The justification for mayoral takeover of school districts is that it pinpoints accountability. I’ve always believed, however, that the rationale sounds better on paper than it plays out in reality. The situation in the New York City school system is a case in point.
According to a New York Times/CBS News Poll, voters are “broadly dissatisfied” with the quality of public schools since Mayor Michael Bloomberg took control in June 2002 (“New Yorkers Say Mayor Has Not Improved Schools,” The New York Times, Sept. 7). They base their views on a frustrating system of school choice, services for disabled children and focus on standardized tests. But voters were not any more pleased in April 2005 when 46 percent said the quality of public schools had gotten worse under the mayor’s tenure (“The Schools Under Bloomberg: Much Tumult, Mixed Progress,” The New York Times, Apr. 18, 2005).
The mayor’s office responded to the latest poll results by pointing to test scores that have outstripped test scores in other districts in the state and to all-time high graduation rates. But test scores and graduation rates also rose in other large urban districts that have not switched to mayoral control. This calls into question whether mayoral control is the determining factor.
In all fairness, it’s important to note that New York City won the Broad Prize as the most improved urban district in 2007, although the award was largely based on higher test scores that were not confirmed at the time.
Beyond New York City, mayors get mixed grades as well. Sometimes their takeover helps, as in Long Beach, Calif. In other cities, such as Detroit, it has failed. The record of mayoral control that began in Boston in 1991, Chicago in 1995, Cleveland in 1998, Detroit in 1999 and New York City in 2002 led the Harvard Educational Review to conclude that the “takeover movement has (not) fully lived up to the optimistic predications of its proponents ... .” (“Mayoral Takeovers in Education: A Recipe for Progress or Peril? Summer 2006).
I remain open to evidence that supports claims that mayoral control of schools is a better policy than traditional school board control. But I think the former view is based on the myth of a hero who can step in to solve the ills afflicting districts with disproportionate numbers of disadvantaged students. Like all myths, they eventually are exposed.
The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.