by Dr. Terry Stoops
Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
It is not difficult to understand why the editors of Business North Carolina and The Robesonian have asked the state to assist the Public Schools of Robeson County. The school board and superintendent are at an impasse over how to address a $2 million budget deficit. School enrollment is plummeting, leading to underenrolled schools and declining revenue streams. Only around four in 10 students are proficient in reading and math, and local businesses justifiably worry that the schools will not supply high school graduates with satisfactory skills and knowledge to be successful in the workplace. And a community hoping for transformational changes to its system of public schools is once again disappointed and looking for answers.
I believe that state intervention may begin to iron out some of the differences between stakeholders. Moreover, they may provide a fresh perspective and new ideas. But proponents of this approach should temper their expectations of what state intervention can and will achieve. State education leaders have been disinclined to intervene in the affairs of duly elected school board members and those employed by the board. They see their role as limited to providing support, guidance, and services to struggling schools and school districts.
Why are state education leaders unwilling to take a more assertive role in school district affairs? First, they understand the statutory limitations placed on the State Board of Education and the Department of Public Instruction. State law specifies that “boards of education shall have general control and supervision of all matters pertaining to the public schools in their respective administrative units and they shall enforce the school law in their respective units.” Additionally, any power or duty not expressly assigned to another entity is the responsibility of the school board. Conceptually, at least, lawmakers have favored local control in matters of management.
In addition to state law, there are practical considerations. State education leaders understand that resistance to outsiders invariably surfaces when “Raleigh” (usually a dismissive term when uttered by educators) is asked to help. Indeed, it is a natural impulse for established residents to question the ability of outsiders to address the specific needs of local communities. After all, outsiders may lack sufficient knowledge of the historical, institutional, and political circumstances that created the problems that they were sent to solve.
Consider the skepticism over the state’s Innovative School District plan to restructure Southside-Ashpole Elementary School in Robeson County. Few open arms were waiting for then-Innovative School District Superintendent Eric Hall and his ISD colleagues. It took months for Dr. Hall to convince elected officials and parents in the county to support the plan, primarily due to his willingness to address the concerns of its residents through extensive community engagement. That was a contentious debate about changes to one school. Imagine the uproar that would occur if the state tried to implement a plan to consolidate or restructure all of the schools in the district.
That is not to say that the State Board of Education is incapable of addressing local mischief. If more than half the schools in a school district are low-performing or an assistance team recommends removal of a sitting superintendent, state law allows the State Board of Education to appoint an interim superintendent. Additionally, state education leaders have the authority to “suspend any of the powers and duties of the local board of education that the State Board considers are necessary or appropriate to improve student performance.” To my knowledge, the State Board had never resorted to such extreme measures, even when there were legitimate concerns about the competence of those in key leadership roles.
There is no silver bullet that will produce immediate and sustained improvements in academic achievement. Rather, the process of implementing systematic school district reforms requires enthusiastic leaders who create a culture of high academic and behavioral expectations for students and empower outstanding teachers, administrators, and staff. It requires an extraordinary level of trust, courage, and patience. Most importantly, it requires cooperation and humility. I believe that the residents and leaders of Robeson County are up to the task.