Who Should Be in Charge When School Districts Go into the Red?

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School districts across the land are contending with rising education costs and constrained revenues. Yet state policies for assisting school districts in financial trouble are uneven and complex. Interventions are often haphazard, occur arbitrarily, and routinely place politics over sound economics.

This brief presents a menu of sensible state responses when districts are insolvent or nearly so, arranged into a tiered sequence of interventions.

1. Collaborative Supports

District leaders receive low-impact assistance in managing their finances. Supports might include convening a budget review committee to identify unnecessary expenditures or assisting district finance officers to develop more accurate projections of future revenue. The goal is to work with leaders to recognize and rectify the causes of distress.

2. Financial Management

At this stage, experts are no longer advisory; they now oversee and manage a district’s financial matters. The goal is immediately to improve district finances so as to avert costly bailouts down the line, while building the capacity of district leaders to manage once the experts leave.

3. Administrative Control

Otherwise known as a “state takeover.” Outside experts manage the entire district, not just its finances. A state-appointed administrator and/or governing commission replaces or supersedes the superintendent and board and operates with additional powers. Changes in district management can be accompanied by an emergency loan if necessary, although any major financial assistance should hinge on complete administrative control. The goal here is to remove ineffective leaders and prevent district bankruptcy and closure.

Few districts need drastic measures. Quiet technical assistance is often enough to help local leaders project revenue accurately and adjust expenditures to match. External advisors can also give district leaders political cover to make unpopular decisions. The fear of greater consequences is motivating too, which is welcome news since most states aren’t equipped to run districts. For districts on a catastrophic course, however, “takeover” is warranted—and from the perspective of students and taxpayers, it is even essential.

Download the brief for information on what each stage entails, as well as profiles of districts and states that have successfully implemented interventions (and those that didn’t).



If you have questions about the book, please email Victoria Sears.

Policy Brief: The Ohio Teacher Evaluation System

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A thorough overview of Ohio's teacher evaluation framework

Pre-K and Charter Schools: Where State Policies Create Barriers to Collaboration

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Download the full reportforeword and executive summary, and the base report.

In Pre-K and Charter Schools: Where State Policies Create Barriers to Collaboration, authors Sara Mead and Ashley LiBetti Mitchel examine thirty-six jurisdictions that have both charter schools and state-funded pre-K programs to determine where charters can provide state-funded pre-K. Among the findings:
  • Thirty-five states and the District of Columbia have both state-funded pre-K and charter laws. Of those, thirty-two have at least one charter school serving preschoolers.
  • Charter schools in all but four states face at least one significant barrier to offering state pre-K. Nine have statutory or policy barriers that preclude charter schools from offering state-funded pre-K; twenty-three other states technically permit charters to offer state-funded pre-K but have created practical barriers that significantly limit their ability to do so in practice.

The most common practical barriers include low funding levels, small pre-K programs, barriers to kindergarten enrollment, and local district monopolies on pre-K funds.

Recommendations for state policymakers:

  • Ensure that the state's definition of a "charter school" includes pre-K in the activities or grade levels that charters are permitted to offer.
  • Establish clear policies that allow charter schools operating publicly funded pre-K to enroll the children served by those programs directly into their kindergarten classes.
  • Make certain that charter schools have equal access to state pre-K funds.

Recommendations for federal policymakers:

  • Include pre-K in the federal definition of "charter school."
  • Ensure that federal preschool programs, including Head Start, provide charters equitable access to funding.

State Profiles


If you have questions about the book, please email David Griffith.

Redefining the School District in America

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In Redefining the School District in America, Nelson Smith reexamines existing recovery school districts (RSDs)—entities in Louisiana, Tennessee, and Michigan charged with running and turning around their state’s worst schools—and assembles the most comprehensive catalog of similar initiatives underway and under consideration elsewhere.

Among more than twenty recommendations gleaned from both failed and successful attempts to create and implement RSDs, Smith recommends that those who go down the turnaround path should:

  • Call your lawyer. A close reading of the state constitution is essential. Some states are so wedded to traditional forms of “local control” that setting up a state district will require fancy legal footwork, if not a constitutional amendment.
  • Decide the endgame—for both schools and the turnaround district. Apart from setting goals for school performance, other decisions must be addressed—and the earlier the better.
  • Expect course corrections. Running a statewide district is a huge, complex undertaking full of political, financial, and logistical challenges—not to mention the myriad crises and complications that always arise in institutions serving real children. Sometimes even turnaround efforts need to turn around.
  • Give the locals a chance. After taking over failing schools, reformers sent by the state may want to clean house and start fresh with a whole new cast of characters. Yet incumbent staff should be given the opportunity to apply for work under the new arrangement and prove that, under different circumstances, they can shine.

As with everything in education reform, when it comes to the design of turnaround districts, details truly matter.

This is the final brief in a three-part series. Download the second brief, Redefining the School District in Tennessee, and the third brief, Redefining the School District in Michigan, to learn more.


If you have questions about the book, please email Amber Northern.

In the Media

June 30, 2015
U.S. News and World Report

Getting Out of the Way: Education Flexibility to Boost Innovation and Improvement in Ohio

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For the past year, Ohio policymakers have been grappling with the issue of deregulating public schools. But what does deregulation mean--and how should policymakers go about doing it?

In this new report--authored by Education First’s Paolo DeMaria, Brinton S. Ramsey, and Susan R. Bodary--the Fordham Institute calls for a sweeping deregulation agenda. By cutting through the red tape, on-the-ground leaders will be empowered to recruit, develop, and manage a high-performing staff; innovate new models for education; and custom-tailor their educational approach to the unique needs of students.

The suggestions for commonsense reform include:

  • Eliminate seniority as a consideration in layoffs of nonteaching employees;
  • Expand opportunities for schools to use non-licensed individuals;
  • Eliminate districts’ ability to collectively bargain away inherent management rights, including the right to assign staff;
  • Eliminate any structural requirements on teacher salary schedules; and
  • Allow districts to remove teachers, including tenured ones, if they are evaluated ineffective for more than two years.

The report also recommends the creation of a simple process that allows district boards to waive certain state regulations and the formation of a high-level working group that would identify and evaluate ideas for further deregulatory action. 


If you have questions about the book, please email Aaron Churchill.

Uncommonly Engaging? A Review of the EngageNY English Language Arts Common Core Curriculum

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The need for standards-aligned curricula is the most cited Common Core challenge for states, districts, and schools. Yet five years into that implementation, teachers still report scrambling to find high-quality instructional materials. Despite publishers’ claims, there is a dearth of programs that are truly aligned to the demands of the Common Core for content and rigor. Fixing America’s curriculum problem is no small challenge.

In Uncommonly Engaging? A Review of the EngageNY English Language Arts Common Core Curriculum, Fordham analyzes New York State’s Common Core-aligned ELA curriculum, built from scratch and made available online for all to use for free. How solid is this product? Is it well aligned to the Common Core? Is it teachable?

Here’s what we found:

  • EngageNY’s alignment to the Common Core is generally strong.
  • Selected texts are high-quality and appropriately rigorous, and the program allows educators greater flexibility than other scripted programs.
  • But because New York engaged multiple curriculum developers to create separate resources for different grade bands, each set of materials reflects a distinctive underlying approach to curriculum and literacy, meaning that the progression across grade bands is bumpy.
  • While content and foundational skills in the early grades appear thoughtfully developed, the sheer quantity of content across all grade bands can be overwhelming.
  • Additionally, EngageNY’s high school curriculum (not yet complete) lacks a critical emphasis on literary content, a problem that is amplified by the fact that students read mostly excerpts of great books rather than full novels, biographies, and so on.

While not perfect, the materials offer educators—both inside and outside New York State—an important alternative to traditional textbooks of questionable quality and alignment. 

This has been updated to reflect that at the high-school level, students mostly, not exclusively, read excerpts of great books rather than full novels and biographies.

School Closures and Student Achievement: An Analysis of Ohio’s Urban District and Charter Schools

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School Closures and Student Achievement: An Analysis of Ohio’s Urban District and Charter Schools examines 198 school closures that occurred between 2006 and 2012 in the Ohio ‘Big Eight’ urban areas (Akron, Canton, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Toledo, and Youngstown). The research included 120 closed district-run schools and seventy-eight closed charter schools. Taken together, these closures directly affected 22,722 students—disproportionately low-income, low-achieving, and minority students—who were in grades 3-8 at the point of closure.

The study reveals that children displaced by closure make significant academic gains on state math and reading exams after their school closes.

Three years after closure, the research found that displaced students overall made the following cumulative gains:

  • Students who had attended a closed district school gained forty-nine additional days of learning in reading and thirty-four additional days in math and;
  • Students who had attended a closed charter school gained forty-six additional days in math.

Further, the study reveals that students who attended a higher-quality school after closure made even greater progress. Three years after closure, displaced students who transferred to a higher-quality school made the following cumulative gains:

  • Students who had attended a closed district school gained sixty-nine additional days of learning in reading and sixty-three additional days in math and;
  • Students who had attended a closed charter school gained fifty-eight additional days of learning in reading and eighty-eight additional days in math.

Estimated gains are based upon a 180-day school year and are benchmarked against the gains displaced students would have likely made, had they attended their closed school.

Dr. Deven Carlson of the University of Oklahoma and Dr. Stéphane Lavertu of the Ohio State University conducted the research and authored the report. They used data provided by the Ohio Department of Education and applied empirical methods to gauge the impact of closure on students’ academic achievement.

Shutting Bad Schools, Helping Students
By Michael J. Petrilli and Aaron Churchill
Wall Street Journal

Closing schools has benefits
Editorial Board
Columbus Dispatch

If you have questions about the book, please email Aaron Churchill.

Developing School Leaders: What the U.S. Can Learn from England's Model

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The myriad challenges facing school principals in the United States have been well documented, including limited opportunities for distributed leadership, inadequate training, and a lackluster pipeline for new leaders. Recently, the Fordham Institute teamed up with the London-based Education Foundation to seek a better understanding of England’s recent efforts to revamp school leadership. This joint effort led to a white paper, Building a Lattice for School Leadership; the short film, Leadership Evolving: New Models of Preparing School Heads; a fall 2014 conference that brought together nearly forty experts on school leadership from both countries; and a new report, Developing School Leaders: What the U.S. Can Learn from England’s Model, that reflects the discussions at the fall conference. This paper:

  • Summarizes the key elements of the English system, as well as systems for training and credentialing leaders at several levels;
  • Describes how changes in leadership development reflect broader education-policy shifts and how the English system currently benefits from a combination of top-down and decentralized models; and
  • Examines potential implications for American public education and poses questions for policymakers and educators to consider.

There are obvious and significant differences between the two systems. With about twenty thousand schools, England has roughly the same number as California and Texas combined—all within a nation the size of Wisconsin.  England’s central government in Whitehall makes most of the big education-policy decisions. Given the much larger and markedly more decentralized U.S. system, direct policy transfusions are unlikely. Yet England’s view of school leadership, combined with local models of support and development, may nonetheless provide a useful roadmap away from the present U.S. system. 


If you have questions about the book, please email David Griffith.

Common Core and America's High-Achieving Students

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Gadfly editorial by Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Amber M. Northern

While the merit and politics of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have been much debated and discussed, one topic has been virtually ignored: What do the standards portend for America’s high-ability students? This brief addresses that question and provides guidance for CCSS-implementing districts and schools as they seek to help these youngsters to reach their learning potential. Four key points emerge.

1. Common Core is no excuse to ditch gifted services.
2. State and local officials should get rid of policies that hurt gifted students and strengthen those that help them.
3. Schools should work hard to make differentiation "real."
4. Schools should make use of existing high-quality materials that help teachers adapt the Common Core for gifted students.

In the Media

February 22, 2015
Education World
February 23, 2015
THE Journal

The Road to Redemption: Ten Policy Recommendations for Ohio's Charter School Sector

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Over 120,000 charter students in Ohio deserve the opportunity to receive an excellent education. But far too often, Ohio charters have produced mediocre results. In the most extensive evaluation of Ohio charters to date, the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) recently found that Ohio charter-school students, on average, make less academic progress than their district counterparts.

Part of the problem has been Ohio’s incoherent charter-school law—a law that has too often failed to put students’ best interests first. Instead, in too many ways, it has protected powerful vested interests, smothered schools with red tape, starved even the best schools, and tolerated academic mediocrity.

But fixing Ohio’s charter law is no easy task. The law itself is roughly 40,000 words and has been amended nineteen times since its enactment in 1997. It contains many peculiar exceptions, loopholes, and restrictions.

Policymakers must know exactly what needs to be repaired and how best to make the fix. Authored by Bellwether Education Partners, a national education-consulting group, this report offers ten policy recommendations that, if implemented, will lead to stronger charter policy in Ohio.

These recommendations pivot around three central objectives that policymakers must focus on in a charter-reform bill:

  • Define governing relationships: Currently, Ohio charter law too vaguely defines the powers and responsibilities of each actor in the charter-governing system. State policymakers need to remedy this by more clearly and explicitly establishing the governing relationships in the charter-school structure.
  • Purge conflicts of interest: State policymakers should not tolerate permissive laws that allow adults to make dishonest gain at the expense of students’ best interest.
  • Help charters compete: At present, state policy treats Ohio charters as second-class public schools. They receive less overall taxpayer funding, garner scant facilities support, and are often at the mercy of traditional districts when it comes to student transportation. Now is the time to remedy charter-funding inequities.

The Ohio policymaking community is poised to tackle charter-school reform. This report, The Road to Redemption: Ten Policy Recommendations for Ohio’s Charter Sector, builds on the policy foundations laid in our 2006 charter-policy report, considers the latest developments in Ohio charter policy, and reflects some of the very best thinking nationally concerning charter-school policy.

Wise policymakers—those who care deeply about the twin principles of good governance and robust competition in our public institutions—will keep this report at their side in the coming days.


If you have questions about the book, please email Aaron Churchill.