NY School Problems Highlight Debate Over Outside ‘Receivers’

August 3, 2015 Updated: December 13, 2015

BUFFALO, N.Y.—The clock is ticking for leaders of New York’s most chronically underperforming public schools, who under a new state law must quickly begin to turn things around or lose control to an outsider—a tactic that has produced mixed results elsewhere.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo points to Massachusetts, where education officials say giving a state-appointed leader, or receiver, the freedom to lengthen school days, replace principals, and make other changes has been working.

But with 144 schools in 17 New York districts now targeted, opinions vary on whether taking schools, and broad powers, away from school boards is the answer.

Receivership is the state’s way of shifting the blame from its own failure to adequately support struggling schools, most of which are in impoverished districts, said Karen Magee, president of New York State United Teachers.

The 20 schools statewide that are classified as persistently struggling will start the upcoming school year in the receivership of their districts’ superintendents.

On the other hand, Buffalo parent leader Sam Radford sees “the dawn of a new day” for schools where progress has been hampered by conflicted leadership and a lack of agreement on what to do.

Under the law passed in April, the 20 schools statewide that are classified as persistently struggling—failing for 10 straight years—and 124 more called struggling because of three years of low academic performance, will start the upcoming school year in the receivership of their districts’ superintendents.

Equipped with an array of new powers, including expanding the school day and year, renegotiating union contracts, changing budgets and curricula, and converting the schools to charter schools or community schools with services like health care and counseling, the superintendents will have one year to show improvement at the longest struggling schools and two years for the others. The schools will share $75 million in extra funding.

“If we come together and figure it out this year, great,” Radford said in Buffalo, where five schools are classified as persistently struggling and 20 struggling, the most of any district outside the New York City area. “But if we don’t, we start seeing schools to go independent receivership, which means we’ve got another bite at the apple to figure out how to get things to work with somebody who’s not tied down to the contracts and to the politics.”

Receivership Has Shown Results

In three years of receivership, schools in Lawrence, Massachusetts, have seen the graduation rate increase to 66.9 percent in 2014, up from 52.3 percent in 2011, as well as a 13 percentage point increase in math proficiency since 2012 and a 3 percent rise in English Language Arts, said Julie Swerdlow Albino, the district’s chief redesign officer, who acknowledged there is still a long way to go.

“There was really a lack of urgency and innovation in the district for a long time,” Swerdlow Albino said. In the whole-district takeover, state-appointed receiver Jeff Riley, a former principal, oversaw the creation of vacation academies that pay top teachers $3,000–$4,000 stipends to work with struggling students over breaks and added 200 to 300 hours to the school year. Collective bargaining agreements were renegotiated, and more than half of the district’s principals were replaced.

“Receivership gives a lot of powers,” Swerdlow Albino said. “But you can take it in a variety of directions. Our receiver chose the approach that actually gave more autonomy and decision-making to individual schools.”

Two Michigan districts saw less success after for-profit education management organizations (EMO) were hired to run the schools, according to a June report by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. In Muskegon, the EMO withdrew amid budget pressures caused by a drop in enrollment, the report said. In Highland Park, the American Civil Liberties Union unsuccessfully challenged the receiver in court over a lack of improvement.

“Whether we agree or disagree, this is the law.”
— Michael Paolino, principal, Albany's Hackett Middle School

Only one of five Indiana schools taken over in 2012 has seen its grade improve from an F to a D, according to published reports.

“Whether we agree or disagree, this is the law,” said Michael Paolino, principal of Albany’s Hackett Middle School, on New York’s persistently struggling list.

The school, Paolino said, already has increased tutoring and professional development and implemented other strategies expected under receivership, he said. He sees the state’s expectations for his school as ones he would strive for with or without receivership.

Nevertheless, “we have to play by the rules and we have to meet the criteria of those rules, and I think we’re embracing that both as a building and as a district,” Paolino said.

Lisa Griffith’s son will begin his junior year at Buffalo’s Lafayette High School, on the struggling list. She said an influx of refugee children and their language difficulties are a big reason for students’ overall low academic scores and sees receivership, which includes a call for community involvement, as a chance to tailor instruction and services to the school’s needs.

“Our kids are good kids,” she said. “They’re not failures.”