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Tell It to the Mayor

The debate over mayoral control may be coming to a city near you.

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino (center) shakes hands with then-superintendent Thomas Payzant after winning the Broad Prize for Urban Education in 2006.

Mayoral control of public schools is nothing new. Boston pioneered the practice in 1992, replacing elected school committee members with mayoral appointees. Since then, a dozen urban districts—including Cleveland, Chicago, New York City, and Washington, D.C.—have undergone a similar change in school governance that has shifted some or most of the power to mayors, with some cities having mayors make appointments to the school board and others having mayors outright manage the district budget and spearhead large-scale initiatives.

With hundreds of urban school systems around the country struggling to meet state standards, the idea of mayoral involvement or control has moved to the front burner of educational reform, sparked by the recent endorsement from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan—who as former CEO of Chicago’s public schools reported for almost eight years to that city’s mayor, Richard Daley.

Highly visible debates this spring in New York City and Harrisburg, Pa., the state’s capital city, over the effects of mayoral control, as well as a recent push for greater mayoral involvement in the Milwaukee Public Schools, have added fuel to the fire and brought out supporters and opponents alike.

“Disaster” Turns Accountable

The differences between those in favor of or against mayoral control of schools showed prominently in New York City as the state legislature considered in June whether or not to pass the school governance bill—that is, to reauthorize the seven-year-old program that had transferred authority over the city’s vast network of public schools from 32 neighborhood school boards to Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein.

At press time, the legislature had not reauthorized the mayor to run the school system, but Klein is still chancellor. And city government is confident that the school governance bill will be passed, which may or may not include specific modifications, including more consultation for parents and more review for the Panel for Education Policy, which is a 13-member body designated as the Board of Education, according to Dawn Walker, a spokeswoman in the mayor’s office.

Since taking over in 2002, Klein—a former antitrust head at the U.S. Justice Department—has instituted a core curriculum in reading and math, closed numerous underperforming schools, and opened more than 400 new, smaller ones—including 100 charter schools. Bloomberg could not be reached for comment but has regularly referred to the period before mayoral control as a “disaster,” adding that none of the major initiatives in the past seven years could have succeeded under the previous system of school governance.

"They liked the fact that someone was accountable and could exercise leadership in a school system that was difficult to change." -Joseph Viteritti, public policy professor, Hunter College

Klein also changed “school administration as usual,” giving greater autonomy to school principals in return for being accountable for student achievement. And those principals are emerging from unlikely places, including the private and nonprofit sectors, and even directly from the classroom, says Chief Schools Officer Eric Nadelstern. “Historically, the assumption was that you had to be a teacher for 10 years and an assistant principal for another 10,” he says. “Now we’re accepting principals from the ranks of the most effective teachers.”

New Haven Mayor John DeStefano reads aloud to New Haven Public Schools children

Klein insists that rising test scores and high school graduation rates on his watch speak for themselves. For instance, the reading scores announced in May show 69 percent of fourth-graders and 57 percent of eighth-graders meeting the state standard, up from nearly 47 percent and 30 percent, respectively, in 2002. “Our graduation rates have been up more than two points a year,” notes Klein, whose office reports that while the graduation rate in 2005 (the last class to begin high school before mayoral control was instituted) stood at 46.5 percent, it had increased to 52.2 percent by 2007. And in June, figures showed that the graduation rate rose for the seventh straight year to nearly 61 percent in 2008, the highest since at least 1986, according to Bloomberg’s office.

Joseph Viteritti, a public policy professor at Hunter College in New York, served as executive director of the Commission on School Governance, created by the city’s public advocate to examine the impact of mayoral control. “Most people felt that mayoral control was an improvement,” Viteritti says. “They liked the fact that someone was accountable and could exercise leadership in a school system that was difficult to change.”

The Critics Respond

Over the past year, as Klein and his surrogates made the rounds of public forums on the reauthorization of mayoral control, they got an earful from critics. Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters, says that her advocacy group is concerned with much more than its namesake. She warns, “There are a lot of damaging policies coming down the pike: overcrowding, creating test-prep factories, putting charter schools in communities that don’t want them and can’t control them, and using data in a sleight-of-hand way to close down schools instead of improving them.”

Thousands of people in New York City rallied to renew mayoral control in a two-day bus tour in June, and they signed a pledge asking legislators to renew the law.

Prominent educational historian and New York University professor Diane Ravitch, meanwhile, has challenged the district’s reliance on state test scores, instead of on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results, which do not show the same positive outcome. And while the Commission on School Governance recommended that mayoral control continue, Viteritti says there is considerable room for improvement, especially when it comes to transparency and responsiveness to parents and other members of the community. “We heard it continuously, people saying, ‘This is good, but people need to ask questions and hear answers from the mayor in a public forum,’” says Viteritti. “You have to hear from the constituencies in the schools, and I think that part has been lost. The school system is not a business—it’s a form of government.”

A Decade of Improvement

In May’s Democratic mayoral primary in Harrisburg, Pa., meanwhile, incumbent Stephen Reed, who had established control over the Harrisburg School District in 2000, lost to City Council President Linda Thompson, who has vowed to lobby the state legislature to reinstitute an elected school board.

Whether or not Thompson succeeds in November’s election or in her lobbying attempts, Superintendent of Schools Gerald Kohn maintains that mayoral control has enabled him to remake the 9,000-student school system for the better. When mayoral control began under Reed, the class of 2001 (which numbered about 750 in freshman year) had 204 students incarcerated and only 176 graduating, he says. Only 58 were accepted at colleges, and 25 were accepted to four-year institutions.

Harrisburg ranked dead last—and by a considerable distance, Kohn adds—out of Pennsylvania’s 501 school districts. The student population also had shrunk from 10,000 in 1990 to 7,000 in 2000 and was projected to decline up to 2010, as families continued to flee the city. Instead, enrollment has increased steadily, according to school officials. “We did a 350-page study of business practices, and the mayor tasked us with correcting everything all at once,” Kohn says.

When Reed found that the district had a $12.2 million annual deficit, he lobbied his U.S. senators. The district received substantial federal grants, including one for $9 million over three years, and he lobbied the state legislature for millions more. “I’ve been a superintendent for 25 years, and you don’t have access to these seats of power like a mayor does,” Kohn says.

Reed told Kohn to hire the staff that he wanted. Only two of 16 principals remain from before the mayoral takeover, Kohn says. “And we’ve really sunk resources into teaching and administrative staff,” he adds.

The city also opened a college prep high school six years ago, and Kohn says all of this year’s graduates are headed to college on scholarship. The overall graduation rate has increased by 141 percent to 428 students this year from an original class of 750 ninth-graders, and the number accepted to two- or four-year colleges has climbed to 280, an almost 400 percent increase.

Kohn, who still meets up to three hours, three times weekly with the mayor, functions as a liaison between the school district and the city. “It works because I have one person to work with and convince—and in private—rather than seven or nine people with different agendas,” Kohn says.

Hybrid Mayors

Mayor David N. Cicillline also controls Providence (R.I.) Public School District. Other districts, such as those in Hartford, Conn., New Haven, Conn., Nashville, Tenn., and Trenton, N.J., are not under mayor control per se, but the mayor is involved in either appointing school board members or school reform commissions that then set policy; he may even be a school board member himself. The School District of Philadelphia is under state control, with five members of the School Reform Commission appointed by the governor and mayor, who make decisions with the superintendent on school operations. Detroit, which had mayoral control of schools from 1999 to 2005, is considering it again at Secretary Duncan’s urging.

"I've been a superintendent for 25 years, and you don't have access to these seats of power like a mayor does." -Gerald Kohn, superintendent of schools, Harrisburg (Pa.) School District

But a growing number of cities nationwide have considered mayoral control and have backed off, including Los Angeles, Albuquerque, and Rockford, Ill. “Many mayors see more risk than opportunity,” observes Kenneth Wong, who directs Brown University’s Urban Education Policy Program. “Schools can be very controversial, and there are a lot of well-established interests in school districts, from parents to community groups.”

Milwaukee’s Great Debate

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett admits that he’s even had to avoid the term “mayoral control” when pushing school reform in his city. “I think it’s safe to say that the mayor has gotten more involved in the educational debate,” he offers.

That debate heated up when the city’s business community commissioned a study of other school districts operating under mayoral control and when Barrett himself hired the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. to audit the finances of the Milwaukee Public Schools. The McKinsey report, released early this year, found that the district could save more than $100 million annually by implementing better management practices in areas such as employee benefits, busing, and food services.

“It was very important to have an objective analysis of the finances in the school district and to determine just how serious conditions are,” explains Barrett, who chairs the advisory council of community leaders that will implement the report’s suggestions. “My involvement is less than mayoral control but more than the bully pulpit. It’s [our own] Milwaukee model.”

To Peter Blewett, vice president of the city’s Board of School Directors and an opponent of mayoral control, the “Milwaukee model” is a way station to full mayoral control, and he counters that the public schools have made considerable progress over the past decade without that kind of governance. “As far as achievement is concerned, I’d be happy to compare ours since 2001 with any other district,” he contends. “Our graduation rate was under 50 percent. Now we’re close to 70 percent. I think our record also stands up to cities like Chicago and New York.”

In June, Duncan visited Milwaukee with his own appeal for mayoral control. “It certainly raises the stakes,” muses Barrett. “Many of the biggest opponents of mayoral control are supporters of the Obama agenda, so the plot thickens.”

A Tale of Two Cities

For all the back and forth in the most recent arguments over mayoral control, all sides agree that Detroit and Boston are classic examples of worst and best practices.

“The system in Detroit lacked legitimacy,” says Hunter College’s Viteritti, who recently edited the book When Mayors Take Charge: School Governance in the City. “There wasn’t confidence in the governance. It was imposed by the state, and there was a lot of animosity between the state and city that played out by race, partisanship and regionalism.”

While mayoral control usually requires authorization from the state legislature, Boston’s turn to mayoral control was homegrown, as local residents voted for a home rule petition in 1992 that created a school committee appointed by the mayor. That process made an immediate difference, says Elizabeth Reilinger, a 16-year veteran and past president of that seven-member committee. “What you have in D.C. or New York City, or what was attempted in Los Angeles, was more of a hostile takeover.” She observes that the takeover in Los Angeles was imposed by a state law later declared unconstitutional by California’s Supreme Court.

Boston’s more democratic approach also extends to selecting school committee members. A group of nearly 25 community stakeholders submits three candidates for each open slot to the mayor, who makes the final choice. And there’s even an equitable sharing of responsibility among the mayor, the superintendent, and the school committee president. “You’ve got three people who can sit at the table and disagree and then come to some practical resolution to move forward,” Reilinger says.

"When you don't have a school board and just have the mayor, you lose the community." -Anne Bryant, executive director, National School Boards Association

The Pros and Cons

Those who have studied mayoral control of public schools, Stanford education professor Michael Kirst among them, say the governance model offers possibilities that might not otherwise exist. “The mayor can give the system a jolt and shake it up in a way you can’t with two new school board members elected every year,” Kirst says.

New York City’s Joel Klein adds that mayoral control contributes to the longevity of superintendents, and with positive results. “Where are the longest-serving superintendents?” Klein asks. “Tom Payzant spent 10 years in Boston. Arne Duncan was in Chicago for almost eight years. Before me, we used to change chancellors in New York City every two years, and you can’t have leadership that way.”

But Anne Bryant, executive director of the National School Boards Association, says that judging by the attempts at mayoral control so far, she has plenty of doubts, especially since school boards become surrogates for the mayor controlling them and community input is largely left out. “It doesn’t get you what you ultimately need—a partnership between the school board and the mayor. Even Arne Duncan says it’s about partnership. When you don’t have a school board and just have the mayor, you lose the community. It’s happened in New York. It’s happening in D.C.”

Ron Schachter is a contributing writer for District Administration.

Parental Disapproval

The Commission on School Governance, created by the independent New York City public advocate’s office, was critical in its report last year of the limited opportunity for parental participation in the mayorally controlled school system. “Parents and communities are frustrated with the lack of effective channels for expressing policy preferences, registering concerns, and acquiring information,” the report proclaimed.

Chancellor Joel Klein, who remains head of the school system following a vote by the reconstituted board of education, says he plans to make some adjustments. “There’s an ongoing discussion about getting parents involved,” he says, “and making sure their needs are addressed, making sure that there are systems where parents can go to get problems resolved if they haven’t been able to resolve them at their children’s schools.”

The public advocate’s report was more specific in what would make the most difference, including “well-publicized” monthly public meetings by NYC’s Panel on Educational Policy (the city’s equivalent of a school board). To connect better with parents and PTAs, the commission also recommended reinstating the system of more local community superintendents and strengthening Community District Education Councils.