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School & District Management Commentary

Should the Mayor Be in Charge?

By Anne L. Bryant — December 11, 2007 6 min read

One of the arguments du jour in the reform of ailing school systems is that handing over control of the system to the mayor will produce the needed improvements. Some may think this line of reasoning signals ominous times for school board governance. I do not.

With the recent high-profile mayoral-takeover attempt in Los Angeles and the outright takeover in Washington, it’s understandable that the public has started to question the merits of and need for school boards. Even New York City, a mayorally controlled school district, recently won the coveted Broad Prize in Urban Education. But these isolated incidents do not signal the demise of school board governance. Instead, they tell us it is time for school boards to join the dialogue and assert their worth, rather than allowing others to fuel the fires of contention.

Mayoral control is a simple and wrong solution to the complex challenge of raising student achievement. Although research demonstrates that in a few cities mayoral takeover has reined in administrative costs and oversight, research also indicates that overall student achievement does not increase under mayoral control. In fact, unbridled mayoral authority (without some limits) may undermine increased achievement. In a presentation in August to the National Conference of State Legislatures, for example, Brown University’s Kenneth K. Wong, summarizing research in this area, said that “not putting any restrictions on who the mayor appoints to the school board seems to dampen achievement levels.”

Mayoral control is a simple and wrong solution to the complex challenge of raising student achievement.

School boards deal with the tough issues on a daily basis: hiring and retaining a highly qualified superintendent, increasing student achievement, collective bargaining with teachers’ unions, changing school boundaries to ensure diversity, creating healthy environments so that all students feel safe and nurtured, and many others. Mayors, who are charged with handling a host of city-management issues, should not be adding these vital activities to their already full plates. Student achievement and snow removal do not, and should not, go hand in hand.

What is outmoded is not the idea of school board governance, but the belief that takeovers are the direction school systems need to move in order to be successful. The power lies not in takeovers, but in partnerships. Mayors and school boards working together in collaboration, each bringing their expertise to benefit the schools and the community as a whole, is the answer for urban districts. In fact, such partnerships are working in districts across the country.

Mayor Gavin Newsom and the San Francisco school board have a downright collegial relationship. They recently worked together to sign an unprecedented agreement providing more than $40 million in school-based and school-linked services to the children and families of San Francisco, building on existing partnerships between the city and the school system. Rather than butting heads, plotting takeover attempts, and creating a hostile environment, Mayor Newsom has taken steps to form an alliance. This is the kind of collaboration mayors should be entering into with their boards. This city and school district are moving forward with the best interests of their students at heart.

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Conversely, in New York City, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg took over the schools in 2002, dissolving the board of education and appointing a chancellor to run the schools. The system seems to be working in some respects, but not necessarily because the mayor took it over. A closer look at the testing gains shows that the results of the mayor’s additional $3.5 billion investment in the schools have been, as the education scholar Diane Ravitch put it in a commentary for The New York Sun, “meager.” Ravitch points out that “while state testing for reading showed an incredible jump in 2005, the 2006 round of state testing for reading showed that achievement has flattened out.” She adds that, “unlike the state tests, federal reading tests found no gains for the city’s students between 2003 and 2005.” That doesn’t sound like happily ever after to me.

Rather than standing up to the teachers’ union, moreover, New York City’s mayor and schools chancellor negotiated a new contract and secured hefty pay increases (16 percent) for teachers. Increasing teacher pay is wonderful. But in doing so, did the mayor and chancellor create a system for aligned professional development, so that teachers are learning the best strategies to increase student achievement? Did they create a link to the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards program that might better retain highly qualified teachers in the city’s public schools? Recent news of a peer-review reward system for excellent teachers is welcome, but overall student performance is the key.

Collective bargaining can play an essential role in the overall harmony of school districts, and history argues that this function belongs in the hands of the school board, not the mayor. The American Enterprise Institute’s Frederick M. Hess, who has written extensively on the role of boards and collective bargaining, asks a provocative question: How can collective bargaining address the teacher’s role in increasing student achievement? School boards, I believe, are in the best position to answer that question and work toward meeting that worthy goal.

What is outmoded is the belief that takeovers are the direction school systems need to move in order to be successful.

Denver offers a stunning example of successful collective bargaining for student achievement. There, the school board has formed an unusual partnership with the union to facilitate a teachers’ contract and merit-pay scale that all parties can agree on. With great transparency, the board, in conjunction with the union, has been firm about expectations for teachers and the rewards that teachers will see if their students make gains. The Denver performance-pay plan builds in bonuses for teachers working in hard-to-staff schools, incentives for professional development, and, perhaps most important, pay for student learning gains based on both test scores and evaluation measures set up with school principals.

Denver’s approach has been controversial at times, facing initial opposition by the National Education Association, but it is a strong example of what can be accomplished when district leadership works with the teachers’ union toward a common goal. Making informed decisions, building support within the community, and re-evaluating the program to ensure that it continues to work for the entire learning community have paid off. Teachers in Denver are setting high objectives for their students and, as a result, achievement on state standardized tests has gone up.

Much can be gained when school boards work together with their mayors. And it’s not just mayors. In suburban and rural areas, boards are working collaboratively with city councils and town governments to find what makes the best sense for their children.

So what actions should mayors and civic leaders take to help school boards keep student achievement growing? In short, they should do the following: ensure that neighborhoods are safe and free from crime and that students have safe passage to and from school; help students access high-quality health care and other support services; support teacher-recruitment efforts by addressing obstacles such as housing costs; and work effectively with school districts to develop joint-use projects to make the best use of public space.

Instead of a death knell for school boards, we should be hearing a call to action for communities to rally around their boards and civic leaders in a new partnership. The public can voice its support for this approach by voting in leaders and board members who support sound policies for schools. Mayors and members of city and town councils can pass legislation to support school districts, school-based programs, and student-achievement efforts. Working together as partners, instead of opponents, will move all of us—students, school boards, mayors, and communities—in the right direction.


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