School Takeover Requires Mayoral Commitment
Shifting political alliances and personality conflicts have produced six superintendents in the last five years. This has made it difficult for superintendents to set long-term goals, and made it impossible for the fractious school board to hold anyone accountable for their results. It is simply naïve to imagine Saint Louis schools will improve amidst this kind of discord and leadership turnover. What the district needs is decisive, consistent leadership.
As I argue in a forthcoming study for the Show-Me Institute, mayoral control of urban school districts can help bring to cities like Saint Louis the focus and consistency that is lacking. Boston is a model of how this can work when done well. Boston’s mayor was given control of the school board in 1991 and a few years later tapped Thomas Payzant, an official in the Clinton administration’s Department of Education and former San Diego superintendent, to run the system. In 2006, Payzant concluded a heralded 11-year run, as the district claimed the Broad Prize for Urban Education. Consistent mayoral support from the stolid Tom Menino throughout Payzant’s tenure gave him the time he needed to right a troubled district.
A similar success story may be unfolding in New York City. Mayor Michael Bloomberg was given control of the New York City school board in 2002. While they have not proceeded without controversy, Bloomberg’s policies have generally received high marks. U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings has singled out the gains by minority students in New York and Chancellor Joel Klein has become a national voice for aggressive, focused urban reform. It is too early to judge the success of the Bloomberg-Klein reforms, but it is clear that they have moved New York past the confusion and petty turmoil that currently bedevils Saint Louis.
On the other hand, Washington, DC, offers a cautionary tale. In 2000, the D.C. school board was amended to include four mayoral appointees and five members elected by the public. This “hybrid” model was hailed as a superior alternative to straight mayoral control, and its backers included Mayor Anthony Williams, the Washington Post, the Greater Washington Board of Trade, and the Federal City Council. Six years later, the hybrid design is widely regarded as ineffectual, especially with a mayor whose attention to schools was flitting and whose energies were concentrated elsewhere. Williams himself has described his partial authority over the D.C. school board as “trying to drive a car with one pedal.”
There is reason to believe that mayoral control of large urban districts offers a better chance for disciplined oversight, real accountability, and sustained focus than does continued control by an elected school board. But in order for mayoral control to work as intended, careful attention must be paid to how the reform is executed. In particular, it is absolutely critical that Mayor Slay demonstrate a willingness to mobilize support and expend political capital on behalf of a coherent reform agenda. Such action will require the backing of business and civic leaders in Saint Louis. Those leaders, in turn, must be willing to hold the mayor’s feet to the fire, insisting that he set clear goals for the district, establish meaningful benchmarks, and do what is necessary to see that district officials are getting the job done.
Absent this commitment, a takeover will do little more than increase confusion. Meanwhile, a poorly-executed transfer of authority could yield new problems by reducing transparency, making it harder for local voices to get a hearing, and further insulating district leaders from at least rudimentary democratic oversight.
Mayoral control is no quick fix or panacea. But as Boston and New York show, if pursued thoughtfully, it can invigorate school improvement. If Mayor Slay is willing to make school improvement the centerpiece of his administration, and if business and civic leaders are willing to throw their weight behind the mayor’s agenda, it could offer new hope to the nearly 40,000 kids in Saint Louis schools.
Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of a forthcoming study from the Show-Me Institute on mayoral control of urban school districts. He holds a Ph.D. in government from Harvard University.