A promising solution for struggling schools

by Michael Q. McShane, AEI

Just before Christmas, the National Center for Education Statistics released testing data from 21 of the nation’s largest school districts, known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress Trial Urban District Assessment. The scores paint a bleak picture. In the average large urban district, just one in four students typically reaches proficiency in reading or math.

Given this harsh reality, what do we do about our country’s failing inner-city schools? This question has vexed district, city and state leaders for decades.

In 1984, Judge Russell Clark proposed a novel solution for one such struggling district, Kansas City. His solution? Write the district a blank check. Its budget ballooned from $125 million in 1985 to $432 million in 1992. The district completely overhauled its facilities. It had the lowest student to instructional staff ratio in the nation. Adjusted for cost of living, it spent more per pupil than any other district.

Did all of this money improve the schools? No. An analysis concluded that the influx of money “hadn’t changed any of the measurable outcomes” it was intended to change. Today, at least according to the most recent administration of state standardized tests, only 28 percent of the city’s eighth graders scored proficient or better in language arts and only 10.1 percent did so in math.

All that money, all that promise, no results. So what are we to do?

According to emails retrieved by the Kansas City Star from Missouri Commissioner of Education Chris Nicastro, the Show-Me State is considering a novel approach – a “Recovery School District,” or RSD. Like those that exist in Louisiana, Michigan and Tennessee, an RSD is a catch-all, state-managed portfolio of the state’s lowest performing schools. The state would not “take over” the schools; rather, the state would leave operation to charter providers and would transition to the role of manager. The state would set performance expectations and monitor progress to make sure charter schools are delivering. If they don’t, the state would shut them down.

Radically reorganizing how schools are managed and operated would be a significant task. Luckily, Missouri or other states considering this approach would not be flying blind. States can learn from the lessons of Louisiana, which has the oldest RSD in the nation. Louisiana’s RSD was created in 2005 and today it manages 75 schools, most of which are in New Orleans. Fifteen of these schools are run directly by the RSD, while 60 of them are charter schools under the RSD’s management.

To be sure, the challenge for an RSD – or any organization seeking to turn around chronically failing schools – is daunting. Louisiana’s RSD has not been a perfect success. Nevertheless, it is showing considerable progress. New Orleans has cut the achievement gap between its students and the rest of the state by 70 percent, graduation rates are on the rise and more students are taking and earning college-ready scores on the ACT than ever before.

Neerav Kingsland, CEO of New Schools for New Orleans, recently outlined some of the lessons Louisiana has learned in creating and operating an RSD. Several are instructive for states like Missouri:

  1. “A decentralized statewide school district that relinquishes power to educators and parents.” The goal of an RSD should not be to run local schools from the state capital. Rather, an RSD should encourage and assist local, autonomous schools.
  2. “The RSD leader must humbly acknowledge that a marketplace of school operators will, over the long run, outperform even the best direct-run system.”
  3. The RSD must plan to grow at the right pace with an eye towards human capital and school quality. From the outset, the RSD must work to foster the development of quality school leaders and teachers. The RSD must also be a hawk for excellence, support and expand achieving schools, and close failing ones.

As test scores have made clear, education in our nation’s inner-cities is incredibly challenging. States cannot expect an RSD to immediately solve these problems. However, states should set the stage for enterprising school leaders to develop innovative solutions to these persistent problems, and an RSD has the opportunity to do just that.

Michael Q. McShane, a Kansas City native, is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. James V. Shuls is an education policy analyst at the Show-Me Institute. 

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