Travis Reginal, MPA, Staff Writer, Brief Policy Perspectives
There is only one step standing between the Jackson Public School District existing as an independent district and being taken over by the Mississippi Department of Education. Jackson Public Schools (JPS), the second-largest school district in Mississippi, is facing a potential state intervention due to several complaints from the state regarding school test scores, safety, and management issues. In August of this year, the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) produced a 680-page report detailing an audit that found the district to be in violation of 24 out of 32 of the state accreditation standards. Violations included seniors participating in graduation ceremonies without fulfilling all necessary requirements, lack of instruction in classrooms, and unsafe school conditions. The comprehensive audit was ordered after the results of a limited audit by MDE were released in August 2016. JPS created a Comprehensive Action Plan (CAP) to address the limited audit, but the actions were deemed insufficient and too slow. MDE recommended placing JPS in a state of emergency, and the State Board of Education agreed.
Now, the fate of JPS is in the hands of Governor Phil Bryant. After evaluating previous state takeovers and the current situation in JPS, I advise the governor to avoid a state takeover and instead work with the district to reach a mutually agreeable solution. Ultimately, I believe the MDE audit findings, while enlightening, reached the wrong conclusion.
Reactions to the Audits
The school district responded to the state’s audit with a presentation detailing measures it took to address outstanding issues.The presentation notes MDE inaccurately reported that seniors who did not meet graduation requirements participated in graduation exercises. The presentation also points out that the MDE inappropriately placed over 100 pages of negative media in the audit and overlooked many great things the district is doing. For example, the district includes Davis Magnet, the highest performing elementary school in the state, and JPS has consistently produced students who went on to attend Ivy League and other top universities.
A state takeover is highly unpopular in Jackson and city officials have stated they are ready to push back against state intervention. Due to the high level of resistance, Governor Phil Bryant should seek to find an alternative that is responsive to the State Board of Education’s audit and the positions of the officials, teachers, and community members in Jackson.
Do State Takeovers Work?
The results on state takeovers are mixed. Radical changes can occur when a school board is dissolved and a superintendent is dismissed. This may be why it is done so rarely. As a result, there are not many examples of district takeovers to turn to for guidance. The major case study is New Orleans Public Schools, which was dissolved and turned into the Recovery School District (RSD). Virtually all of the public schools in the district were turned over to charter school operators. Stanford University published an evaluation of the Recovery School district and noted the New Orleans schools still struggle academically, and the positive gains of the takeover have disproportionately gone to white students and students who can afford to pay for school lunch.
In Mississippi, progress tends to fluctuate from year to year. Sustained change in Jackson will prove difficult to accomplish if officials take the same approach as they did in New Orleans. Further, JPS may prove to be the most difficult takeover yet for MDE due to the large size of the school district and the myriad of confounding systemic issues that have created the conditions that exist today.
- Revisit state takeover procedures to allow for more community input in the process. The findings of the comprehensive audit should have been discussed with teachers, staff, and parents before the official report was released. This is a best practice of culturally responsive evaluation and helps to fact check, as evaluators can misunderstand and inaccurately describe a situation. Furthermore, more honesty and transparency is needed. Who was involved in the audit? Do they have experience working or living with African-Americans or low-income communities? In a state that is consistently deemed the worse place to raise a child, receiving this designation 27 out of the last 28 years, and has a history of terrible race and class relations, issues of power, race, and class has to be factored in discussions concerning a potential state takeover. The State Board of Education’s critiques echo a common narrative about JPS, often perpetuated by those living outside of Jackson. Many of these ideas are misleading and serve to create biases and incomplete depictions of a community that may be impacting officials’ perspectives.
- Clarify the amount of time permitted to address violations. It would be helpful for all parties to know exactly the timeframe given to address issues. Also, this timeframe should be determined before an audit is conducted. After the 2016 limited audit, JPS was not given a clear deadline for taking corrective actions and the 2016-2017 comprehensive audit was conducted only a few months later and thus, does not accurately represent issues that are still outstanding and progress to date.
- If a takeover is not declared, JPS and the state should work collaboratively to find sufficient resources to address issues raised in the comprehensive audit. Progress could be faster with assistance from the state. In 2015, the Mississippi residents debated and voted on Initiative 42, which would have fully funded public schools in the state through the Mississippi Adequate Education Program. Ultimately, Initiative 42 did not pass. The suggestions in the MDE audit could be implemented with adequate resources supplied by the state.
- If a takeover is declared, clear and transparent goals should be set. One of the issues with state takeovers is that they often only address leadership and management issues, with no noticeable differences in academics. Administrators in Mississippi discussed increasing the focus on academic improvement, but no final decision has been made.
- A third party should be involved in assessing potential state takeovers to ensure objectivity during the process. The state could leverage expertise either locally from Jackson State University’s Public Administration department or from other universities or firms on implementing culturally responsive evaluation and facilitating conversations between MDE and Jackson officials, teachers, and students. The current processes in place by MDE treats the administrator as the expert and assumes the public does not have much insight to offer into the situation. This leaves Jackson residents feeling unheard, ignored, and disrespected.
In conclusion, Governor Phil Bryant should pursue an alternative to a state takeover of Jackson Public Schools due to issues concerning the timing of the MDE audit process, the lack of meaningful feedback sessions with the community before the findings were finalized, and the progress JPS has made to address the identified issues. Jackson officials and community members have proposed several alternatives to a state takeover which should be pursued before the drastic measure of a state takeover occurs. A takeover would slow down the momentum in JPS and leave most of the community feeling disappointed and ignored. The results of the MDE audit are important and JPS officials, teachers, and community members are committed to addressing those issues. MDE should work with the people of Jackson in JPS by providing additional resources instead of pushing ahead in lieu of the people of Jackson with an unwanted state takeover.