School & District Management

A Fading School Reform? Mayoral Control Is Ending in Another City

By Libby Stanford — June 27, 2023 7 min read
Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson delivers his inaugural address after taking the oath of office as Chicago's 57th mayor on May 15, 2023, in Chicago.
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Chicago’s newly elected mayor Brandon Johnson has a major transition ahead of him over the next three years—as the city’s schools undergo a full leadership restructuring.

Starting in November 2024, Chicago voters will elect their first school board members in nearly 30 years, after state lawmakers passed a law backed by the city teachers’ union that phases out the mayor’s control over the city’s public schools.

By 2027, voters will have elected all 21 members of the board. It will be a major change from the past three decades, during which the city’s mayor appointed the district’s board and its CEO under an education reform popularized in the 1990s.

It will also be the latest example of the fading popularity of mayoral control of schools, a reform that took root in some cities across the country in an effort to boost accountability and urban school performance.

Eleven districts in nine states currently operate under a mayoral control model. It looks different for each one. In some districts, like Chicago, the mayor has full authority to appoint all members of the school board and the district’s superintendent, called the CEO. In others, like New York City, the mayor appoints some members while others are elected.

At its start, education reform advocates claimed that mayoral control made it easier to hold school districts accountable for low performance because one person, rather than a group of people, would be held responsible, said Celeste Lay, a political science professor at Tulane University who has studied mayoral control in schools.

“It’s almost always tied to the argument that the schools are performing badly, that the schools are bad schools, and if we instill accountability that alone will improve schools,” Lay said. “The mayor will then make it a priority and see to it that the schools are more successful.”

But the model has shown mixed results over the years, and in some places, it has failed to maintain community support. Earlier this year the Boston’s city council passed a petition to the state legislature that would end mayoral control of the school district and transition to a fully elected school board. Mayor Michelle Wu vetoed that measure, according to the Boston Globe.

In Chicago, the end of mayoral control is the result of decades of opposition from teachers’ union leaders, including influential former president Karen Lewis. Opposition intensified as then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel closed 50 schools in 2013.

The school closures, which affected primarily Black and Hispanic students, followed the city’s decision to close the Cabrini-Green public housing project in the early 2000s. For Chicago’s Black and Hispanic families, school closures under Emanuel and mayoral control felt like a threat to their livelihood, said Sally Nuamah, a political science professor at Northwestern University who has studied the effects of mass school closures on Black Americans.

“This is about the fate of Black and brown communities,” Nuamah said. “And once people understood that, whether their schools closed or not, they could see why they should be invested in this issue and engaged in the resistance.”

Does mayoral control work?

Mayoral control is one part of the larger education reform movement that swept school systems during the 1990s and 2000s. That movement included the introduction of school choice measures and charter schools, the bipartisan No Child Left Behind law, and standardized test-driven accountability for school performance.

At the time, mayoral control supporters argued that the traditional model of electing school board members failed to hold schools accountable and give all voters a say over what happens in their schools, Lay said. School board elections tend to have lower voter turnout than mayoral elections, which supporters said led to certain groups—namely teachers’ unions—exerting an outsized influence over school board elections.

Mayoral control opened the doors to school districts operating more like businesses, with the mayor as the district’s CEO, Lay said.

“It’s kind of a CEO model where a single person, the mayor, can then be held responsible for school success or school failure,” she said. “Versus with school boards, school board candidates or school board officers would argue they can’t be held accountable because they’re just one voice on a board.”

School districts in a handful of cities, including New Haven, Conn.; Providence, R.I.; Trenton, N.J.; and Yonkers, N.Y., were under mayoral control prior to the 1990s, according to a 2013 study from the Center for American Progress. Boston became the first major city to adopt the model in 1992, followed by Chicago in 1995 and Baltimore in 1997.

Detroit, Oakland, Calif., Harrisburg, Pa., and Los Angeles all adopted the model at one point but reverted back to traditional school models.

Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, the District of Columbia, Hartford, Indianapolis, New Haven, New York, Philadelphia, and Yonkers still operate under some form of mayoral control.

Data on student performance in those cities show mixed results. In Boston, 4th-grade student reading and math scores steadily increased from 2003 to 2019, but in Baltimore, scores are lower than they were in 2009, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The city’s math and reading performance in recent years has lagged that of most other large cities.

Either way, it’s impossible to attribute gains or losses to mayoral control because so many other education reforms happened around the same time that mayoral control was introduced, Lay said. The test scores could be a reflection of any number of other changes that happened locally, such as school choice policies, like vouchers and charter schools, and increased accountability requirements, like more frequent standardized testing and more rigorous curriculum.

“What ends up happening is that supporters of mayoral control point to improvements as ‘here, look, this is great because look at these cities where test scores have improved, graduation rates have improved, and it’s all because of mayoral control,’” Lay said. “And opponents look at cities and say, ‘Look, the scores have gone down and it’s because of mayoral control.’ It allows both sides to make the arguments they want to make.”

The future of mayoral control

Johnson, the Chicago mayor, has his work cut out for him over his first term as mayor, as he’ll have to navigate the transition from mayoral control to a 21-person elected school board. But the change is something Johnson has long supported as a former teacher and Chicago Teachers Union organizer.

In Chicago, the push against mayoral control was propelled by Lewis, who died of brain cancer in 2021. Lewis argued that the model led to the mass school closures under Emanuel.

“Clearly this kind of cowboy mentality mayoral control is out of control,” Lewis told NBC Chicago during a 2013 protest ahead of the school board’s vote to close 50 schools.

Lewis brought the teachers’ union into a more activist role in city politics, Nuamah said. She also ran for mayor in 2015, but had to drop out of because of her battle with cancer.

Chicago’s departure from the mayoral control model could be a sign that more cities will consider reverting to traditional school governance models, Nuamah said.

“Chicago often plays an important role in shaping policies or diffusing policies for good or for bad across other cities,” Nuamah said.

Mayoral control opponents have argued the model takes away from democratic ideals by not allowing voters to have a say in their school board representatives, Lay said.

Opponents feel “that mayoral control, charter schools, these other kinds of reforms, really damages that relationship between the community at large and the school itself,” Lay said. “It makes it seem like more of a consumer choice rather than a community institution.”

Other cities have had similar frustrations.

In Boston, a majority of voters agreed with a ballot question in November 2022 that asked if the appointed school committee structure should change to an elected one. The question doesn’t provide for an automatic shift but it signals political support for one, which the council capitalized on when it approved a measure to make the change.

But in vetoing the measure, Wu, Boston’s mayor, said the shift would disrupt the city’s schools during a period of change following pandemic closures.

“I believe that a dramatic overhaul of our selection process for the Boston School Committee would detract from the essential work ahead,” Wu said in her veto letter.

Lay wouldn’t be surprised if more cities abandoned the model in the next few years as people push back on other education reform movements like standardized testing and school choice measures.

“We’re seeing more division around education policy from a partisan perspective, but yet both sides are pushing against that sort of accountability, standardized testing, school choice, regime of the early 2000s,” Lay said.

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