When it comes to educational governance — especially at the school district level — two strains remain supreme. The first is the growing realization that dominant structures (notably, school boards), are obsolete and ineffective in delivering high-quality education; their continued existence is more a credit to the lack of better ideas and the self-preservation of those who derive their power from them. The second: That other structures (including mayoral control) may be more-effective models of governance than school boards, but not good enough. Ultimately, we are nowhere near a way of providing education that actually allows for parents to be the lead decision-makers in education they should be and ultimately, leads to the full reform of American public education.
Dropout Nation will spend the next two days focusing on the structure of local educational governance. Today, Steve Peha offers his own perspective on mayoral control, looking at the aftermath of the Adrian Fenty-Michelle Rhee era. Tomorrow, I will explain why we need to bring into education governance (and into the rest of education), the kind of disruption that led to the iPod, the iPad and the BlackBerry. The Hollywood Model could be one. But there may also be others.
Like her or not, Michelle Rhee has earned her paragraph-length entry in the dictionary of American education history. The concept of“Mayoral control”, on the other hand, may soon be relegated to mere Wikipedia status as a soon-to-be-oxymoron.
When outgoing Washington, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty appointed her, he had lost control five minutes later. It strains credulity to believe that a politician as deft as he wouldn’t have called in his budding eduprotégé for a few lessons in basic PR from time to time. Or that, year after year, he would have graded her as “Satisfactory” on her report card when he saw the phrase “Plays well with others.” If her destiny was linked with his, his was almost surely linked with hers as well. Is it possible that two smart people were dumb enough to blow this situation for each other while not even knowing it?
Not only did the concept of mayoral control fail during Mr. Fenty’s term, it has been completely lost. Yes, mayor presumptive Vincent Gray will select a permanent replacement. But that isn’t what mayoral control is about. Mayoral control is supposed to be a better substitute for traditional school board governance and oversight on behalf of the public. But obviously, as in Fenty’s case, even some of the most popular mayors don’t govern or oversee the schools they allegedly control.
When we get all frothy about the miracle of mayoral control, we need to keep in mind that most change initiatives in school districts take more time than most mayors will ever enjoy in office (members of the Daley family being the exception). No one-term mayor is going to see his or her schools make much progress. And when a successor has to come in and deal with a mouthy, resentful, leftover superintendent, what’s the best we can expect? They will go sooner rather than later.
D.C. hasn’t had mayoral control, because Mayor Fenty hasn’t controlled the schools; Chancellor Rhee did. That’s called “Chancelloral” control. And the fact that we can’t even pronounce this concept is probably just one more reason why it’s not a good idea.
If traditional board governance is clumsy and factional, and newfangled mayoral control is ill-defined and even more politicized than school itself, do we need another alternative? I think we do. There’s something to be said for getting the structure right, to finding something that is both effective in the short run and enduring in the long run. I would say that this rules out anything tied to elections. And it is precisely this mechanism that links board governance and mayoral control in failure.
I don’t think our country would tolerate anything resembling the way corporate boards operate but I wonder if this wouldn’t be worth a shot. Corporate boards might make us nervous but they have two big advantages over school board governance and mayoral control. To contrast with school board governance, corporate boards are typically peopled with experts who are paid, pampered, and pledged to the long term well-being of shareholders—at least in the best cases. Unlike mayors, they’re not quite so dependent on a single person. Corporate boards often oust their chairs and lead their organizations on to victory. There’s a lot less “out with the old, in with the new”, so even if a CEO or chairman offends one person too many, continuity need not suffer so severely.
Then again, perhaps the problem is not with the mayor but with the control? If what you’re trying to do is lead people to a place they’ve never been before, and where you hope they’ll stay, “control” is probably not the best metaphor for the kind of leadership you hope to inspire. Yet we do love control in schools. Teachers love to control their kids. Administrators are always looking for more control over teachers. As educators, we are classic control freaks. Outside we speak of partnerships, cooperation, synergy, and all manner and sort of euphemisms. Inside, we know this.