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Keep control local


The State of Education address delivered by Indiana’s superintendent of public instruction last week lacked the specific proposals one might expect from a candidate facing re-election, but a reference to taking over entire school districts should be the clue that the state has gone too far in wresting control from local officials.

Elected school board members serve at the pleasure of their voting constituents; state-level bureaucrats and hired contractors serve at the will of the officials who hire them. Even casual observers of public education should recognize that accountability suffers when responsibility is removed.

Superintendent Tony Bennett made his pitch for district-level takeovers in his annual address last week.

“In our efforts to turn around the state’s lowest performing schools, it has become clear that underperformance is often systemic, with problems rooted in district-level leadership,” he said. “To make a greater impact on student performance where it is most desperately needed, Indiana should begin to explore expanding accountability to the district level.”

In fact, the state should begin with closer scrutiny of those efforts to turn around the state’s lowest-performing schools. A handful of schools in Indianapolis and Gary are the first to be handed over to outside contractors, and some troubling signs already are emerging.

At Howe High School in Indianapolis, one parent who championed the takeover by Charter Schools USA told the Indianapolis Star that, weeks into the school year, hallways at the school are chaotic and fights have broken out. Some classes were without permanent teachers late last month, and about a half-dozen teachers have quit.

Bennett told the Star it’s too early to say the takeover at Howe is off track, but likewise it’s too early to suggest that taking over a school is the way to improve it. Laying blame on the school district is a good way to deflect blame if the turnaround operator fails, but parents and community members know that every school has its own challenges. Should the state have been allowed to take over all of East Allen County Schools, including the high-achieving Leo Junior-Senior High School, because of poor performance at the former Paul Harding High School?

Bennett claimed in his address that the state has given local schools the flexibility to make improvements where needed, but most educators and local school officials would argue that the demands placed on them by the state in recent years have been overwhelming. The ability to adopt their own teacher evaluation systems comes with strict requirements, and some districts already have had to hire additional administrators to oversee the evaluation work or free up building principals to do so.

Local control of school districts has been slowly eroding since the state assumed control of school general fund costs. Without the ability to determine their own destiny through property tax rates, local districts are at the mercy of state officials for almost all spending.

Bennett’s interest in taking over local districts should be a wake-up call. If Hoosiers lose the authority to run their local school districts, they lose all voice in Indiana public education. They need to tell not only Bennett, but also state lawmakers and the candidates for governor, that local schools must remain in local control.

The Department of Education has yet to prove it can successfully take over and turn around a single school; why should it be entrusted with entire districts?