Looking for Leadership: Assessing the Case for Mayoral Control of Urban School Systems
Some analysts contend that mayoral control gives urban districts the focused leadership they need to enact tough reforms. A review of the existing research and analysis can offer no sure answers, but it does suggest that a sensible plan for mayoral control may hold promise for large, troubled urban districts. Unfortunately, only a handful of studies have compared elected and appointed school boards in a systematic fashion, and these studies are generally inconclusive. There is general agreement that elected school boards often suffer from high turnover. Appointed school boards can offer the continuity necessary to enact long-term reforms. On the other hand, critics charge that appointed school boards lack transparency and accountability to parental concerns. Research suggests that elected officials tend to be more responsive to public opinion, while appointed officials are more willing to make hard choices. There is anecdotal evidence that mayoral control can be more effective, with Boston, Chicago, and New York frequently touted as success stories. But Washington D.C. is an important reminder that all proposals for ‘mayoral control’ are not created equal. The record suggests that mayoral control can work, but only if it is sensibly designed and a strong mayor is actively engaged in improving the schools. If mayoral control is to be effective, the mayor must be willing to expend political capital and enlist the support of business and civic leaders on behalf of his reform agenda. Business and civic leaders, in turn, must be willing to hold the mayor’s feet to the fire, insisting that he set high standards for the district. Finally, mayoral control does not necessarily do anything to address the crippling legacy of rigidity and uniformity that infuses urban school management, staffing, compensation, and operations. It is only if the mayor is going to tackle these challenges that mayoral control may be worth the fight.