Can putting mayors in charge of schools make urban schools work better?
It depends. That was the conclusion of a group of scholars and activists who gathered at a Washington think tank to discuss the popular strategy last week.
The forum, held at the American Enterprise Institute, used as a jumping-off point a new collection of essays about how mayors—to varying degrees—have become involved in education in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, and the District of Columbia.
Jeffrey R. Henig, the co-editor of the book, Mayors in the Middle: Politics, Race, and Mayoral Control of Urban Schools, told a group of about three dozen attendees that he was not yet certain himself whether the increasing popularity of mayoral control is “part of a solution or just another example of a policy du jour.”
On the one hand, he said, it makes sense: A mayor is situated to convene many stakeholders, work across budgetary and city- service lines, and use the bully pulpit to unify support for improving schools.
On the other hand, strong top-down control can risk shutting out key community voices, said Mr. Henig, a professor of political science and education at Teachers College, Columbia University.
Strategies begun by one mayor can fizzle when a successor takes office, said Wilbur C. Rich, the book’s other co-editor and a professor of political science at Wellesley College. But placing more power in a mayor’s hands can generate greater interest in schools, he said, “and they need it.”
The authors refer to the shift in school governance as “mayor-centrism.”
Fritz Edelstein, a senior adviser to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, noted that mayors don’t need formal, legal power over schools to make a difference. He cited a half-dozen examples of cities in which mayors are playing central roles in building new facilities, starting after-school programs, and forging other improvements.
In the end, the scholars agreed, there is little or no hard evidence to suggest that increased mayoral control, in and of itself, boosts student achievement.
“It’s a leap of faith, a hope, a sense of something to try,” Mr. Henig said. “But it’s not evidence-based.”
A version of this article appeared in the June 09, 2004 edition of Education Week