Gary public schools have been under state control for six years, drawing criticism and raising questions from both the community and civic officials. With an appointed school board poised to take the wheel next year, the current state of affairs warrants a deeper examination of how a predominantly Black community functions under the control of white officials. 

Indiana is over 80% white, while the city of Gary is 78% Black. The state took control of the Gary Community School Corporation in 2017, and since then, all emergency managers running the district have been white. This aligns with a nearly all-white Indiana Distressed Unit Appeal Board, which oversees GCSC.  

Capital B Gary has examined the state takeover’s impact and the district’s proposal to close the city’s last public middle schools. In response to these developments, Capital B Gary’s Youth and Education Reporter, Maddy Franklin, interviewed New York University associate professor Domingo Morel on the racial dynamics and historical context of a predominantly Black school district and community being divested of representation and placed under white leadership. Morel has researched race, education, and urban politics and policy throughout his career, and is the author of two books, including Takeover: Race, Education and American Democracy.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Capital B Gary: How often are the school districts that are taken over done in overwhelmingly Black or brown populations?

Domingo Morel: I think it’s important to know a little bit of the history behind the state takeovers. State takeovers of local school districts, as a policy, started to emerge in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The argument often made — and continues to be made — is that the reasons for the state takeovers are because school districts are failing in some way, whether it’s academically or fiscal concerns. We have, something like, over 13,000 school districts in this country, and many of these districts struggle academically or financially. But we’ve only had around 110 takeovers. Takeovers are happening in specific places, and these places are mostly communities of color, specifically African American or majority African American. 

It’s communities that are also led by African American political leadership, whether at the school board level, city council level, or mayoral level. These factors increase the likelihood of a takeover. It’s race, political power, political partisanship, and economics.

The argument has often been that these communities don’t care about the education of their children, and this is why the takeover needs to happen. It is actually the opposite. These communities are fighting for more resources for their schools.

How does what’s happening in Gary fit into the overarching issue of Black communities being empowered? How do takeovers work to break down the lifeblood of a community?

Cities like Gary, Newark, and Detroit began to gain political representation and elect Black mayors in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s. Oftentimes, people do not understand that before there were Black mayors in these places, there first were Black members on school boards. School boards represent the first political institution where African American communities had access to representation, which then expanded to city councils, mayor’s offices, state legislatures, and eventually, for many of these communities, to Congress. When you take away the ability of communities to have their own school board, it takes the foundation from that community’s representation. 

The most important political institution in our communities is the school. When you remove the ability to make decisions about education — what schools are going to be open, what schools are going to be closed, who are going to be the teachers, who is going to be the superintendent, how public buildings will be used — you take away a critical part of the community. It’s how people come together to solve issues, and removing that from communities strips them of their ability to self-govern.

Equally important is that schools usually represent the largest portion of city budgets, and when you take away the ability to determine how to spend their own money, that is also politically and economically disempowering. 

Now there’s this idea floating around of closing two more schools [in Gary], and I think it touches on that breakdown of money lost in the community and morale in general. It’s all very interesting and connected when you zoom out, and it feels like [people in the community] don’t have enough power to really fight against the Republican, majority-white legislature in Indianapolis. 

Absolutely. States have an important role in supporting local public schools. Oftentimes, states can provide resources in ways that localities can’t produce, particularly low-resourced communities. Also, through state departments of education, there’s a level of expertise — just simple things like having researchers and having people who have studied education. Because of that, the state has to partner with local school districts to make sure that school districts can do right by their communities and their children. 

But, when you have the hostility between a state government who’s not invested in the flourishing of that community, they’ll say they care about the children. Still, the kind of things that when you do care about the children, the type of things that you invest in … those kinds of things these state legislators, governors, and Republican-led apparatus — they’re not concerned with that development. The schools are just one way that it’s visible to us that they don’t care. That’s why Black communities have always been fighting against this. Enough years have passed, and now the data is pretty clear on this: that takeovers do not improve education. Communities like Gary have every reason in the world just to be frustrated and to demand something better.