School & District Management

Big-City Mayors’ Control of Schools Yields Mixed Results

By Debra Viadero — September 11, 2002 7 min read
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There was a sense of déjà vu in June when Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York summoned reporters to a Harlem elementary school to announce that he had succeeded in winning control of that city’s public schools.

That’s because Mr. Bloomberg was just one more in a succession of mayors who are seeking more say in how their cities’ schools are run. Since the early 1990s, mayors have expanded their roles in school district operations in such cities as Boston; Chicago; Cleveland; Detroit; Harrisburg, Pa.; Oakland, Calif.; and Washington. Yet, despite the strategy’s surge in popularity, research on whether it works has been almost nonexistent.

That is, until now.

Studies dribbling out since late last year are beginning to cast the first real analytical eye on what happens when mayors take a hand in key public schooling matters. What the research concludes, for the most part, is that mayoral involvement has produced variable outcomes in cities that have given it a try. While students’ test scores have not improved wholesale, for example, some school systems have seen gains at certain levels and improvements in other areas—and the potential exists for some bigger payoffs down the road.

The full text of Mr. Wong and Mr. Shen’s papers on school district takeovers are available on Mr. Wong’s Web page at Peabody College. (The papers require Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

Read Mr. Kirst’s study, “Mayoral Influence, New Regimes, and Public School Governance” online, or order copies for $5 each from CPRE Publications, University of Pennsylvania, Graduate School of Education, 2440 Market St., Suite 560, Philadelphia, PA 19104-3325; (215) 573-0700. Make checks payable to the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania.

“If you look at it in terms of ‘are you better off now than you were before?’ I would have to say the answer would be yes,” said Michael W. Kirst, whose report on mayoral influence in schools was published over the summer by the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, a five-university research collaborative based at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

“That doesn’t necessarily mean achievement scores,” added Mr. Kirst, who is a professor of education, business administration, and political science at Stanford University. “It might mean the school buildings are in better condition, that the textbooks arrive on time, or there’s better teacher recruitment.”

“When you’re in a school that’s dirty and rundown and has no water, and it’s a better place to be, that’s not insignificant,” he said.

Corrupt or Efficient?

The trend toward greater mayoral authority in school governance marks a dramatic departure from an earlier era, when the path to reform was seen to head in the opposite direction. At the turn of the 20th century, school reformers argued that City Hall was too corrupt and too bloated with patronage appointments to be in charge of children’s education. And they succeeded, for the most part, in putting mayors at arm’s length from schools.

But the thinking now, in some policy circles, is that city government can pool its greater resources and political capital to solve the perennial problems plaguing urban schools. What’s more, proponents argue, such arrangements can offer a sharper focal point of accountability for voters— a kind of buck-stops-here approach to bolster sagging public confidence in city school systems. Indeed, some mayors, such as Mr. Bloomberg, Boston’s Thomas M. Menino, and Chicago’s Richard M. Daley, have staked their reputations on improving their city’s schools.

“If reading and math scores aren’t significantly better, I will look in the mirror and say I’ve failed,” Mr. Bloomberg was once quoted as saying. “And I’ve never failed at anything in my life.”

In his study, however, Mr. Kirst makes the case that the story of how mayors came to exert greater influence over schools is different in every city.

“The whole situation is driven by unique local contexts,” he said. “And the impact depends on the unique design or the mayoral context.”

At one end of the spectrum, for example, Mr. Kirst points to Chicago, where Mr. Daley has exerted a high degree of control over the school system—even going so far as to send 100 of his administration’s employees to the district so they could oversee planning, budgeting, and other critical operations.

Boston, where Mr. Menino has made the school superintendent part of his Cabinet, comes in a close second, by Mr. Kirst’s reckoning.

At the other end of the spectrum, mayors are playing a more limited role in matters of public schooling. In Sacramento, Calif., for example, the now-deceased mayor’s involvement did not extend beyond endorsing a slate of candidates for the local school board, according to Mr. Kirst.

The differing contexts make the phenomenon difficult to study at this early stage in the strategy’s political evolution, he said. The longest-running of this new wave of takeovers, after all, is barely a decade old.

Contextual Clues

“All you can do,” Mr. Kirst suggested, “is share the information on what you’ve tried and what has worked, and then try to take it back to your city and say, ‘Does this work in my context?’”

Still, the unsettled picture of mayoral involvement hasn’t stopped researchers from trying to take more systematic looks recently at the impacts the new arrangements are having on schools.

Kenneth K. Wong of Vanderbilt University and Francis X. Shen of Harvard University for example, have compiled a database on at least 14 school systems that have been taken over by either the state or the mayor’s office. It contains figures on everything from student test scores to per-pupil spending in those districts.

So far, the researchers have found that in cities where mayors have expanded their roles in education, such as Boston and Chicago, test scores have risen at the elementary level— especially for the lowest-performing schools. The gains did not translate to high schools, which have generally been more resistant to improvement strategies.

On the other hand, the researchers saw no test-score improvements in Lawrence, Mass., and Compton, Calif.—two districts that were taken over by their states around the same time.

“Not all takeovers are the same,” said Mr. Wong, who is a professor of public policy, education, and political science at Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tenn. “You have to differentiate between city and state takeovers.”

“In the six state-takeover cases we looked at, we see a lot of political tension and a lot more distrust when the state comes in,” he added. “Mayoral takeovers draw on local trust and knowledge and accountability.”

Some other experts who have studied the trend note that greater mayoral involvement has introduced a small measure of political stability to some school systems, such as those in Boston and Chicago, where mayors and school boards and superintendents have long been at loggerheads.

In Boston, Superintendent Thomas W. Payzant has managed to stay in his job for seven years—a respectable length of time in a job where the average tenure nationwide is less than five years. Experts credit his long stay, in part, to the close relationship he has with Mayor Menino, who selected him for the job.

“There are some very promising things going on, but there are still some serious questions about sustainability,” said Michael D. Usdan, a senior fellow at the Institute for Educational Leadership, a research and policy organization in Washington.

With Stanford University professor emeritus Larry Cuban, Mr. Usdan studied several mayoral takeovers as part of a broader look at reforms aimed at making schools more businesslike in six cities across the country. Their book, Powerful Reforms With Shallow Roots: Improving America’s Urban Schools, is due to be published by Teachers College Press later this year.

What Mr. Cuban and Mr. Usdan fear is that the improvements taking place in school systems such as Boston’s could disappear overnight when the prevailing political winds change—particularly if educators at the ground level fail to embrace the changes that have occurred.

The real promise of the new power arrangements, those researchers contend, is their potential for mobilizing and coordinating city services around schools—perhaps by creating community schools where families can get social services, or by blending different funding sources to provide children’s services.

“The reality is that schools in many neighborhoods are the institution with social penetration,” Mr. Usdan said. “That idea has not gotten much attention in the early stages of mayoral involvement in these cities.”

That attention may yet come, however. “What’s significant about what’s happening in big cities now,” Mr. Usdan said, “is that this is the first time we’ve had a long-overdue assessment of the relationship between schools and general government.”

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