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The Capitol building in Jackson, Mississippi. Jackson Public Schools entered into an agreement with a private foundation, the City of Jackson, and the Governor’s office to improve its schools.
The Capitol building in Jackson, Mississippi. Jackson Public Schools entered into an agreement with a private foundation, the City of Jackson, and the Governor’s office to improve its schools. Credit: Terrell Clark for The Hechinger Report

The future of Jackson Public Schools is now in the hands of a coalition that includes representatives from Gov. Phil Bryant’s office, Jackson Public Schools, the City of Jackson, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. The commission will oversee research and conduct a listening tour to determine the best next steps to improve the Jackson’s schools, and avoid a state takeover. In the past, such takeovers have produced spotty and inconsistent results in struggling Mississippi districts, (The W.K. Kellogg Foundation is among the funders of The Hechinger Report.)

But how common is this governance-by-coalition model across the country? Not very, according to Kenneth Wong, director of the Urban Education Policy Program at Brown University. The takeover in Jackson “offers an interesting new model, departing from the more commonly used state takeover approach across dozens of school districts,” Wong said. While foundations or organizations may provide funding or exert control over certain programs in a district, the participation of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in the Jackson model is unique because the foundation is “formally involved with a set of specific goals,” he added.

District and school takeovers can happen in a variety of ways, such as when a state disbands a school board and sends in an interim superintendent, as is the model in Mississippi. Other states allow the takeover of individual struggling schools. Some states cede control over a district or schools to private organizations, most commonly charter school operators. Perhaps the most notable examples of this model are found in New Orleans and in the Achievement School District in Memphis.

Here are some of the nation’s most striking examples of involvement by private organizations or foundations in public schools:

  • Los Angeles: In 2009, the Los Angeles Unified School District launched a program allowing private organizations and individuals to compete for control of certain low-performing schools. The Public School Choice Initiative was open to many applicants, including community organizations, charter school operators, and non-profit organizations. It was funded by federal money.
  • Philadelphia: The Philadelphia School District in Pennsylvania was turned over to a five-member panel known as the School Reform Commission, which took control in 2001. Currently, the panel includes the President and CEO of a local education nonprofit as well as a former local superintendent. In 2012, the William Penn Foundation donated $1.5 million to help the district hire a management consultant and restructure the district. Last week, Philadelphia’s mayor called for the commission to disband so that he could appoint a school board to control the district.
  • Detroit: In Detroit, private funding from the PNC Foundation has brought supplies, field trips, and services like support programs for parents to some pre-K classrooms in public schools.
  • Tulsa: The nonprofit Met Cares Foundation and Tulsa Public Schools are jointly operating an elementary school, basing their efforts on a community school model that both addresses socio-economic factors and allows for innovative teaching methods, according to the Tulsa World.
  • Battle Creek, Michigan: Earlier this year, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation used an approach similar to that taken in the Jackson Public Schools when it donated $51 million over five years to public schools in its hometown of Battle Creek, Michigan. The donation will support a host of efforts, including hiring early literacy staff, developing a free pre-K summer program, cutting down on student suspensions, and offering recruitment and retention incentives for teachers, according to the Associated Press.

Kenneth Wong said the fact that Mississippi’s Department of Education has not backed away from its recommendation for a state takeover adds an important and interesting element to this governance model. “The MDE’s position will create an incentive for this new governance arrangement to focus on its goal to turnaround the district in a timely manner,” Wong said.

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