In the words of 19th-century educator and reformer Horace Mann, education should be the “great equalizer” of opportunity in a society, but this is not America’s reality. Some school districts have fallen deeply into debt, and they are losing students to neighboring districts, private or charter schools. Many states now grapple with questions of responsibility and concerns with the adequacy of elected school officials.
A move by Indiana’s Ball State University (BSU) is the newest solution on the table. “This July, [BSU] took over Muncie Community Schools,” Felix Rippy, a doctoral candidate of public policy, states in a recent Op-Ed. Muncie Community Schools is the name of the debt-ridden, shrinking public-school district in Ball State’s area.
University takeover is just an optional step in Indiana’s new process to mediate school district failure. Rippy details the highlights of Indiana House Bill 1315, which first aims “to monitor schools in danger of falling into financial distress,” with indicators. The bill establishes a process for mediating such distress. The Distressed Unit Appeals Board then votes for or against a state takeover of the distressed district. If the board votes in favor, this bill removes many powers of the district’s school board. “These boards lose their power to fire and hire the superintendent and are reduced to meeting only twice per year. The bill even provides that a new school board can be appointed by the state.”
Finally, Indiana House Bill 1315 allows universities to intervene. This is when BSU fully comes into play, and pushback is a part of the game. Rippy finds this predictable, observing that university takeover “is a massive upheaval of traditional solutions and require[s] a major loss of the power of elected school officials.” Further, these solutions lack precedence. It has happened only once before, in 1989 when Boston University (BU) took control of the failing nearby public-school district of Chelsea, Massachusetts.
Felix Rippy heavily considers the BU takeover in discussing BSU’s new endeavor. BU faced pushback upon taking Chelsea’s schools, just like BSU. Chelsea’s teacher’s union sued on the grounds that the deal conflicted with the Massachusetts Constitution. Hispanic student activists protested, saying that their community was not adequately considered in the decision-making process, and some School Board and Committee members disagreed with giving outsiders control in their community. However, the pushback will subside, Rippy implies. Looking again at the Boston example, BU was only given a ten-year contract of control over Chelsea’s schools. When time was up, the contract was renewed for more five years, and then five on top of that. Chelsea schools had been improving, and continuing this trajectory became important to the community.
Felix Rippy discusses the benefits to a university takeover of a public school district. “I was excited to write an Op-Ed on this public education solution because it is so sensible to me,” he says. The way he explains the unique combination of ability and duty of universities makes this strategy seem glaringly obvious. Universities, especially those with highly regarded schools of education, have the knowledge, resources and networks to really impact a failing public school district. Rippy calls for readers to take a moment to question: “[h]ow could universities with well-regarded schools of education sit back and watch their local schools—many of them their feeder schools—drown in debt and student failure?” For some universities, this duty is compounded by a public status. Public universities, like Ball State, have a unique responsibility to give back to the community that supports their existences. Thus, Rippy concludes, “a multitude of universities across the country have the perfect combination of ability and duty to serve their local public schools.”
Felix Rippy’s writings on this subject conclude that this modern university takeover of local schools has the potential to disrupt public education reform. Unlike in the case of Muncie, where a new state law was passed to facilitate the BSU takeover, a simple vote by Chelsea school district officials gave BU control of their failing schools. In his blog on the subject, Rippy points out that Indiana’s move to legislate the district hand-off “signals a shift toward openness to new ed. solutions.” If BSU is successful, it will set “a solid precedent for a 21st-century remedy for failing public school districts,” Rippy asserts. As the full implications of such a success are unknown, Felix Rippy and other education enthusiasts across the country will be following this newest public education solution.