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Mayors have mixed record leading schools

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The question at the heart of this year’s debate over the future of Indianapolis Public Schools is whether the district should be placed in the hands of Indianapolis’ mayor.

Proponents of mayoral control, such as locally based education reform group The Mind Trust, say it’s proved in other cities to be the best way to spur bold changes in long-struggling schools. Opponents, such as IPS Superintendent Eugene White, say mayoral control is no panacea because the cities that have tried it still have huge problems.

So who’s right? Both are.

mayorsIn such cities as Boston, Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C., mayors fought for and used their control of public schools to launch a string of changes and innovations. Those changes have been followed by rising test scores.

But increases in test scores have been modest, leaving all four of those cities below national averages. And in Detroit and Cleveland, mayoral control mostly failed to induce change or improvement.

Also, mayoral control has frequently resulted in complaints from parents and community about losing the ability to give their input to school leaders.

“It allowed for more change in the system than we’ve ever seen in history. It really created a capacity to change that did not exist, and that’s quite significant,” Joseph Viteritti, a public policy professor at Hunter College in New York and lead editor of the book “When Mayors Take Charge,” said of New York’s 10-year-old experiment with mayoral control.

But, Viteritti added, “The bottom line is, the capacity for change is not equivalent to making change for the better.”

On that point, Mind Trust CEO David Harris fully agrees.

“We didn’t come in and recommend mayoral control only. We recommended mayoral control and a fundamentally redesigned school system,” Harris said of the plan Mind Trust unveiled in December to turn IPS into a network of autonomous schools. “We don’t think just changing the governance model is enough.”

Mind Trust’s plan calls for doing away with IPS’ seven-member elected school board and replacing it with a five-member board. Three of those members would be appointed by the Indianapolis mayor, with the other two by the City-County Council.

The General Assembly would need to give such powers to the Indianapolis mayor and council before the change could become reality.

The Mind Trust and the outside experts it hired to craft its plan say they found no better way to actually implement the sweeping overhaul it has proposed than to put IPS in the control of the mayor.

“It’s easier for a single person to take bold action, which is what’s needed in the case of most urban school systems,” said Bryan Hassel, co-CEO of North Carolina-based Public Impact, an education reform research group that authored the Mind Trust plan. “Committees [such as school boards] tend to have to compromise and engage in trade-offs to get to agreement, which blunts the sharpness of reforms.”

Harris’ and Hassel’s hopes for a bold actor have been dashed by Mayor Greg Ballard. More than a year after the idea became public and more than six months after winning election to a second term, Ballard has not declared a clear position on mayoral control.

Instead, he created a position for a deputy mayor of education and hired former Teach for America executive Jason Kloth for the job. Kloth will spearhead a series of community meetings this summer to discuss the future of IPS, with the goal of producing feedback in time to have an impact on the November elections for the IPS school board.

“It’s worked well in some communities and less well in others. The context is critical,” Kloth said of mayoral control. “Any approach we take has to take into consideration the voices of the broader community.”

IPS’ White said mayoral control of IPS won’t happen because the Legislature doesn’t want to “disenfranchise an entire school district.” Even if it did, however, White argues that mayoral control has not proven successful in any city where it has been tried.

“I don’t know of one that I could point to that would be more successful than what we’re currently doing in Indianapolis,” White said.

Big-city experiments

Mayoral control has gotten a lot of attention because it has been tried in some of the nation’s biggest cities.

And it has helped stabilize school systems and increase financial resources, according to a 142-page analysis of mayoral-control cities by Rutgers University researchers in 2010.

On the downside, the researchers found, parents and community leaders often feel cut out of the decision-making process once a mayor appoints the board members.

The first big city to hand its schools to its mayor—to reform them—was Boston, in 1992. Mayor Thomas Menino’s appointed school board no longer squabbled as the elected board had, and the school system eventually embraced such reforms as charter schools.

Three years later, Mayor Richard Daley in Chicago took full control of that city’s schools. The financially struggling system, which had been racked by union strikes, cut waste and erased a billion-dollar budget gap. It earned a higher bond rating, which allowed it the first major round of building improvements in decades.

In 1999, President Bill Clinton lauded the “Chicago model” as something more cities should emulate. And current U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan rose to prominence as CEO of Chicago Public Schools, and has now called for more cities to adopt a similar strategy.

“Where you’ve seen real progress in the sense of innovation, guess what the common denominator is? Mayoral control,” Duncan said in March 2009 while calling for more cities to adopt the policy. He added, “At the end of my tenure, if only seven mayors are in control, I think I will have failed.”

Mayoral control lost a bit of steam after Cleveland and Detroit tried it in 1998 and 1999, respectively.

In Cleveland, Mayor Michael White convinced the Ohio Legislature, which controlled the fiscally strapped Cleveland schools, to hand them over to him. He hired a highly touted superintendent from New York to run them, then stepped back from the limelight. Few noteworthy changes were implemented and student performance has continued to lag.

In Detroit, Mayor Dennis Archer also took a back-seat approach to running the schools after the Michigan Legislature gave him control in 1999. Meanwhile, the local teachers’ union and black community leaders organized a drive to reclaim “our schools” from the mostly white Legislature in Lansing. Detroit voters chose in 2004 to do just that—with no real change in either the operations or outcomes of the Detroit schools.

Proponents of mayoral control say the biggest success stories have come in New York and D.C. In 2002, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg asked for and received control of the city’s schools from the Legislature—achieving a goal nearly every New York mayor had had since Abe Beame in the 1970s.

Bloomberg appointed attorney Joel Klein as chancellor of the schools. Klein unleashed a bevy of reforms, launching 470 new schools, many of them charter. Klein also gave schools A through F letter grades based on student performance, ended the teachers’ union’s practices of letting teachers pick schools based on their seniority, and established a citywide curriculum.

mayorsKlein’s rapid action and showdowns with the teachers’ unions were matched in D.C. by Michelle Rhee, the schools chancellor appointed by Mayor Adrian Fenty in 2007 after he campaigned for control of the schools.

Rhee, a veteran of the reform-minded Teach for America organization, became both demonized and lionized as she fired hundreds of teachers and convinced the local teachers’ union to agree to merit pay based on student test scores.

Fenty lost his re-election bid in 2010—largely because of controversy over Rhee’s changes.

For that reason, White points to D.C. as an example of how mayoral control can lead to radical shifts in direction in schools, based on who wins the mayor’s office.

“That’s what happens when you throw politics on top of education,” White said.

But Mind Trust’s Harris rejects that concern. He noted that, in D.C., the new mayor promoted Rhee’s deputy Kaya Henderson, also a Teach for America alum, to lead the D.C. schools. Henderson has quietly continued Rhee’s agenda.

A similar continuity happened in Indianapolis when the Republican Ballard continued the charter school program launched by Democratic predecessor Bart Peterson, even retaining Peterson’s director of charter schools.

“We’ve had a long history of mayors building on each other’s successes,” Harris said of Indianapolis.

Modest improvements

Bold change is what reformers like Harris want to see, since they think bureaucratic inertia is one of the biggest things keeping IPS students among the state’s lowest performers.

In other cities, mayoral control has coincided with rising tests scores—even though the improvements have been modest.

The broadest study, published in the 2007 book “The Education Mayor,” looked at 104 school districts and found that mayoral control was associated with a meaningful increase in student performance.

But the data used in the study were from 1999 to 2003 and so are now rather dated. Also, some researchers, such as Viteritti, have called the study’s methodology flawed.

Most other researchers have looked at student scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, a test taken by all fourth- and eighth-graders nationwide every other year. The U.S. Department of Education started making NAEP results available for large cities in 2003.

Since then, Boston’s students made great strides in math and its fourth-graders have grown faster than average on reading, too, rising to within a percentage point of the national average.

Chicago has seen its students improve faster than the national average in both math and reading since 2003. However, Chicago’s eighth-graders are still more than 4 percent below the national average.

Washington, D.C., did not adopt mayoral control until 2007. Since then, however, its fourth-graders improved their scores in both reading and math faster than the national average and its eighth-graders did so in math. Still, D.C.’s fourth-graders score about 8 percent lower than the national average and its eighth-graders score about 10 percent below average.

New York’s students are closer to the national average, but its student scores are roughly where they were in 2003, the year after the city adopted mayoral control. New York posted strong growth from 2003 to 2009, but scores fell last year.

Cleveland, which adopted mayoral control in 1998, has seen its scores fall across the board since 2003. Its fourth-grade scores are more than 10 percent below the national average, and its eighth-grade scores are more than 9 percent below average.

Detroit had mayoral control from 1999 to 2004 and no NAEP scores are available for the city during those years.

“There’s been improvement, but it’s not tremendous improvement,” said Viteritti, the Hunter College professor, referring to the NAEP scores in cities with mayoral control of their schools.

It’s also difficult to conclude that even the modest improvements in NAEP scores are caused by mayoral control. Some cities, such as Atlanta and San Diego, have achieved larger gains in NAEP scores without mayoral control. And Boston’s increases can be credited, at least in part, to advances in public education in all of Massachusetts.

Wilbur Rich, a professor emeritus of political science at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, said he wouldn’t call any of the experiments with mayoral control a success—not until the gains are larger or sustained over a longer time. And because it requires such full-time, long-term commitments from mayors, he wouldn’t recommend the policy for a city unless the mayor is really committed to the idea.

“To try to turn a whole school system around is like trying to turn a train around. It is an incredibly difficult process,” Rich said. “If the mayor is reluctant to do that, it’s probably not a good idea.”•

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