Expanding charter schools, creating state-run districts, and focusing on state-regulated in-house district solutions are the key strategies to watch for as states figure out how to manage school turnaround under new federal education law, according to a recently released report.

A center-right think tank, the Fordham Institute partnered with the nonprofit group Education Cities, to issue a report, “Leveraging ESSA to Support Quality-School Growth.” The report’s goal is to give state leaders guidance for how to best craft school turnaround strategies under the new educational law of the land, the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.

ESSA was passed in 2015 and was written to return policy-making power to states and local school districts after over a decade of centralized control from Washington. The sweeping changes are being implemented gradually, and states are currently working to submit their ESSA compliance plans for April 3rd or September 18th deadlines of this year.

For much of the Bush and the Obama administrations, Washington largely dictated how states were supposed to intervene in the nation’s lowest performing schools (typically measured as schools with test-scores in the bottom five percentiles of a state, or those with low high school graduation rates). The federal education department would tie its grant funding to whether states adopted Washington’s preferred school turn-around strategies. In an embarrassing report released just before it left office, the Obama administration was forced to recognize that this strategy was largely ineffective.

One of the reforms instituted by ESSA was a consolidation of federal grant programs. As this week’s Fordham report notes, school turnaround funds are now included under ESSA’s Title I, a nearly $15 billion pool of money intended to support students from low-income families. Under ESSA, states must use seven percent of their Title I dollars to fund school turnaround initiatives.

While states now have more freedom to decide how to improve low-performing schools, Congress did tighten restrictions on the evidence-base that states must use to allocate federal funds for interventions. According to the Fordham study, expanding charter schools is the safest way for states to avoid running afoul of the statute’s more stringent research-based requirements (though a recent move to further take the federal education department out of the policy-making equation suggests that states should not be overly concerned about rigid enforcement).

The study argues that converting chronically low-performing traditional public schools into public charters is a promising approach, particularly in urban settings. While the study acknowledges that charter school performance nationally “ranges from amazing to awful,” the authors pointed to large charter sectors in Washington, D.C., New York City, and Newark, New Jersey as success stories.

The authors say that when robust authorizing and support frameworks are in place, charters have had a demonstrated impact on improving student outcomes. Some reformers have also suggested that competition from charters can improve the traditional public school system as well. One drawback to the charter expansion model for school turnaround, however, is that charter school operators tend to prefer startup-style approaches where they can manage a school from the ground-up, rather than reforming schools that are already struggling, according to the report.

The next intervention model highlighted in the Fordham report looks at examples where a state education agency steps in and assumes direct control of a chronically underperforming school, or school district. The key example for this approach is in Louisiana, where the state’s “Recovery School District” ended up assuming de facto control over nearly all of New Orleans’ schools in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

While the state-run school district model has been successful in Louisiana, results were mixed in Nevada and Tennessee, according to the study. The report also noted that local school districts and local communities are often reluctant to cede control to state bureaucrats.

Finally, the authors examined state-overseen, locally-based interventions. Typically these models involve appointing a “receiver” with broad powers to turnaround struggling schools. The study cautioned states that opt for this approach to ensure that the reforms initiated by the receiver are anchored in scientifically proven strategies.

The prototype for a locally-based intervention is the school reform effort undertaken in Lawrence, Massachusetts, according to the report. In that city, the state appointed receiver, Jeffrey Reilly, reportedly oversaw a 14 percentage point increase in the high school graduation rate in three years. Again, as with the direct state-takeover model, some areas have had more success than others with this approach, and resistance from local leaders to give up control remains an obstacle, according to the report.

As states put the finishing touches on their ESSA plans, more clarity will emerge on how states plan to tailor federal support to the specific needs of their most needy schools and districts. As the Fordham report notes, the decision of which school turnaround strategy a state picks will in large part hinge on that state’s politics and the pros and cons inherent to the various strategies laid out above.

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