Takeover: Race, Education, and American Democracy by Domingo Morel


Takeover: Race, Education, and American Democracy by Domingo Morel tells the story of how state takeovers of urban school districts have tended to coincide with blacks gaining majorities on urban school boards. While the takeovers are based on poor academic performance and corruption, they don’t seem to improve academic results but they do take political power away from the local community. They also tend to result in a lack of collaboration, which is an essential contributor to school success in general. Although this book takes a political side in this argument, it does make a compelling case.

1. Schools, State, and Political Power

  • From the first takeover in 1989 (Jersey City, NJ) to 2017 there have more than 100 takeovers. This book examines takeover politics, their impact on communities, and what they teach us about democracy in America. In addition to at least 33 states and the district of Columbia, the 2001 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation authorized state takeovers. What seems puzzling is that studies on the effects of takeovers do not show markedly improved outcomes in test scores, attendance, and graduation rates. They are seen by many as an assault on local autonomy. Since they usually abolish elected school boards, they appear to violate the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Takeovers, therefore, are about political power and they are often about race as racialized communities have historically relied on education policies as a way to enter the political sphere. The road to the mayor’s office and the city council has often gone by way of the school board.
  • There has been tension between states and cities ever since cities emerged. Beginning in the 1960s, federal grants to states were used to address issues of education and other issues. Although state funding was a small part of the budget at first, it gave states great leverage when it came to controlling the schools. States have also been slower than the federal government when it comes to advancing civil rights. Most takeover laws were passed in Republican-controlled states. This seems odd as the concept of local control has been central for Republicans and conservatives. Domingo sees takeovers as a systematic disempowerment of black communities and as state-sanctioned political inequality.

2. A View from Two Cities

  • Here we have case studies of two school districts that were taken over by their respective states. The first is Newark, New Jersey. Prior to the 1970s, Newark was run by whites even though they were a minority. Then the black and Hispanic voters organized and started to win seats on the school board. They also elected the first black mayor. When state funding shifted due to court decisions, the white-controlled state government demanded accountability from urban schools which included district governance and student accountability. With minorities in charge, the number of jobs in the district expanded. This was seen as patronage among other sources of corruption by the state. In 1988 the state passed one of the first Takeover Laws. When state monitoring exposed nearly 100 complaints, the state took control of its largest district in 1995.
  • The elected board was replaced by an “advisory board” along with a black superintendent. In 1996 the superintendent fired over 600 employees stating that the district had become a source of jobs rather than an educational institution. Nearly 2000 part-time jobs were also cut. Test scores and graduation rates worsened during the next five years. This was a shock to the community that had fought to gain political empowerment.
  • In 1991 the state of Rhode Island took over the Central Falls School District. This district was almost half Hispanic and included many other immigrant groups. They set up an appointed board with no Hispanic representation. In 2006 an enlightened commissioner started appointing Hispanics. In 2012 the election of a Hispanic mayor improved the relationship between the schools and the mayor’s office. In 2015 the district got a Hispanic superintendent. The cooperation and support resulted in better test scores, a higher graduation rate, and a lower dropout rate. In Newark, the takeover was hostile. In Central Falls, the takeover helped create a path for Hispanics to gain political empowerment and forge stronger ties to local and state elected officials. The conclusion: states have the capacity to disrupt or support local schools.

3. State Takeovers and Black and Latino Political Empowerment

  • Schollars generally agree that decentralization is the best way to empower minority groups. An astounding 85% of takeovers have happened in districts where blacks and Latinos make up a majority of the student population. When it comes to how political power for different groups is impacted by takeovers, Newark is representative. The state considered taking over the district when whites ran the school board in the 1960s but never did. They took it over, however, in 1995 when blacks controlled the school board. Latinos made out much better as they went from no power on the elected board to proportional power on the appointed board. Blacks and Latinos are well represented on appointed boards as state officials are concerned with being perceived as “colonizers.” When states go as far as abolishing school boards, it happens mostly in black districts.

4. What Take Over? State Centralization and the Conservative Education Logic

  • Between 1973 and 2000 there were school funding court cases in 18 states aimed at increasing state funding in poor districts after which the 14 states with the highest black populations passed takeover laws. As a result, black students are much more likely to attend a school supervised by state authorities. The main reason given for takeovers puts improving academic performance first, but takeover districts have not shown any improvement. The second reason is to improve education so as to improve the state’s economy. Another puzzle is that when takeovers are hostile, the collaboration that promotes good schooling is disrupted.
  • “White Flight” to the suburbs resulted in a greater degree of segregation in urban areas. The people who left with their money and wanted to keep as much as they could. As we saw in the case of Newark, state takeover resulted in lower spending on the schools. Eighty percent of takeover laws were passed under Republican governors who generally draw a small percentage of black voters. It seems clear that race, economics, and politics are all important factors that contribute to the likelihood of a state takeover, not just educational outcomes and concerns.

5. The Implications of State Takeovers for Urban Politics: Cohesive and Disjointed State-Local Regimes

  • The bulk of this chapter details the relationship between the Newark, NJ school district, and the New Jersey Governors from 1990 to the present. In general, the democrat governors were more in favor of increased financial support and decreased oversight. In 2006 Corry Booker, a black man raised in a white suburb became mayor with weak support from the black community. He backed charter schools, vouchers, and merit pay, which the black community resisted. He got along with the Republican governor Chris Christie who was elected in 2009. During Christie’s term, relations between the state and the people in Newark were fraught with disagreements.

6. Takeovers and American Democracy

  • The history of urban politics is one of corruption and patronage regardless of the race in power. It wasn’t until blacks gained power in schools and city governments, however, that states began to take over school districts. State officials also believe that they know better what is best for students in the districts they takeover even though it’s unlikely that they really care more. Domingo feels that the federal government can help by first providing increased financing to poor school districts. The feds can also push the states to make sure that local populations have more control over their schools.


  • On April 1, 2019, the last state-appointed superintendent departed ending the 22-year state takeover of Newark, NJ’s schools. The book reports the beginning of this process, but it was published (2018) prior to this event. The beginning of this process began in 2015 by the Republican governor Chris Christie just prior to his announcement that he was running for president. It seems clear that this was part of his effort to show how well he could govern a blue state. Two student protests helped bring this effort to pass. It ended a time where locals were blamed for things that they couldn’t control and began a time where they were now responsible for district outcomes. Domingo expects serious scrutiny from the state as a result.

Domingo Morel

  • Domingo is an Asst. Prof at the University for Rutgers, Newark. (@Rutgers_Newark) In addition to authoring Takeover: Race, Education, and American Democracy, he is co-editor of Latino Mayors: Political Change in the Postindustrial City. In 2019, he was a Visiting Scholar at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform and an affiliate with the Taubman Center for American Politics and Policy at Brown University. His website is DomingoMorel.Com. His email is domingo.morel@rutgers.edu. You can reach him on Twitter @DomingoMorel.
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