Try turnaround without takeover

O ver the past two decades of trying to figure out how to turn around failing schools and districts, it’s clear that Mississippi has not come up with a method that works all that well.

It can send in a state-appointed administrator to run things indefinitely, and that helps correct financial mismanagement and eliminate cronyism. Still, however, the main thrust of these takeovers — to reverse years of academic malpractice — proves largely elusive.

Leflore County is a perfect case in point. Now four years into state intervention, the district is again rated F, the same as it was when Gov. Phil Bryant declared the district in a state of emergency.

Last week, Bryant said that the unimpressive results of state takeovers to date were among the reasons he decided to reject, at least for now, the state Board of Education’s recommended takeover of the Jackson School District. Bryant said he also had concerns — legitimate, in our opinion — whether the state Department of Education had the expertise or capacity to run a 27,000-student district, the state’s second-largest.

So instead, the Republican governor has forged an unusual alliance with Jackson’s Democratic mayor, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, to try a different approach. The two of them, along with the private Kellogg Foundation, are going to appoint a 15-member commission with education expertise to work with a soon-to-be-named, all-new Jackson School Board to try to figure out what to do about the troubled district, which just received its second straight F rating.

Dr. Carey Wright, the state superintendent of education, may be a little chapped about this, but she already has her hands full trying to implement yet another new approach to dealing with failing schools. Within a year, she is supposed to have in place what’s being called an Achievement School District, which will be assigned with running the worst of the worst districts across the state.

All of this is somewhat an exercise in grasping at straws. There’s plenty of evidence for what makes a successful district: competent local governance that hires good administrators and teachers and sets high standards; involved parents who provide a stable family structure and make it known to their offspring that education is a top priority; widespread community buy-in. But how does an outside entity compensate when some or all of the above is missing?

Conservatorship has been tried with mixed results. The Achievement School District seems unwieldy. And the Bryant-Lumumba-Kellogg model has lots of unanswered questions, such as how much authority, if any, the commission will have.

For now, perhaps experimentation is in order. Try several approaches until one is found that produces  lasting, honestly achieved success where failure has been the prior norm. Once that’s found, if it’s found, start replicating it as fast as possible.