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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

School & District Management Opinion

More Than the Mantra of “Mayoral Control”

By Rick Hess — December 02, 2011 3 min read
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Yesterday, at the Fordham Institute’s big conference on “Rethinking Education Governance in the 21st Century,” I had the chance to chat about a new paper “More than the Mantra of ‘Mayoral Control’” that I penned with Olivia Meeks. When it comes to district governance, Olivia and I argue that the back-and-forth about mayoral control has too often distracted us from the need to tackle entrenched routines.

We walk through the case for mayoral control (which I find fairly convincing when it comes to large urban districts) and the reasons for caution, then point out that the relative merits of elected v. appointed officials is hardly as exotic as the edu-debates might lead one to believe. When it comes to public utilities, extensive research suggests that elected officials are more responsive to community preferences but also less inclined to fiscal discipline. In short, there is no optimal model; both election and appointment have strengths and weaknesses.

It’s hard to argue, based on either theory or evidence, that school boards will drive school improvement--but it’s also tough to be confident that mayoral control is likely to provide dramatically better results in most communities over the long haul. This seeming dead end helps to point to a larger truth; perhaps the problem with today’s school systems is not the hands on the tiller so much as the design of the ship itself.

With that, we argue that fights about district governance could more fruitfully start (as I argue in The Same Thing Over and Over) by asking whether the familiar district governance model is suited to the challenges of twenty-first century urban education? Whether schools and systems should continue to be staffed by public employees governed by complex contractual and statutory rules? Whether the Progressive Era model of a hierarchical system governed by the dictates of 1920s-style “scientific management” is suited to seizing today’s opportunities?

In their efforts to squash mere politics and professionalize schooling, early twentieth-century Progressives successfully championed reforms that made school board elections nonpartisan and moved the elections off-cycle. In shifting these races so that they were no longer held at the same time as major state or national elections, they sought to insulate schools from politics. In a time of patronage-driven politics and flagrant corruption, such ambitions were sensible enough. Progressives succeeded in separating school governance from municipal power centers, though they unknowingly did so by imposing arrangements that would eventually produce board factionalism, incoherence, and an absence of accountability.

Promoting “nonpolitical” control and rigid management routines as the proper and “scientific” way to improve education, Progressives happily sacrificed flexibility in search of uniformity. Those twin legacies, the putatively “nonpolitical” governance of school systems and the rigidity of school operations, have been with us for most of the past century. It is indeed a useful step to recognize that school districts are inevitably political entities and that governance must address that reality. However, equally crippling is the legacy of rigidity and uniformity that infuses management, staffing, compensation, and the broader educational enterprise. Those deeper, thornier problems are left unaddressed by the shift to mayoral control. If pursued as an alternative to tackling these challenges, mayoral control may serve primarily as a distraction.

The trouble with most proposed governance reforms is that they fail to note that boards themselves are only one symptom of a dysfunctional and outdated Progressive approach to schooling. Addressing that problem in a more fundamental fashion requires thinking how we might organize schooling around function rather than geography. We conclude, “It would be sad indeed if well-intentioned advocacy around mayoral control amounted to little more than a shift change at the helm of a foundering ship.”

Anyway, there’s loads more. If you’re interested, check it out. If you do, you’ll find a bunch of other terrific contributions to boot.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.