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Are elected school boards equal to the challenges of twenty-first century governance in America’s big cities? Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has called for a mayoral takeover in Detroit, urged New York lawmakers to renew the law giving New York City’s mayor control of the schools, and declared, “At the end of my tenure, if only seven mayors are in control [of big city districts], I think I will have failed” (Quaid, 2009). Duncan asserted, “The fact so few cities have mayoral control, that’s a huge impediment,” elaborating, “That lack of stability, that lack of leadership is a huge part of the reason you don’t see sustained progress and growth” (Quaid, 2009).
Is Duncan right? Sort of. Mayoral control is a sensible first step for these systems, if pursued sensibly.
Today’s school boards are the progeny of Progressive Era reformers a century ago. The Progressives launched a concerted effort to insulate schooling from politics in the name of efficiency, equity, and accountability. Seeking to insulate board politics from rough-and-tumble state and national elections, the Progressives moved board elections “off-cycle” and made them nonpartisan. In today’s cites their effort to separate education from politics has yielded school systems that are not apolitical but are instead consumed by petty politics and unable to provide coherence or accountability. Making politics work for rather than against schools, by putting strong mayors in charge of fragmented urban systems, has natural appeal.
Interest in mayoral control has benefited from experiences in high-profile venues like Boston and New York. In both cities, long-serving superintendents working with strong mayors won plaudits and the Broad Prize for Urban Education. These successes have not come without controversy and criticism, however. Moreover, much of the research on mayoral takeovers is inconclusive. The Center for the Study of Social Policy (2005) surveyed what is known about various governance reforms and concluded that there is no clear evidence that mayoral takeovers improve student achievement or fiscal efficiency (p. 14).
In practice, the case for or against mayoral control rests more on practical experience than on hard evidence. Elected boards are particularly criticized on five counts.
First, critics have argued that a lack of attention and electoral involvement makes it difficult for the voters to hold their representatives even loosely accountable. Chester Finn, Jr., and Lisa Graham Keegan (2004) have argued that school board “elections are essentially rigged. They are held at odd times, when practically nobody votes except those with a special reason to do so” (p. 15). Public Agenda has reported that 62 percent of adults cannot name a member of their local board (Farkas, Foley, & Duffett, 2001, p. 15).
Second, critics argue that electoral apathy allows mobilized constituencies, especially teachers unions, to exert a disproportionate influence on district policy and governance and to effectively help select their own bosses. Stanford political scientist Terry Moe (2005) has found that, in California, candidates endorsed by the local union win 76 percent of the time and other candidates just 31 percent.
Third, elected boards have been blamed for a lack of coherence and continuity. Shifting membership and the need to placate restive communities create pressure for superintendents to show short-term results. This leads to frenzied, symbolic reform efforts and ritualistic hiring and firing of superintendents, producing constant changes in direction and inattention to implementation.
Fourth, elected boards have also been faulted for a lack of discipline, a tendency to micromanage, and an inability to handle the essential tasks of governance. Ron Ottinger, former San Diego board president, has observed that, “it became normal for principals to bypass the superintendent and go directly to board members if they did not get their way” (as quoted in McAdams, 2006, pp. 74-75).
Finally, school boards often have limited clout with civic and political leadership. Board members only infrequently enjoy much political influence or enjoy strong links to the business community. Mayors, on the other hand, are typically in a position to wield substantial influence with community, business, and state government leaders.
All that said, there are good reasons why mayoral control might not deliver. NYU professor Joseph Viteritti (2005) cautions that mayors “are not beyond the reach of the same organized interests that have retarded reform on local school boards” (p. 321). One concern is the loss of transparency. Malfeasance at private firms like AIG has shown how an overly cozy culture can enable management to take shortcuts or adopt questionable practices. Corporate accounting and governance reforms have sought to increase the presence of independent voices and ensure that boards keep an eye on headstrong executives.
Another concern is that some voices are likely to be silenced or marginalized under an appointed board. Elected board members often produce incoherence because they are attempting to address neighborhood or constituent concerns regarding matters such as service provision or school leadership.
It is also the case that mayoral control may work well at first but later yield to the same entrenched interests that so often hold sway. It may be naive to imagine that mayors will consistently face down unions or other powerful interests–especially given mayoral acumen and ambitions. Moreover, current or future mayors may have cause to politicize schooling or to shift focus to other areas of concern while leaving schools rudderless.
Notwithstanding these sensible cautions, urban districts are so hidebound, so tangled in distractions, and so lacking coherence or patience that handing the reins to an engaged and accountable mayor is a reasonable strategy for jump-starting a coherent, tough-minded reform agenda. In the case of dysfunctional urban districts, putting strong and willing mayors on the hot seat offers obvious opportunities for coherence, political leadership, and accountability. Replacing an ineffective board offers a chance to reshuffle the deck and create a window of opportunity for fresh leadership in dysfunctional systems.
That said, early experiences with mayoral control should be regarded cautiously. New York, Boston, Chicago, and Washington DC have benefited from the stewardship of atypical, strong, and visible mayors who opted to make the schools their top priority and to put their political capital on the line. It is by no means clear that their records will be replicated by subsequent mayors or by less-powerful, less-focused mayors in other locales.
Ultimately, how a city pursues mayoral control may well matter as much as whether it does. Such reforms will disappoint unless accompanied by attention to leadership style; to the oft-invisible infrastructure of finances, professional development, and staffing; and to the broader coalition supporting school improvement. Moreover, any proposal must be pursued with an eye to a clear division of management authority, an appreciation for the importance of patience and discipline, and mayoral willingness to provide civic leadership. Finally, it is especially important that cities design mayoral control with measures intended to ensure operational transparency, the availability of achievement and financial data, and that third party watchdogs have access to records and decisions so as to facilitate independent oversight.
Whether a district board is elected or mayorally appointed, long-term success requires that the leadership resist the temptation to micromanage, adopt a clear theory of action, embrace a coherent strategy, and have access to quality staff and data. Transforming any sprawling, underachieving organization is an iffy proposition under the best of conditions; it may well be impossible with fragmented or indecisive leadership. Mayoral control, however, can do no more than offer a chance for effective educational leadership–it cannot guarantee it, much less alleviate the need for it.
A century ago, Progressives pushed “nonpolitical” control and rigid management routines as the proper and “scientific” way to improve education. They sacrificed flexibility to advance efficiency, uniformity, and professionalism. Those twin legacies–“nonpolitical” governance and the rigidity of school operations–are with us still. As crippling as ineffectual governance is, the legacy of rigidity and uniformity that infuses management, staffing, compensation, and the educational enterprise may be worse. Proposals for mayoral control are not frequently removed from any deeper call to rethink the structure of urban education, leaving these thornier organizational problems untouched. If pursued in lieu of tackling these imbedded challenges, rather than as a means to address them, mayoral control will serve primarily as a distraction.
Today’s problems with board governance are largely the legacy of a poorly conceived and incoherently executed reform agenda advanced a century ago. The penalties for slapdash efforts to remake political structures are large and enduring. Before making a headfirst plunge into mayoral control, would-be reformers would be well advised to ensure that their proposal is sensibly designed, the mayor is equal to the task, and that their strategy stretches beyond the next election.
Frederick M. Hess is a resident scholar and the director of education policy studies at AEI.
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Finn, Jr., C.E., & Graham Keegan, L. (2004). Lost at sea. Education Next, 4(3), 15–17.
McAdams, D.R. (2006). What school boards can do: Reform governance for urban schools. New York: Teachers College Press.
Moe, T.M. (2005). Teacher unions and school board elections. In W.G.
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Quaid, L. (2009, March 31). School chief: Mayors need control of urban schools. Associated Press.
Viteritti, J.P. (2005). The end of local politics? In W.G. Howell
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