Mayoral Control Could Help City Schools
The state school board in Jefferson City was a scene of pandemonium on Thursday, as angry Saint Louis residents protested a vote that would lead to a state takeover of the troubled city school district. Both sides in the debate make good points. On the one hand, state education officials are concerned about a dysfunctional school district that has been failing to provide kids with an adequate education. On the other hand, some Saint Louis residents are understandably worried that without local representation, the district will not be responsive to the concerns of the district’s students and their parents.
State officials would do well to consider an alternative that could address both concerns: mayoral control of the Saint Louis school district. If Mayor Slay were given the authority to appoint the entire board, he might be able to provide the consistent, disciplined leadership that the city’s schools require. And because Mayor Slay is elected by Saint Louis voters, mayoral control would make the district more responsive to local concerns than state control.
However, as Rick Hess wrote in a recent study for the Show-Me Institute, mayoral control should be approached with caution. Mayoral control advocates can point to some important success stories, but there have been some failures as well. Hess’s research suggests that mayoral control should only be pursued if the mayor is willing to invest significant political capital in school reform efforts, and if civic leaders in Saint Louis are willing to hold Mayor Slay accountable for the results of the reform effort. Without an engaged mayor and committed civic leadership, mayoral reform will be a cure worse than the disease.
One of the biggest problems facing the Saint Louis school district is unstable leadership. Nearly every school board election in recent years has brought renewed chaos, as different factions jockeyed for control. The state take-over will represent the sixth leadership change in as many years. It’s not surprising that none of the six superintendents who preceded the state takeover were able to turn the district around. Most of the superintendents had only months to implement their reform strategies before school board elections or shifting political alliances led to their ouster.
The state takeover may bring greater continuity of leadership. The board nominated Rick Sullivan, an executive with McBride and Son, as the district’s chief executive. He will supervise the district along with individuals selected by Mayor Slay and Aldermanic President James Shrewsbury. This configuration should give school officials more time for their reform efforts to bear fruit.
On the other hand, critics point out that Sullivan is not a city resident, and that the new governance arrangement will provide parents with little influence over the direction of the district. Moreover, there is no guarantee that this three-person governance panel will show more leadership coherence than the school board it replaces. In 2000, the Washington, DC, school board was re-shuffled to include four members appointed by the mayor and five members directly elected by voters. This fractured leadership structure has not worked very well. DC Mayor Anthony Williams described it as “trying to drive a car with one pedal.” Similarly, under the state take-over plan now under way, control over the district will be fractured among the governor, the mayor, and the president of the board of aldermen—three politicians who may have divergent views on how the district should be governed. Mayoral control could address both of those concerns, giving the district unified, coherent, and stable leadership under an elected official chosen by Saint Louis voters.
However, mayoral control will only make sense if Mayor Slay is willing to step up to the plate and make education reform a focus of his administration. And given the structural limitations on the power of the mayor in Saint Louis, the business community and other civic leaders must be willing to provide strong backing for the mayor’s reform efforts as well.
Children in Saint Louis have waited too long for competent leadership. Mayoral control should be explored as one way to achieve effective school governance. However, any further governance changes should be made cautiously, because the last thing Saint Louis school children need is yet another ineffectual leadership change.
Timothy B. Lee is a policy analyst at the Show-Me Institute.