Timothy B. Lee

USA Today has a news story on mayoral control over urban schools that covers our study on mayoral control, although they unfortunately don't mention that we commissioned the study. Still, it's a good write-up of an important issue:

Education specialists continue to debate whether kids really get a better education under such arrangements, whether any academic gains will be permanent, and how much credit mayors should get for the successes.

Kenneth Wong, a Brown University education professor, examined test scores of the 100 largest school districts from 1999 to 2003. He found that students in mayor-controlled school systems often perform better than those in other urban systems. Test scores in mayor-run districts are rising "significantly," he says.

However, Wong says in his study that "there is still a long way to go before (mayor-controlled) districts achieve acceptable levels of achievement."

On the other hand, Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank, says his review of previous studies finds that it's "inconclusive" whether mayors can raise test scores more than elected school boards.

Solid data on student achievement have not been collected long enough, Hess says. And test scores also are up in Houston and other cities with elected school boards, he points out.

The story also highlights an important point about our study: some people have inaccurately described the study as a strong endorsement of mayoral control, but in fact, the study's findings are more nuanced. Hess concludes that given the chaos now plaguing the school district, mayoral control is likely to be better than the alternatives. However, he makes it clear that how mayoral control is implemented is a lot more important than whether to implement it. Switching to mayoral control carelessly, or without the strong backing of the mayor and civic leadership, would be worse than not switching at all, as the examples of Washington DC and Los Angeles illustrate. The point of Hess's study was not that we should switch to mayoral control at any cost, but rather that we should only switch to mayoral control if the city's civic leadership are committed to expending the political capital required for it to be effective.

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