School & District Management

Education Secretary Leads Chorus Calling for Big City-Hall Role

By Lesli A. Maxwell — October 12, 2009 10 min read
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The troubles that plague many local school boards prompt some observers to throw up their hands. But when it comes to big-city districts, there’s a popular remedy that continues to gain momentum: mayoral control.

This governance arrangement sidelines school boards, for the most part, in favor of a strong chief executive handpicked by the mayor.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who for seven years ran Chicago’s public schools under Mayor Richard M. Daley, is using his bully pulpit to aggressively promote the approach as a necessity for reversing decades of abysmal academic performance in some cities. In a speech to mayors and school superintendents last spring, in fact, Duncan said he would consider his time as education secretary a “failure” if more mayors didn’t take over city school systems by the end of his tenure.

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“I absolutely believe that we need more mayors to put their reputations and resources on the line for public education,” says Duncan, who emphasized in an interview that mayoral control is “not right for all places.” And in an article he wrote for this month’s issue of American School Board Journal, he also presented a more nuanced take on mayoral control than he did in his remarks earlier this year.

“In the places where you need fundamental, dramatic change and real breakthrough, you have to have a leader who can bring a unified purpose and sense of urgency,” says the secretary, speaking in the interview. “That’s the mayor.”

As evidence that mayoral control delivers results that urban school boards can’t, Duncan points to Los Angeles, the nation’s second-largest school district. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s attempt to take over the schools in 2007 made it through the state legislature, but was stopped by a state judge, who ruled that the law enacted to give him control violated the California Constitution.

“If you look at the big cities that are really moving educationally, Chicago comes to mind, New York comes to mind, and Washington, D.C., comes to mind,” says Duncan. “What do they have in common? Mayoral control. Then you have a city like Los Angeles, which frankly, has not come to mind for a number of years. Los Angeles is the outlier.”

Boston Goes First

From a historical perspective, mayoral control is nothing new. More than 100 years ago, most mayors were in charge of public education in their cities, and education reformers spearheaded a push to remove schools from the reach of City Hall. They argued that mayors were often too corrupt and focused on providing patronage jobs, and envisioned that elected members of a school board would be more democratic and better stewards of children’s educations.

In 1992, Boston became the first major city in recent times to embrace mayoral control when local voters granted Mayor Thomas M. Menino the authority to appoint the school board and hire a superintendent. They reaffirmed that change in another vote four years later, and Mr. Menino—who is seeking election to a fifth term next month—continues to run the school system.

Chicago came next. After a 1988 law decentralized the district by creating local school councils to run individual schools, financial and managerial problems continued. In 1995, the Illinois legislature gave Mayor Daley authority over the schools.

Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, right, selected Ron Huberman, the president of the transit authority, to replace U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as the head of Chicago’s school system.

Now, a growing number of mayors—even those who have not sought outright control over their cities’ schools—are interested in playing some role in improvement efforts, says Kenneth K. Wong, a political science professor and the chairman of the education department at Brown University.

“It signals to me that there is a widening recognition among mayors that as the service economy sinks and global competition rises, they have to make sure that their schools are generating high-quality labor to keep their cities competitive,” Wong says. “It actually presents a real opportunity for a much broader redesign of how we govern our public schools.”

Interest in mayoral control of schools is now running high in several cities. In all, eight major cities now have some form of mayoral control, including New York City, where Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg recently won a high-profile legislative battle to retain his seven-year grip on the city’s school system. In the District of Columbia, where Mayor Adrian M. Fenty gained control over the school system in 2007, Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee has made national headlines for a hard-charging approach to school improvement. The District of Columbia Council retains control over the schools’ budget, however, and its members have been aggressive about questioning many of the chancellor’s decisions.

No Guarantee

In Milwaukee, Mayor Tom Barrett, backed by Wisconsin Gov. James E. Doyle, a fellow Democrat, is making a bid for the power to appoint the school board and hire a superintendent. In Detroit, recently elected Mayor Dave Bing wants to take over the district, despite the city’s earlier, unsuccessful experiment with mayoral control. And in Sacramento, Mayor Kevin Johnson has announced plans to create an “education liaison” between City Hall and the school district, and pledged to raise private money to pay for the position.

Mixed academic results from cities like Chicago, and loud strains of discontent from some parents and elected officials in cities like New York and Washington, are just a few reasons to be skeptical about mayoral control, argues Anne L. Bryant, the executive director of the National School Boards Association, based in Alexandria, Va.

“Too much of this depends on who the mayor is,” says Bryant. “One mayor will be great, but the next mayor could undo the progress. Or, you end up with an autocratic situation like in New York, where parents honestly feel like they don’t know what’s going on, and all they get is the cotton-candy spin machine.”

Paul T. Hill, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, at the University of Washington Bothell, agrees that putting a mayor in charge doesn’t guarantee progress. In other words, it takes the right mayor, working under the right political conditions, he says.

“If the mayor is not going to be in a position to take on the teachers’ union, or is not prepared to put up with the complaints and pressure from parents and the neighbors of schools that have had everything go their way in the system, then he or she shouldn’t take over the system,” Hill says.

More importantly, he says, the mayor must select a strong school district leader. He points to Boston, where Superintendent Thomas W. Payzant oversaw steady improvement in student achievement over his 10-year tenure.

“In that case, you got an exceptional leader who profoundly understood education and knew where to intervene in the schools and was able to sail just enough into the wind. I regard that as a Michael Jordan performance,” Hill says. “Frankly, in that case, it was exceptional leadership, but as a prescription for what ails urban education, exceptional leadership is completely hopeless.”

While critics will debate whether students in mayorally controlled systems are making greater academic strides than they would under an elected school board’s leadership, the arrangement brings benefits that have received less attention than test scores.

In Chicago, Mayor Daley has leveraged the city’s parks and recreation and library departments to work with the school system in an extensive after-school program. In New York, donors have contributed more than $240 million to the city’s school system since Mayor Bloomberg took over, and the school district won the Broad Prize for Urban Education in 2007.

Eli Broad, the philanthropist who established the urban education prize in 2002, argues that putting the mayor in charge of schools is the only way to turn around a low-performing district with a history of chaotic school board governance. Mayors, he says, are much better positioned than school boards to challenge the various interest groups and traditions in school districts.

“Most of the nations we compete with have national education systems, and are able to do things with some dispatch and rigor that we are not able to,” Broad says. “If we’re going to change public education for the better, then we need to do national standards, we need to change the school calendar, we need to foster greater competition, and we need better teacher compensation. I don’t think any of this can happen with elected school boards.”

Accountability to Voters

With a mayor in charge, accountability for school performance is concentrated on one person, who can be re-elected or tossed out by voters. In Bloomberg’s bid this fall to win a third term as mayor of New York, in fact, his education record is one of the central issues. His challenger, city Comptroller William C. Thompson Jr., is a former president of the old board of education and has been a sharp critic of Bloomberg’s approach to governing the schools.

In Boston, Mayor Menino is facing his first real challenge in 16 years in office from an opponent who has zeroed in on the quality of public education in the city.

“I think the major advantage is focused accountability,” says Michael D. Usdan, a senior fellow at the Institute for Educational Leadership, in Washington. “You’ve got a highly visible person in charge that people know can be removed if they are not satisfied.”

Also, Usdan points out, a mayor has more status, political capital, and community resources to use when advocating for poor children than elected school board members whom many people have never heard of.

“This becomes especially important in communities where the demographics have shifted so much, and the mayors can provide coordinated services to students and their families within the schools,” he says. “I just don’t think that urban school boards have the political clout anymore, especially in cities that are losing enrollment.”

Even when mayors don’t directly run school systems, their involvement can leverage new resources for education.

In Nashville, Tenn., Mayor Karl Dean is expending political capital and city resources to improve the public schools. He wooed the New York City-based groups Teach For America and the New Teacher Project to the city and raised the money to pay for their services in helping to staff schools.

‘Number-One Issue’

The quality of schools, he says, “is the number-one issue facing our city. We have a lot of great things going on here, with a strong track record of economic development and public safety, but our school system has some real challenges.”

Wallace Report: Leading for Learning

The sixth annual Leading for Learning report, funded by The Wallace Foundation, examines the school board’s role in education leadership.
Click here to read the full report.

Dean came close to gaining control of the 74,000-student system under a state law that allows the governor to change the governance of districts in “corrective action” status for low performance for several years. But Nashville’s students scored well enough that the district narrowly avoided that outcome—one that Dean, who was elected in 2007, has said he would be ready to take on.

In the meantime, Dean has made clear his intention to keep education at the top of his agenda. He estimates spending at least 25 percent of his time on public school matters.

He’s traveled to New Orleans to look at the proliferation of charter schools since Hurricane Katrina four years ago, and says he’d like to see a charter-incubator organization, much like New Schools for New Orleans, come to Nashville now that Tennessee has lifted some of its restrictions on charter schools. He hosted an education summit this past summer that featured some of the most high-profile reformers in the nation.

“I see and hear what’s been going on in other cities over the last five to 10 years, and I just see how far we have to go to catch up with them,” he says. “I think my involvement can help move us along.”

A special report funded by The Wallace Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the October 14, 2009 edition of Education Week as Education Secretary Leads Chorus Calling For Big City-Hall Role Education Secretary Leads Push For City-Hall Role


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