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Big-City Mayors Are Getting Kicked Out of Schools

Having mayors run school districts became a big trend 30 years ago. Now most cities are returning power to independently elected school boards.

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu vetoed a city council bill to restore control of schools to an independent board. In other cities, however, mayors are retreating from direct control of schools.
(Matt Stone/Boston Herald/TNS)
In Brief:
  • Major cities such as New York, Chicago and Boston moved to mayoral control of schools in the 1990s.
  • They pushed through some reforms, but many voters found their approaches heavy-handed.
  • Only a dozen mayors are still responsible for schools, but almost all mayors still seek influence.

  • Chicago residents will get to do something next year that they haven’t done since the 1990s. They will cast votes for members of the school board. Thirty years ago, Chicago was in the vanguard of major cities where mayors took direct control of schools. That idea is now in retreat.

    Los Angeles, Detroit and Oakland, Calif., have already moved away from mayoral control of schools. In Boston, nearly 80 percent of voters approved a nonbinding resolution in 2021 to restore an independent school board, but Mayor Michelle Wu vetoed a proposal earlier this year from the City Council to do just that.

    For the most part, running schools has come to be seen as a complicated endeavor that is just one plate too many to juggle for the person also in charge of parks, public health, transit, crime and much else. “What you’re seeing is that the idea you can hold a mayor accountable at the ballot box for the performance of our schools has just not borne fruit,” says Ricardo Arroyo, a member of the Boston City Council.

    It’s a dim memory at this point, but mayoral control of schools was a buzzy policy approach back in the 1990s. The experiment was ultimately run in only about two dozen major cities — there are just under a dozen where mayors are still in control — but they included some of the nation’s largest districts. Michael Bloomberg and his handpicked Superintendent Joel Klein drew national attention for pushing competition in New York, while the embrace of charters in Washington, D.C., and other cities became the subject of a high-profile documentary.

    The clout of mayors offered a counterweight both to teachers unions and sometimes stodgy educational bureaucracies. At least in some places. “When you had a strong mayor who was invested in it, it created coherence and a focus on school performance that was otherwise lacking in these big urban centers,” says Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington.

    That didn’t happen everywhere. Not all mayors were as transparent about their plans for schools as elected school boards had been. Nor were all of them willing or able to take the political risks involved in driving real change. And it proved difficult to find compelling evidence that mayors running schools worked any miracles, compared with the performance of peer cities.

    “In the scheme of things, how big were these impacts?” Hess asks. “It’s hard to argue they were that big.”

    Problems With the Model

    A couple of things are driving this move away from mayoral control. For instance, the changing racial and ethnic mix within many cities means many residents believe they will be better represented when they can vote for multiple members of a school board, rather than letting the mayor appoint everyone. “A school board can make everybody in the community feel like somebody is articulating their agenda, where you had folks who felt they were locked out of the mayor’s agenda,” Hess says.

    There have been other downsides. Members of appointed school boards who’ve crossed swords with mayors on key decisions have found themselves booted out of office. Even as they sometimes seem to act as rubber stamps, they can also serve to insulate mayors from taking responsibility for unpopular decisions.

    It’s the school board who did it, not me, a mayor might say. “What makes an elected school committee more responsive is that the constituency believes it’s working for them, rather than an appointed committee that essentially works for the mayor,” Arroyo says.

    Mayors Still Get a Say

    When Phillip Jones took office as mayor of Newport News, Va., he knew he had no formal control over schools. Not only does his office not run the schools, he has no say at all about policy or priorities. But he understood that schools are essential to the health of his community, so he’s done everything he can to prod them in the right direction. He intends to spend time this fall working as a substitute teacher to draw attention to classrooms and their needs.

    “I have zero agency, but I have been the first mayor to attend school board meetings,” Jones says. “I am deep in their budget. I am actively participating.”

    If contemporary mayors mostly don’t want to be in charge of schools — and their constituents don’t want that, either — that doesn’t mean mayors will have no say. Schools are too important. They represent the biggest item in the typical city budget and are often the largest local employer. Months before Tuesday’s one-day strike brought many city services to a halt in Los Angeles, Mayor Karen Bass stepped in to mediate a strike that shut down schools for several days.

    Mayors concerned with schools are finding lots of other ways to make their wishes known. Some are pushing for specific policies, whether early childhood education or afterschool programs. Dozens of mayors have created children’s cabinets meant to coordinate services for children and youth. All mayors spend plenty of time visiting schools and meeting with parents and school officials.

    “Instead of direct, formal control, mayoral leadership is picking up through these other mechanisms,” says Kenneth Wong, an education professor at Brown University. “Mayors are not shy to take on districtwide initiatives, but they’re using cross-sector collaboration to support this work.”

    The idea that mayors were going to take over schools and save education has come to an end. Today’s mayors have gone back to the old way of doing business, trying their best to make schools better while standing safely on the sidelines. And that’s where voters seem to want them.
    Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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