State Superintendent Janet Barresi's rumored intent to "intervene" at Tulsa's Hale High school is sketchy but has already ignited a firestorm of opposition and high anxiety. How she plans to execute a turnaround at Hale High is not evident -- it is also unclear as to why Hale has, as Tulsa State Rep. Jennie McDaniel's says, "been targeted."
Local control of public schools is a compelling tradition in America, and while it was punctuated dramatically by the "Sputnik" challenge and the civil rights/school desegregation revolutions in the '50s and '60s -- both of which brought needed, federally mandated transformations to all U.S. public schools -- the local management imperative is central to public education and is a positive, "let a thousand flowers bloom" legacy. And, local school management is a bedrock conviction of folks across the political spectrum here and elsewhere.
I asked Bruce Niemi, an educator/community development and school to workplace pro and Leigh Goodson, an educational management professional and OSU vice president, about the Hale takeover. Goodson and Niemi are candidates for the Tulsa Public School Board's District Five post -- a contest slated for Valentine's Day (Feb. 14). Here is what they told me:
"I strongly oppose any State Board of Education move to take control of Hale High School or any other Tulsa Public School. The parents, teachers, and administrators of TPS have just begun implementing Project Schoolhouse, the new teacher evaluation system and many other significant reform efforts. We must have sufficient time to fully realize the benefits of these. I will always err on the side of local control for Tulsa Public Schools."
"The Hale takeover thing is another example of Janet Barresi's stunning inability to focus on the right problems -- she has also called for not paying Oklahoma's Nationally Board Certified/Master Teachers a long-promised bonus. What we have here is a trashing of local control to try to address long negligence from our state school establishment: they continue to fail to assist Tulsa with our low performance school challenge, and now call on us to give up local control -- the Hale thing is an outrage."
Somewhere In Between
Local control empowers people at the city/school district level, where schools operate and educate children, to be overseen by Tulsa voters and local elected officials. A plan from "on high" -- from the "Supers" office in Oklahoma City that tinkers with local control is extraordinary and should require a cosmic rational: Barresi's plan may be a sort of Kabuki theatre rolled out for reasons that have nothing to do with Hale High or Tulsa Public Schools.
Tulsa public schools administrator Keith Ballard, who has to deal with Barresi on a daily basis, has been completely unambiguous about his opposition to any takeover attempt at Hale or at any of the 18 other low-performing Tulsa schools that may be part of a larger Barresi "project."
Indeed, the Barresi plan has the same hot button character as recent passed state legislation to "take over" fiscally troubled towns in the state of Michigan. A recent plan to take over Detroit's schools has provoked humongous opposition.
Interestingly, Republicans Barresi in Oklahoma and embattled Governor Rick Snyder of Michigan are very visible advocates for these efforts - efforts that essentially negate elections and citizen rule. Both claim to be advocates for reducing federal outlays and mandates. It looks as though both officials are merely rhetorical supporters of the primacy of local rule. The model for Barresi's intervention comes, in part, from a bankruptcy analog.
As readers may know, when a company fails catastrophically (and this is a gross oversimplification) and can't pay its creditors, it can arrange for a court mediated controlled "spin-down" wherein management can continue to operate the firm while it sells off assets to satisfy creditors and to realign operations and costs. The problems with turning around a public school are legion: doing so is always a traumatizing action. And paradoxically, it requires a lot of parental and teacher cooperation: the impacts are often deeply demoralizing, not only for parents and teachers, but also on kids who face an uncertain future.
Another school turnaround model of sorts is the private equity leveraged/buyout model -- so much in the news of late because of Mitt Romney's prominence as the principal executive of Bain Capital, a company that specialized in managing turnaround with struggling commercial firms. And while the record is mixed, it seems very clear that it is exceedingly difficult to turn around a company that has high cost structures, declining markets, disruptive international competition or other powerful dysfunctions in play.
The Wall Street Journal's recent analysis of Bain Capital's company portfolio during Romney's nearly 20 year tenure is instructive -- more than a third of the 85-plus companies that received the "Bain" treatment went bankrupt or simply went out of business during this two decade-long period. We could argue that a school, a modern high school, is a very different animal then the maturing industrial firms that are targets for private equity turnarounds -- if anything, schools are tougher challenges.
School "crash problems" are widely recognized -- several models -- ones that have a facile resemblance to bankruptcy/turnaround regimes from the private world, have been offered up by the Obama administration in various school reform initiatives. They include simple school closures, a school management replacement regimen, and something called a transformational option.
All are part of the monumental "Race to the Top" initiative with nearly $6 billion in multiyear grants designed to get states and local school districts to voluntarily adapt more efficacious strategies for ratcheting up school performance: particularly for kids attending at low performing schools. But all the Obama school reanimation models envision strong local/state/federal partnerships for garnering better school performance -- all suggest lots of cooperation from state and local officials, from state "super" offices, from individual school districts like Tulsa Public and even at the school site level -- none call for unilateral "takeovers" of the type apparently associated with Barresi's Hale Hi gambit.
We should say no, hell no, to a state takeover of Tulsa schools -- any Tulsa school -- this is a jackboot strategy and must be resisted.
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