Plan Could Allow State Takeover of F-Rated Schools

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi lawmakers are considering a sweeping plan that could remove more than 100 low-performing schools from local school board control for unknown periods of time.

The proposal was added to House Bill 890 Tuesday by the Senate Education Committee. It says the state Department of Education must take over any F-rated school that doesn't reach a C rating after two years, or any F-rated school that improves to C and then ever drops back to D or F.

The two-year clock would begin running with the ratings that follow the school year beginning next fall. That means takeovers could begin sometime after fall 2015.

Senate Education Chairman Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, said Thursday he intends to amend the law to make department takeovers optional and not required. Last fall, there were 127 F-rated schools in Mississippi, almost 15 percent of all 878 schools that were graded on the new A-to-F scale.

"You can't take over all those and I understand that," Tollison said.

The Mississippi Department of Education, which proposed the new plan, said it intends takeovers to be optional. Larry Drawdy, the interim deputy superintendent who's running the current takeover process, said he hadn't read the current language.

The change was rolled into a 108-page rewrite of a House bill that also includes plans for charter schools, higher entry requirements to public university teacher preparation programs and requirements to improve reading instruction.

Under the plan, the state could run schools that it takes over. It could also abolish a school and send students to the nearest C-rated or higher school, even if that school is in another district. The bill currently says that another district must accept students from a closed school, but Tollison said he intends to make that optional as well.

Finally, the state could hand over the school to a charter school organization or other outside contractor. Many lawmakers have expressed interest in the state hiring charter operators to improve schools the state takes over.

To date, the state has only taken over districts, not schools. Currently, the Department of Education has conservators overseeing eight systems: Aberdeen, Hazlehurst, Indianola, North Panola, Okolona, Oktibbeha County, Sunflower-Drew and Tate County.

A 2010 law already gives the state the authority to take over individual failing schools. Its author, Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, said that "new start" law was aimed at districts that aren't failing but have individual schools that are chronic underperformers.

Drawdy said only one school, East Oktibbeha High School, has performed low enough to trigger it, and he said that when the state looked at that school, it decided to take over the whole district. Under the law, a school had to be rated "failing" for three straight years. That was the lowest rung on the state's old seven-step grading system, and Drawdy said most schools rise a rung or two during the three years, sometimes before dropping back down. Failing and two categories immediately above were combined into F on the new grading scale.

Former state Superintendent Tom Burnham had said he wanted to end state takeovers. Drawdy said the new plan doesn't clash with that goal.

"Our objective was to get the local schools to address a failing school in their district," he said of the plan.

Some reform advocates doubt state takeovers are an effective long-term strategy. For example, the state is preparing to return the Okolona district to local control, though the district and its two schools are rated F.

"You have seen improvement everywhere. The improvement has been small in some places and large in others," said Rachel Canter, executive director of Mississippi First. "We have yet to see that school improvement sustained beyond the conservatorship."

The 2010 law directed the department to set exit standards from the new start program, but the department has never done so. Tollison's bill would repeal the existing law, and the new measure doesn't say anything about when or if schools would be given back to local boards.

Tollison said he believes the department would still have the power to set exit standards.

However, some education groups have interpreted the bill to say schools in the program would never be returned to local control.

"I don't believe you can run schools in all parts of the state from Jackson," said Sam Bounds, executive director of the Mississippi Association of School Superintendents.

Even with exit standards, Brown said it's hard to see how the state could return control of a school it abolished.

"I think it needs a lot of work," Brown said of the entire proposal.

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