Education Dilemma: When Local Control Loses Out To State Intervention

Oct 16, 2014

Credit flickr/dcjohn

Bet many of you didn’t know that the state of Illinois has the power to take over your local schools.

As in - fire school board members - even those you and your neighbors voted for. As in put a new superintendent in place. But two years ago - it did just that.

The state took over two school districts. One in East Saint Louis. The other in North Chicago...a low income and racially mixed suburb wedged between more the tony North Shore and Waukegan.

KOCH: You have to take actions when kids aren’t getting the basics. And that’s certainly what’s happening here.

Chris Koch is the superintendent of ALL Illinois schools.  

It was his call to move into North Chicago.   The district’s problems read like a Dickens novel:

Eighty percent of kids not meeting state learning standards...

Burdensome debt.

School board meetings - that used to collapse into chaotic screaming matches…

Even after the state takeover- there were arguments like this one.  It’s about a new charter, a publicly-funded and privately-run school. The local board rejected it.

BOARD MEMBER: The state overrode what the board voted, so now we have to accept it and we’re told it’s being done fairly

NON-BOARD MEMBER: But what I’m saying is…

The board member there is saying the state overrode the local decision about the charter...and local folks just have to accept it.

State intervention has helped North Chicago reduce its debt….but the district is still operating on a deficit. The superintendent there says he expects to run out of cash in four years.

But overall - education policy watchers tell me the takeover has been a win so far. Some private money is coming in…

And state superintendent Koch has taken a personal interest in the people there.

But the thing is...there’s no end game in sight.

KOCH: We really have to be there, I think, for the longer duration ...

KOCH: ...because you don’t want it to go back into its prior state and that could easily happen particularly with the precarious financial situation they’re currently in.

Kenneth Wong says that’s typical of other schools that have been taken over by state governments. Wong’s  a professor at Brown University - and has been watching school takeovers across the country.

WONG: What I’m seeing also is the absence of an exit strategy. That is, they rush into direct intervention, but then oftentimes there is a lack of details.

For his part, Koch doesn’t seem worried about an exit strategy in North Chicago just yet. The finances and academics are still too bad.

But Koch IS turning his attention to other failing districts around the state.

He’s pushing legislation that would make similar state intervention easier in failing districts.

House Bill 5537 singles out 23 schools on state academic watch.

Meaning they have to show better test scores, and higher attendance and graduation rates.

All of them - are in Chicago’s south suburbs.

Nobody from those districts called me back….But Ben Schwarm did.

He’s going up against Koch when it comes to state takeovers. Schwarm’s group lobbies in Springfield on behalf of school boards.

SCHWARM: The idea of anyone, especially an appointed body, having the authority to remove from office elected officials based on the decisions they made certainly isn’t generally the way democracy works in Illinois or in our country.

Koch’s bill is moving in an election year--

In which the candidates for governor have been campaigning mostly about how best to FINANCE education - and not so much about education policy.

Koch’s actions in North Chicago give us a window into incumbent Democratic Governor Pat Quinn’s strategy for failing schools. Republican Bruce Rauner hasn’t talked specifically about state takeovers. But he advocates for more charter schools statewide. Especially for failing districts.

RAUNER: It’s not fair for parents to be stuck in a school that is failing and not fitting their kids’ needs. We need to create options and choice, especially for lower income families that can’t afford to move.

So stay tuned….whoever wins the governor’s office next month is likely to get a say over East Saint Louis and North Chicago’s schools -- and maybe over - a school district near you.