JACKSON, Mississippi — When Gov. Phil Bryant approved plans by the Mississippi Department of Education last week to take over the Tunica County school district, it was a familiar process.
Mississippi has taken over a district at least 19 times since 1996. Tunica joins Oktibbeha County and North Panola on the list of districts that have been taken over twice.
More than just bad academic performance is needed for the state to step in. The usual sparks are looming insolvency, political squabbling, or a suspicion by state officials that the district is lying to the state.
And the academic outcomes of state takeovers are not so great. Of 15 districts ever under state control and still existing as of June 30, 2014, 10 got academic ratings of D. There were three Cs and two Bs. (No districts rated F in the 2013-2014 academic year.)
In short, state intervention can balance a district's budget, get student and teacher records in order, make backup alarms work on the school buses, and generally do the things needed to meet state accreditation requirements. But the current system of conservatorship has struggled to make lasting improvements in academics. In some cases, academic and administrative improvements have slipped away after a district was handed back over to local control.
But state lawmakers have long wanted state intervention that creates noticeable and lasting academic improvements. The clearest expression of that is the New Start school law. Until July 1, it required the state to take over any school that gets graded an F for two years in a row. In February, the Board of Education used its authority to grant a third year to all 22 schools subject to takeover, after all submitted improvement plans.
The state couldn't have dodged stepping in at any of those schools that failed tests at the end of the 2014-2015 school year. But Mississippi Department of Education officials, unenthusiastic about the law, persuaded lawmakers to make changes this year.
Takeovers are now optional, and the requirement that all employees, teachers and administrators be fired was removed. It would have also strengthened requirements that a local district cooperate with the state in running a new start school and pay for its operation, plus allow the state to override local decisions without actually taking over the school.
The bill also says the Board of Education may contract with "one or more persons of private entities with experience in improving school performance to assist in implementing and administering any part of the New Start school program."
But that's not the end. A Department of Education task force is studying states that have taken a different path by creating what Tennessee, for example, calls an achievement school district. Typically such districts take over individual low performing schools, as the New Start law envisions, and works to improve them. But in Tennessee and Louisiana, many of the schools that have been taken over have been contracted out to charter school operators.
In 2013, Mississippi's House of Representatives rejected a similar plan over fears of loss of local control and opposition to more charter schools. As envisioned in that bill, an achievement district would be able to take over local schools indefinitely. The current New Start law requires schools to be given back to a local district after they achieve grades of C or better for two straight years.
Mississippi's current task force is not very far into its work, and it's unclear what it will recommend. But after fights over charter schools and vouchers for special education students, the issue could loom large over the 2016 Legislature.
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