Don't Fight City Hall

The death march continues through the 200-plus policy sessions here at NCSL's annual meeting in Boston. Some of them are lively, though, including one on he question of whether school boards should give way to mayoral control.
by | August 9, 2007
 

The death march continues through the 200-plus policy sessions here at NCSL's annual meeting in Boston. Some of them are lively, though, including one on the question of whether school boards should give way to mayoral control.

That's been a big topic in recent years, with mayors in Chicago, Boston and New York taking control of their schools and the mayors of D.C. and L.A. seeking to do the same. (The former got it, the latter lost out after long political and legal fighting.) But is giving mayors control really a good idea?

Kenneth Wong, an education professor at Brown University, says yes. He's the coauthor of a forthcoming book, The Education Mayor, which suggests mayoral control leads to real gains in student learning and improvements in management and budgets.

Wong suggested at the NCSL meeting that the idea of mayoral control still suffers from lingering historical concerns. A mayor's involvement in schools once meant patronage -- jobs and contracts for his friends. (Remember, mayors were almost universally "hims" back then.) Wong points out that the "new style" of mayors seeking control of schools are all about accountability, insisting on test score improvement and doing what they can to trim bureaucracies.

Wong and his colleagues compared 14 districts controlled by mayors with 90 other districts governed by school boards with similar characteristics. They found that in districts where the mayor is able to appoint a majority of the school board, elementary reading scores were up by a deviation of .15 percent, while math scores were up .14, compared to the traditional districts.

That may not sound like much, but Wong points out that a deviation of .40 would represent a whole year's worth of extra learning. In layman's terms, mayoral control translates into one-third of a year's worth of educational gains per child. "These are real gains in terms of moving the test scores in a real direction," Wong said.

Mayors also have done a good job on budgets, shifting resources away from central administration bureaucracy and toward classroom instruction. They have tried to put more money into teaching without raising taxes. Where they have fallen short, in Wong's analysis, is in trying to combat district inertia. They have a hard time, for instance, in changing staffing patterns.

They also are limited due to the fact that many big city school problems have less to do with governance than with the poverty often associated with their students. He also pointed out that districts where the mayor has partial control but has to answer to some form of oversight or accountability system set up by the state do better than districts where the mayor is wholly in charge.

Still, put Wong down as a vote for mayoral control. Sorry to spoil the ending of the book for you.

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