Bloomberg & urban mayors should control schools

School districts are a strange American anachronism—no other country delivers public education through strong local authorities. This strange historical remnant is not crippling in all cases but has been proven to be completely ineffective in urban America. We are no longer able to elect and sustain effective urban school boards.

Secretary Duncan recently reiterated his support for mayoral control of urban schools. I agree; mayors are generally better than school boards at providing courageous and effective leadership.

Districts that had great school boards and showed the potential to be models of achievement—Houston, San Diego, Sacramento, Seattle—have all reverted to the disastrous mean. Districts where sustained progress has been made—Chicago, New York, Boston—share mayoral control.

The primary reasons for districts to exist—taxes, employment, and policy—have been become obsolete or even destructive. Locally funding schools led to gross inequities. The people that care the most about school board elections—employees—spend the most time and money, get their colleagues elected, and then cut lucrative employment agreements entwined with district policy. State and federal standards and accountability systems have replaced the primary quality assurance role of districts—specifically because most districts failed to faithfully exercise this obligation.

Mayoral control is a hot topic in New York because the 2002 law giving Bloomberg ultimate control sunsets in June. The state assembly commissioned a report on the subject which, as you can imagine, is tepid. In a recent commentary, Joseph Viteritti, the Executive Director of the Commission correctly pointed out that, “The most significant impact of mayoral control is to create a greater institutional capacity for change.” But he goes on to discuss the risk including disrupting the “safe balance of power”—that’s not a risk, it’s a primary benefit! It’s the safe balance of power that led to the enormous and persistent gaps in achievement highlighted in a McKinsey study released today.

Viteritti goes to argue for an Independent Budget Office to publish results. The state and a variety of private groups do that quite well. The most outrageous claim he makes is that “Putting city hall in control of the schools increases the risk of politicizing education.” And union controlled school boards haven’t done so? The whole system is more concerned with adult employment than student outcomes.

The Commission clings to the notion of “administrative decentralization so that decisions concerning particular schools are made at the community level.” We’re a long way from that ideal. In America, schools are buildings where district, state, and federal programs are administered. We cling to the ideal of local control, but ceded control long ago to the bureaucrats.

What most parents want is quality and choice—a good neighborhood school and options if that doesn’t fit the bill. The best way to deliver on the Good School Promise is 1) a clear and simple set of national standards, 2) a strong accountability system that ensures quality and prevents chronic failure, and 3) the ability for parents to seek or create options that work best for their children.

Bloomberg, Menino, and Daley have done a good job “disrupting the safe balance” of school politics and deserve continued support. In Louisiana, Paul Pastorek is extending the reach of the Recovery School District to man-made disasters as well as storm relief. Rhode Island took a bold step by empowering its mayor with the ability to grant charters. What we need is courageous leadership willing to attack inequity and chronic failure by closing bad schools and opening good schools. Mayors are more likely to provide stronger leadership than school boards. But more important, American families deserve high expectations, the assurance of quality, and choice when it comes to education.

(first appeared on HuffPost)

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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