The Drumbeat for Mayoral Control

Do mayors run better urban school systems?  That is the question the Wall Street Journal asked yesterday as it used Rochester (NY) Mayor’s Robert Duffy’s bid to take over his struggling city schools as a launching pad to discuss the merits of mayoral control.

Duffy is lobbying the New York Legislature to take over his schools, seeking to dissolve the current elected school board and replace it with a board appointed by himself and the city council.  The pressing demand?  The need to close failing schools and reopen new ones better aligned with student needs and learning expectations.

For those that read the WSJ’s education coverage, this is a regular drumbeat.  Back in March of 2009, the Journal wrote (and Eduflack opined on) an interesting piece on the growing embrace of mayoral control, riffing off of the notion that President Obama and EdSec Arne Duncan were advocating for mayoral takeovers in order to implement their aggressive school improvement plans.  As it did 17 months ago, the Wall Street Journal cites successes in New York, Boston, and Washington DC to make its case for giving the keys to the schools to the municipal leader.

Interestingly, yesterday’s article by Joy Ressmovits seems to note there has been no mad rush to add to the powers of our nation’s mayors.  Despite last year’s declarations, we are not seeing huge numbers of urban districts turning to mayoral control.  Despite efforts in cities like Detroit and Milwaukee, such moves seem to be the exception, not the rule.

Why? 

First, there is no clear “mayoral control” model for which one can buy the playbook and just implement the plan.  In New York City, Mayor Bloomberg had a particular plan in place, and he and Chancellor Joel Klein have implemented it step by step.  In our nation’s capital, Mayor Adrian Fenty and Chancellor Michelle Rhee have tried to crib from NYC and build a NYCDOE South in DC.  But leaders in Boston have behaved very differently, both in leadership style and in organization.  The same can be said for Chicago.

Second, because there is no one-size-fits-all model, there is no guarantee of success.  Just look at Cleveland, where student performance on NAEP has actually declined since the mayor’s office took control of the schools.  Or look at NYC, where despite an historic increase in test scores, many still believe that the current regime isn’t working, even seizing on the recent realignment of the state assessment to discredit recent gains.  And in DC, after two years of real gains, this year’s scores seem to have flatlined some. 

Third, there are real political ramifications for taking over the schools.  Case in point here is Washington, DC, where Fenty is in the re-election fight of his life this fall.  One of the central issues to the campaign?  Control of the schools.  Fenty’s chief opponent, City Council Chairman Vincent Gray, has made major issue of how the DC Schools are run.  So much so, in fact, that he has strongly suggested one of his first orders of business when elected mayor would be the removal of Rhee as schools chancellor.  Who would have thought a superintendent would be a major campaign issue for an urban mayor? 

If we just look at the NAEP, clearly mayoral control is not the answer to school success.  The top districts (including Charlotte, NC and Austin, TX) on the NAEP TUDA are those run by school boards.  Mayoral control superstars like NYC and Boston are still posting scores below the national NAEP average (though above the large city average).

In hearing Mayor (and hopeful NY LG) Duffy tell his tale, one has to believe there has to be a middle ground.  Can’t we adequately deal with failing schools without needing to seize control of the district?  Can’t school boards be held to the same accountability as we expect of the superintendent and the principals?  Aren’t there incentives (beyond the current federal dollars) to get school districts to make the necessary changes to turn around histories of failure?  Aren’t there ways to bring in the reforms Duffy seeks without having to go to the state legislature and ask for the nuclear option to deal with the schools?  And as we assess our ability to turn around struggling districts, what measures should we use, besides NAEP, to determine success?

Lots of questions.  But who has the answers? 

2 thoughts on “The Drumbeat for Mayoral Control

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