Should Mayors Run Schools?

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Mayoral control of public schools, now found in more than a dozen localities across the nation, has become part of the landscape of American urban education, even as the idea has played out differently from city to city.

Boston and Chicago are prototypes. In Boston, where the governance change was carried out in 1992, the mayor has worked closely with school professionals to implement new programs. In Chicago, where it was enacted in 1995, the mayor, at least initially, worked around school people. Detroit is a case study of mayoral control undone: The plan there went down in a 2005 referendum after six rocky years characterized by racial, partisan, and regional antagonism. The District of Columbia is a recent convert (2007); Los Angeles came close, but never quite got there. And talk about a move to mayoral control has been heard in such diverse places as Albuquerque, N.M.; Dallas; Memphis, Tenn.; Milwaukee; Minneapolis; Newark, N.J.; Rochester, N.Y.; and Seattle.

One of the most closely watched experiments is in New York City, where the 2002 state law that put the mayor in charge of the schools sunsets in June and is up for renewal or modification. Anticipating the legislative item, the leadership of the state Assembly asked the public advocate for the city to appoint a Commission on School Governance, for which I served as executive director. The report of the panelRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader was released at the beginning of the 2008-09 school year. (It is available on the Web sites of the public advocate and The New York TimesRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader, as well as through While the findings and recommendations should be useful to those in other cities considering mayoral control, more important is the way intended reformers go about answering the question of how best to govern their schools.

Based on the limited experience, a few general observations can be made about this general approach to governance. Wherever it has come about, mayoral control has usually received enthusiastic support from the business community. Business leaders favor a strong managerial model that puts a single executive in charge, who can be held accountable for the efficient coordination of resources and the effective delivery of services. And whenever it has been implemented, mayoral control has provoked anxiety among poor and minority populations, who fear that the centralization of authority will remove decisionmaking from community-based institutions and put it beyond their political reach. These distinct perspectives remind us that good governance must balance managerial and democratic ideals. Schools need to be run well; they must also be responsive to the people they serve.

Despite the best hopes of proponents, test results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress reveal that urban school districts run by mayors do no better in reading or math than districts run by traditional school boards. School governance is not the same as school reform. Structure is not a remedy for failure. Mayoral control is an enabler that allows district leaders to set and achieve sound objectives, but it is not a guarantee of either.

From an analysis of the research and our own work in New York, I would conclude that the most significant impact of mayoral control is to create a greater institutional capacity for change. That is no mean achievement in urban systems that have been instinctually resistant to innovation. But this enhanced capacity also carries risks. Such ease of movement increases the probability of error on the part of ambitious practitioners, however well-meaning they might be. More importantly, it can disrupt the safe balance of power among officials, school constituents, and the general public that is needed in a democratic system.

Mayoral control comes in many forms. In Boston, the mayor appoints a seven-member school committee, and the committee chooses a superintendent. Similar arrangements exist in Chicago; Cleveland; Providence, R.I.; and Trenton, N.J. In Washington, the mayor chooses the schools chancellor and four of nine board members. The four board appointees must be confirmed by the District of Columbia Council; the five other members are popularly elected to the board, which is meant to serve as a state review committee.

In New York, the mayor picks eight of 13 panel members, including the chancellor, who serves as both the superintendent and the chair of the panel. The mayor and the five borough presidents who select the other members of the panel may remove their appointees at will (as once happened to three members the night before the chancellor’s controversial plan to end social promotion came up for a vote).

Before the architects of a school governance plan determine the powers of the mayor, they should carefully examine the structure of the municipal government. Education scholars and practitioners have a natural inclination to focus on the composition of the school board and its relationship to the superintendent, but the extent of a mayor’s power and the mechanisms that exist to check that power are found largely in the structure of the municipality. Begin with the local legislature or council. Clarify its budgetary powers, its authority to review programs, to hold public hearings, to conduct investigations. The best indicator of the council’s capacity to check the power of the mayor in the future is its performance in the past.

Then ask who has the authority to audit city agencies, and whether this power would apply to the school district under mayoral control. Find out if these powers involve both financial and performance audits, and whether there are limits on the ability of the mayor and the schools chief to award contracts.

In New York City, our Commission on School Governance recommended that responsibility for the analysis and dissemination of performance data be turned over to the Independent Budget Office, which does not report to the mayor or rely on him for funding. Putting city hall in control of the schools increases the risk of politicizing education and the assessment of school performance. If a city is seriously considering mayoral control, education presumably is already a high political priority, so achievement data can be an irresistible temptation around election time.

The most compelling argument for mayoral control—one I accept—is that it places ultimate responsibility in the hands of a highly visible public figure who is elected by a larger proportion of the electorate than typically votes in school board elections. That being said, in order for a school system to be responsive to the needs of students, it must provide meaningful channels for public and parental input on a regular basis. Big-city school systems need some form of administrative decentralization so that decisions concerning particular schools are made at the community level.

No governance plan can overcome the social impediments that can prevent disadvantaged parents from having an effective voice in the education of their children. But every measure must be taken to offer them and others an opportunity to do so. As the experience in Detroit has demonstrated, a governance system that lacks legitimacy among those who are governed cannot survive.

For mayoral control to function effectively, accountability must proceed on two levels: The school system must be answerable to the mayor, and the mayor must be answerable to the people. That is the way democracy is supposed to work.

Vol. 28, Issue 28, Pages 26, 32

Published in Print: April 8, 2009, as Should Mayors Run Schools?
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