It seems that the first task these days for new mayors, especially in big cities, is to attempt to take control of the school system. I guess these mayors look at what their colleagues Richard Daley and Michael Bloomberg have done in Chicago and New York and decide they should do the same immediately. In fact, Adrian Fenty, a mayoral candidate in Washington, D.C., was so absorbed with the takeover concept that he traveled to New York for a site visit, met with Mayor Bloomberg and his schools chief, and announced plans to take over the D.C. schools based on the New York model-all before he was even elected to office.
I urge Mayor Fenty and his colleagues to move cautiously in their plans to take over the schools. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa recently felt the effects of the clash between politics and the community with his efforts to take charge of the L.A. public schools. The end result was a political deal that spreads out the authority of running the schools among 27 local mayors, the school board, the superintendent, and the teachers union. This division of power is only going to make matters more complicated in a school district that was beginning to show improvements in student achievement.
That is, after all, the most important function for whoever is running the schools.
Matter of Debate
Right now, there is a shortage of data on the long-term impact on student achievement of mayoral control of schools. It has been a little more than four years since Mayor Bloomberg took over the New York City schools. The success of the takeover is a matter of debate. While the city's fourth-graders made significant improvement on state reading and math tests, other cities throughout the state made even more improvement. Eighth-grade test scores dropped, and many of the city's high schools have become overcrowded to make way for the mayor's initiative to create small schools within schools.
Diane Ravitch, education researcher and writer, as well as long-time advocate of mayors running school systems, has been critical of the Bloomberg model. She says that the top-down, business approach to running the schools has a mindset that "educating children is no different than selling toothpaste." She is calling for the "re-establishment of an independent board of respected citizens to set policy for the schools." Could this be a school board by a different name? It sure sounds like it to me.
The Public Voice
Most school board members are elected, and even those who are appointed govern the schools as representatives of the people. When mayors replace the school board they alienate the public?-they take the public voice out of the public schools. Mayoral control can cut off the public's access to the key decision-makers not on pothole filling but on their children's academic future. With mayors in charge, the schools can easily become another political bargaining chip. Maybe the new principal of P.S. 100 is the brother-in-law of a key ward leader, who can guarantee the mayor much needed votes in the primary.
The Harvard Educational Review issued a special report on mayoral takeovers in August and wrote that school boards are "the only mechanism that provides a direct entry point for citizens-especially parents-to express their concerns about education to the very officials who make education policy." This lack of citizen input particularly affects the minority community. Eliminating the school board often eliminates the minority voice in school governance. Research shows that five years ago about 35 percent of all Latino elected officials and 22 percent of African-American elected officials were school board members.
The governing body of the National School Boards Association approved a resolution earlier this year urging mayors to concentrate on issues outside of the classroom that affect student achievement. Rather than playing the role of the education wizard, mayors should focus their energies on the critical issues that impact student success. These include policies and programs that ensure safe neighborhoods for families, access to health care for the uninsured, and affordable housing for the middle-class, including teachers.
The resolution notes that out-of-school factors affect a child's ability to learn. Addressing these issues, according to our resolution, is the role that the mayors and their administration can play in improving public education.
Aside from takeovers, big city mayors and school board members actually share common perspectives on many of the issues that matter most to the future of public education. Mayors and school boards are seeing the power of working together toward the goal of high performing school systems that focus on the success of each child, for example, in Boston where the public schools have made great strides as a result of collaboration. We agree that providing high quality education improves community life, helps develop a skilled workforce and promotes economic growth. We clearly agree that the fortunes of our cities and schools are linked, and most of all we agree that the lack of funding is a major challenge to school districts.
These extensive areas of agreement give mayors and school leaders an opportunity to build partnerships and collaborations that drive future progress. But the first step toward building this partnership is to take the mayoral takeover option off the table. Once that happens, mayors and school board members can join together in a powerful partnership that advances a common agenda for local school improvement.
Last year, the National League of Cities, National School Boards Association, and the American Association of School Administrators surveyed our big city members to gather suggestions on how cities and school leaders can work together to boost student performance and avoid takeover talk. The survey respondents said that education must be a collective venture and a community-wide priority.
In order to make that possible, those responding to the survey said that mayors and school leaders should schedule regular meetings to build trust and lay the groundwork for collaboration. They should forge joint-use agreements to save money on facilities and address school funding shortages by working together to press federal and state government for more money. And city officials and school officials should work together to encourage parents to become actively engaged in their children's education.
The bottom line is that collaboration, not mayoral takeovers, is the best path to take to ensure high quality public schools for all our urban children and families.
Anne L. Bryant is the executive director of the National School Boards Association, a not-for-profit federation of state associations of school boards across the U.S.