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A Tale of Two Cities: Reality Check on Mayoral Control of Urban School Districts

Article excerpt

Abstract: This article represents a preliminary exploration of the impact of mayoral control of two large urban school systems and the legislative changes in school governance and policies--spearheaded by business leaders and politicians--which affect students, teachers, and traditional school leaders in terms of accountability, decision making, and school renewal. Through the voices of university professors who teach in teacher education and administrative preparation programs, and the teachers and administrators who work in these school systems, we challenge a unique governance structure that potentially disenfranchises the "grassroots" of public education, i.e., parents, teachers, school administrators and students.

The authors initially employ data drawn from legislative documents and other school reform artifacts of both cities, print media in both cities, the researchers' personal observations while working in Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and Cleveland Municipal School District (CMSD), teaching graduate courses to CPS teachers and administrators, and from discussions and interviews with CPS teachers and administrators regarding school reform successes and obstacles. The long-term goal is not only to increase the scrutiny of politically motivated educational policy, but to challenge education preparation programs to provide teachers, administrators, and other educational leaders with the tools needed to be successful in their craft, for children's sake, in light of these new governance structures.

Introduction

This inquiry grew out of a conversation about an observation one of us made regarding the not-so-apparent connections between redevelopment projects in the city of Chicago and the locations of schools placed on probation and eventually reconstituted by Chicago Public Schools administration. This conversation led to discussions about how these actions could take place without much dissent from educators and the general public because the process was being "controlled" by the mayor's office--the mayor having authority over the school system and influence over community development projects. This dialogue led to the suspicion that Cleveland might be facing similar experiences--placing control over the schools in the hands of the mayor.

As a result, we decided to look at the two cities, Chicago and Cleveland, to ascertain why the management and leadership of two major urban school systems would be taken from the educators and placed in the hands of municipal/corporate leaders. Our inquiry has led us to the basic premise that at the core of the mayoral controlled school system takeovers are key political, corporate and legislative figures who have formed a partnership designed to control access to knowledge, money and power. To achieve this goal, governance of large urban school systems has to be placed in the hands of mayors and their municipal appointees, who not only will control the districts' financial assets, determine who has access to knowledge, and decide which stakeholders have voice in those decisions, but will have the power and "clout" of the "City Hall" behind them.

We contend that the real issues are not about student achievement and learning, they are about power and money and who controls. If we extend this line of reasoning in the context of existing corporate influence over municipal governments, mayoral control of school systems is the logical preference over the traditional board-superintendent governance structure. In the municipal governance structure, key decision-makers (e.g., Board of Trustees or Municipal School Board) need not be elected by the people--they are appointed by the mayor or his designees, and as a result, need not be concerned about the views or concerns of "grassroots" stakeholders (parents, teachers, school administrators, students). However, in the traditional board-superintendent structure, all are elected/selected by the people and are answerable to them. …