Special Report

Politics and Governance

By Lynn Olson & Craig D. Jerald — January 08, 1998 3 min read

In too many city school systems, adult interests come first and students’ second.

Consider this:

  • Students in the nation’s capital missed the first three weeks of school this year while a parent advocacy group, the appointed board that oversees the school district, the system’s chief executive, and a judge bickered over how to proceed with school repairs that the district had known were needed for more than a year. It was the third time in four years that the District of Columbia system had failed to open all of its schools on time.

About 3,500 students were shunted to temporary facilities for several more weeks while repair crews fixed leaky roofs, faulty boilers, and other problems. “Facilities planning has been a disaster,” said Kathy Patterson, a member of the City Council.

  • Children in East St. Louis, Ill., started school 22 days late this year because of a prolonged teachers’ strike. “We felt they were using our children as casino chips,” complained Kathy Westly, whose youngest child graduated from high school there last year.
  • Six months after she launched an investigation into corruption in the Dallas schools, Superintendent Yvonne Gonzalez was forced to resign last October after admitting she had illegally used district money to buy bedroom furniture for her home. Investigations of the district’s finances by the FBI and federal prosecutors have so far resulted in the indictment of 13 former and current employees for alleged overtime fraud. The district also is suing local contractors to recover more than $1 million allegedly misspent on roof repairs.
  • These examples represent urban school districts at their worst. But many people forget that big-city districts are, at bottom, enormous--and highly bureaucratic--businesses. Businesses where politics and patronage all too often obscure the interests of the children and families who are ostensibly the “customers.”

    “The district has to deal with the day-to-day imperatives of running the district,” says Ted Kolderie, a senior associate at the Center for Policy Studies in St. Paul, Minn. “It does not ‘have to’ pay attention to student learning in anything like the same way. So inevitably its responsibilities to adults take precedence over its responsibilities to students.”

    Atop these vast bureaucracies sit the power brokers: elected school boards, city councils that often control the purse strings, mayors with an eye on the next election, and politicians in the statehouse. Around them are the special-interest groups, each demanding a piece of the pie.

    New regulations and programs are heaped on top of those that came before, building up layers of inefficiency and creating central administrations that often are perceived as sluggish and ineffective. Meanwhile, superintendents come and go--staying less than three years on average--while little changes in classrooms.

    Those at the bottom--teachers, principals, students, and parents--often have trouble making their concerns heard above the din.

    “The fact is, in city after city across the country, public school systems are grossly mismanaged and are abjectly failing in their education mission,” Bob Chase, the president of the National Education Association, said at a meeting of the National Urban League last year.

    “Teachers’ unions, by and large, have not done enough to protest these failures,” he added. “We do a great job protecting our members from these dysfunctional school systems. But we can and must do more to protect children, who are the real victims.”

    Diane S. Ravitch, a senior research scholar at New York University, contends the situation has gotten so bad in many big-city districts that “we’re close to almost a systemic paralysis. The combination of the problems that the kids bring with them and the inefficiency of the system is devastatingly bad for kids.”

    A version of this article appeared in the January 08, 1998 edition of Education Week