including longer school days with enrichment programs, health clinics and more social workers and counselors to help with social and emotional assistance. Bureaucrats couldn’t get it done.

In Providence, R.I., a scathing report by Johns Hopkins University had exposed Providence schools as among the worst in the country. The teachers union supported the 2019 proposed state takeover as an avenue for much-needed school investment, and then outsiders with little experience running challenging systems were appointed. With little in their arsenal to improve the district, those in charge are ignoring the school board, teachers, parents, students and the community. The district is in no better place today than when the takeover began, and the union has called for an end to the takeover so that proven reforms and greater investment in kids’ needs can be undertaken.

In Washington, D.C., mayoral control (the city’s version of a state takeover) has been in place for over a decade. The era has been marked by scandals over the district’s student testing obsession, unfair and biased teacher evaluations, graduating ineligible students and achieving only very modest gains on student achievement.

And in Chicago, mayoral control of public schools will come to an end in a few years after a bill passed for an elected board, a nod to democracy and the right of the public to choose who sits on the school board.

These experiences are telling examples of the fallacy of takeovers. In the bill affecting Gary, the voices of the community would be shut out with an appointed school board, and the voices of educators would be silenced with a ban on collective bargaining. But parents and teachers agree that they are the voices who will advocate for what their students need.

There’s another very disturbing provision in the takeover bill. It would provide more than $3 million to a “consulting firm.” That has red flags written all over it. That money and other investment should go directly to our schools to fund programs and services that Gary kids need to grow and thrive. These could include more textbooks, computer labs, enrichment programs, health and dental clinics, and professionals to provide social and emotional supports.

State takeovers have no reliable track record of improving academic results and become undemocratic vehicles for promoting policy. Gary schools, and all public schools for that matter, belong to the community. A state takeover is a power grab, not a move to improve Gary schools and help the students who attend them.

GlenEva Dunham is the president of the Gary Teachers Union.

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