Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

'New, Improved' Mayors Take over City Schools

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

'New, Improved' Mayors Take over City Schools

Article excerpt

More efforts at mayoral takeovers seem likely, Mr. Kirst and Ms. Bulkley predict. Reformers will continue to use governance and organizational changes in an effort to improve the performance of education, even though these mechanisms may offer an indirect and uncertain strategy for improving classroom instruction.

FOR MOST of the 20th century, even the nation's most powerful mayors held little sway over their cities' schools. Influential as they might have been with business, political, and community leaders, they were wary of meddling with highly autonomous local public schools that, during the years 1890-1920, were largely divorced from city government and mayoral control. But this long-standing independence of the schools from city hall is now being reexamined in some of the nation's major cities, where policy makers, often with the support of the electorate, are putting the mayor in charge. Chicago, Boston, Detroit, and Cleveland have completed the transition to mayoral control of the schools, while smaller cities such as Oakland, California; Washington, D.C.; and New Orleans are considering doing so. Moreover, even without substantial formal changes in governance structures, mayors in New York, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia now exert much more influence over school policy than their predecessors would have thought possible.

According to a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, several big-city mayors have "touted mayoral control over education as the most promising way to turn around troubled school districts."1 In this power shift, school boards are the big losers. Mayors increasingly make major decisions that were once the sole province of school boards, including the selection of superintendents in Chicago, Boston, and Cleveland. Mayor Richard Daly, Jr., of Chicago moved roughly a hundred people from his office to the school district's headquarters in order to take over all the key administrative functions, while Boston Superintendent Thomas Payzant became a member of Mayor Thomas Menino's cabinet.

What underlying political and institutional theories are policy makers embracing as they approve these new mayoral regimes? What has fostered this recent reversal of the century-old progressive effort to remove mayors from school governance?

To help readers understand these issues, we first offer an overview of the governance changes in their historical context. Then we provide a framework for examining institutional choices that cities have made with regard to school governance. Finally, we examine recent literature on urban governance and mayors for the insights it gives into why these changes in favor of mayoral control of the schools have been made and what impact they might have.

Historical Perspective on Urban School Governance

Herbert Kaufman presents three alternating priorities for urban governance: executive leadership, professional neutral competence, and legislative representation.2 Prior to 1900, large-city school governance eschewed executive leadership in favor of legislative representation. This representation was embodied in a ward-based committee system that was responsible for administering the public schools. Often large and unwieldy, the committee system provided opportunities for extensive and complex political influence. In 1905, Philadelphia had 43 elected school boards consisting of 559 members. By contrast, there were only seven members on the Minneapolis board, while Hartford, Connecticut, with a third as many people, had 39 school visitors and committee members. Despite such wide variation, 16 of 28 cities with more than 100,000 people had boards of 20 members or more at the turn of the century. The solution to the problems posed by excessive representation was to install a nonpartisan school superintendent - hence the turn toward executive leadership and neutral competence. By 1910, a conventional wisdom had evolved among school and business leaders that smaller boards in conjunction with professional superintendents were needed. …

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