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As the worst school district in the Midwest outside of Detroit, Indianapolis Public Schools has exemplified everything that is wrong with traditional school districts. Last August, Indiana Supt. Tony Bennett seized six of the district’s worst-performing schools and handed them off to a group of charter school operators charged with overhauling them. This included Emmerich Manual High School, a subject of past Dropout Nation reports, which has been an abject failure for most of the past four decades. Meanwhile the seven-year regime of the district’s superintendent, Eugene White, already marked by rampant nepotism and incompetence, garnered even more negative attention last month when he proclaimed that the district was failing because it educated special ed kids he called “blind, crippled, crazy”; the district’s do-nothing school board merely let him off the hook by letting him apologize for his callous remarks. (His remarks and his failures were featured in this month’s Dropout Nation Podcast on transforming school leadership.)

So it isn’t shocking that Indiana state officials and school reform organizations such as former Indianapolis mayor Bart Peterson’s Mind Trust are looking to put the district’s status as an independent entity into education history’s proverbial glue factory. Under proposals being bandied around the Hoosier State’s legislative halls and along the Indianapolis’ Monument Circle, IPS would be placed in the hands of the Circle City’s mayor, Greg Ballard, either allowing him to appoint members of the school board, or make the district a city agency whose superintendent would be a mayoral appointee.

Either way, by next year, Indiana may end up bringing back the conversation about handing over traditional districts to mayors and other municipal and county chief executives, who can then lead much-needed reforms. And that is a good thing. It is important to continue ditching the outdated concept of independent school districts that lack accountable, central leadership.

Thanks largely to last year’s defeat of Adrian Fenty for a second term as Washington, D.C. mayor, the idea of mayors taking control of big urban school districts has quieted down. Even though Fenty’s defeat had far more to do with his arrogant demeanor and general incompetence as mayor in areas out side of education, the prospects of using considerable political capital on overhauling traditional districts– especially amid quality of life concerns — has made mayoral control less interesting an idea. While mayors are still active in pushing for reform, and some mayors (notably San Antonio’s Julian Castro) may still be willing to take over of traditional districts, mayoral control hasn’t been the major topic of discussion that it was last year.

Meanwhile education traditionalists such as Diane Ravitch have argued that mayoral control hasn’t been a success at all. Ravitch, in her usual disingenuous and intellectually dishonest manor, attempted to paint New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s efforts as being little more than “smoke”; while Nation writer Dana Goldstein attempted the same feat with far too many more words in her own recent tome against reform. Affiliates of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers are also geared up to make sure that mayoral control doesn’t happen elsewhere, arguing that mayoral control is somehow undemocratic (even though mayors are elected by the same voters and, generally, in far greater numbers). They also attempt to argue that mayor-led reforms are failures.

Yet, oddly enough, mayoral control has largely succeeded in spurring much-needed reforms. Under Bloomberg and his chancellors — including Joel Klein — the percentage of fourth-graders reading Below Basic, as measured on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, declined from 53 percent in 2003 to 38 percent in 2009, while the percentage of students reading at Proficient and Advanced levels increased from 19 percent to 29 percent within the same period. The average fourth-grader in 2009 was reading at a grade level ahead of a peer six years earlier. The percentage of eighth-graders scoring Below Basic in math declined from 46 percent in 2003 to 40 percent in 2004, while the percentage of students scoring at Proficient and Advanced levels increased from 21 percent to 26 percent in that period. The average eighth-grader scores half a grade level higher in math in 2009 than a similar student six years earlier; the average black male fourth-grader reads at a grade level higher in 2009 than in 2003. Meanwhile, the Big Apple’s graduation rates increased from an abysmal 37 percent at the time Bloomberg took over the district in 2002 to a slightly less-horrifying 50 percent.

The story of improvement under mayoral control isn’t atypical. In D.C., the percentage of fourth-graders who were functionally illiterate declined from 61 percent in 2007 to 56 percent in 2011, while the percentage of kids reading at Proficient and Advanced levels increased from 14 percent to 19 percent over that time. The percentage of fourth-graders in the district performing Below Basic in math declined from 51 percent in 2007 to 40 percent in 2011, while the percentage of fourth-graders performing at Proficient and Advanced levels increased from 14 percent to 22 percent in that same period.

Then there’s Boston, which came under the control of the mayor’s office two decades ago. Between 2003 and 2009, the percentage of fourth-graders reading Below Basic declined from 52 percent to 39 percent, while the percentage of kids reading at Proficient and Advanced levels increased from 15 percent to 24 percent. The average Boston fourth-grader reads at a grade-and-a-half level higher in 2009 than a similar student six years earlier; the reading score for the average black male fourth-grader was a grade point higher in 2009 than six years earlier.

Even Chicago, whose reform efforts under former mayor Richard Daley and his former schools czar (and now-current U.S. Secretary of Education) Arne Duncan, have been much maligned as of late, showed progress. The percentage of functionally illiterate fourth-graders declined from 60 percent to 55 percent between 2003 and 2009, while the percentage of students reading at Proficient and Advanced levels increased from 15 percent to 24 percent during that time. While Chicago didn’t succeed under the latter half of Daley’s reign at the stunning levels displayed in New York, D.C., and Boston — the average scale score for black males barely budged — graduation rates for the city (based on eighth-grade enrollment) increased from 55 percent to 63 percent within that period; the five-year promoting power for black males (based on eighth-grade enrollment) increased from 47 percent to 62 percent over that same period. And when one takes the longer view and considers that most of the work began under Duncan’s predecessor Paul Vallas, Chicago has made rather amazing progress under mayoral control.

This isn’t to say that mayoral control has been an unquestioned success as a school reform strategy. The fact that so many of the districts still struggle in improving student achievement for black males — even amid the successes overall — remains problematic. The fact the array of state laws and policies — including near-lifetime employment policies and reverse-seniority layoff rules — that contributed to making districts servile to AFT and NEA affiliates also limits the reform efforts mayors can undertake.

Then there is the reality that mayors can succeed in continuing reform efforts on the school front only if they master the other aspects of their job: Keeping crime low; attending to quality of life issues; efficiently managing city government; and artfully keeping opponents (and sometimes, even allies) divided or placated. Fail in any of these areas, let alone all of them, and the mayor may not have much time to overhaul school districts — or anything else.

Yet, in spite of these issues, mayoral control has proven effective as a reform strategy. Why? Start with the fact that, unlike the traditional (and mostly unaccountable) board structure, there is one elected official who is in charge of schools, who is accountable for its success and failure of schools in providing high-quality instruction and curricula to children whose taxpayers are also voters. Given a mayor’s chief role of improving the city’s quality of life, the critical role of schools in economic and social development, and the bully pulpit that comes with the job, a mayor can be the standard-bearer for systemically reforming schools.

This reality can force mayors to wisely pick school chief executives, who will have plenty of time (so long as the mayor remains in office) to do the hard work. While Fenty’s tenure — and that of Michelle Rhee, who served as his schools czar — was rather short, most mayoral control arrangements have involved tenures far longer than the three year average for superintendents in traditional district arrangements. In New York City, for example, Klein remained in charge for eight years, while Tom Payzant in Boston held his job for 11 years; in Chicago, Duncan and Vallas held their jobs for, respectively, seven and six years.

Another lies with the fact that mayors can stand up to AFT and NEA locals more-effectively than any school board. After all, unlike school board members, who are dependent on the endorsements of locals (and their campaign cash), mayors can count on a wider array of donors and political alliances that can sustain them during the inevitable battles over revamping teacher compensation and revamping curricula and instructional practices. As seen in the case of Bloomberg and Klein, the mayor can play the proverbial good cop role even as his education czar does the dirty work. Sometimes this may mean mayors will hold off on more-radical reforms (or, as in the case of Bloomberg when he essentially took over the negotiations with the AFT’s Big Apple local in 2005, undercut their school leaders altogether). But more often than not, teachers’ union bosses know that any effort being undertaken by the district is one that has been vetted and blessed by the mayor.

Then there is the budgetary value of mayoral control, which is quite considerable. One of the reasons why urban districts such as Philadelphia and Bridgeport, Conn., generate so little in local tax dollars (even when, as Contributing Editor Michael Holzman noted yesterday, their tax rates are higher)  is because of the dysfunctional fiscal policies — including tax abatements given to developers for costly real estate schemes that siphon off dollars from district coffers. In those cities, politicians who run the rest of government can ignore the fiscal needs of the school district, whose operations they don’t oversee. The fact that state governments also fund most of the district’s expenditures (often as much as 80 percent of the annual spend) also makes it easier for city leaders to not concern themselves with school funding.

When districts are under mayoral control, city officials have to be more-thoughtful about the impact of their fiscal decisions on schools. It also forces mayors to think more about the high cost of traditional teacher compensation — including the pension deficits and unfunded retired teacher healthcare liabilities that will be a drain on taxpayer coffers for decades to come.

Finally, mayors can be the leading forces for pushing systemic reforms at the state and national level. Daley proved this during his tenure, especially during his final months in office as he successfully pushed for a modest revamp of Illinois’ teacher evaluation system, while Bloomberg has been even more effective, fostering a school reform culture within the Empire State where there was once none. Even mayors who don’t have significant control of school systems have proven to be leading agitators for reform. In Indiana, Peterson’s successful push to get power to authorize charter schools helped foster a reform-minded culture in the Hoosier State upon which the school choice and teacher quality efforts of state superintendent Bennett and Gov. Mitch Daniels has been built. And in California, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s agitation for reforming the Los Angeles Unified School District — including his unsuccessful effort to get Golden State legislators to hand him control of the school system — has helped sustain other school reformers, including the group of parents that have recently filed suit against L.A. Unified to force overhaul of its teacher evaluations.

There are plenty of cities and counties in which more mayoral activism is needed. And Indianapolis is one of them. While IPS is particularly abysmal — a 37 percent graduation rate for its Class of 2009 based on Dropout Nation‘s analysis of eighth-grade enrollment — its sister districts in Indianapolis’ townships are not much better. Just 67 percent of Decatur Township’s eighth-graders in the original Class of 2009 graduated five years later, while 64 percent of Perry Township’s eighth-graders made it to graduation. And when one looks at the performance of black male students throughout the Circle City, the extent of the education crisis is astounding.

While the charter schools effort begun under Ballard’s predecessor, Bart Peterson, have provided some higher-quality options, the low number of the schools, the lack of charters in the districts outside of IPS, and the approach of Ballard and Peterson to emphasize quality over quantity of charters has meant that neither IPS nor its sister districts have had step up and actually overhaul their operations.

Reform must start with overhauling IPS, which account for more than a fifth of all of the city’s students, and operate most of the city’s failure mills. In many ways, Ballard would already be prepared for such a move. After all, he oversees charters, which, though command just 6.6 percent of all students in Indianapolis, would be considered the city’s eighth-largest school district if they were consolidated into one entity. The fact that Ballard had proposed earlier this year to take over IPS’ worst failure factories before the state proceeded with handing off those schools to charter school operators also shows that he has the capacity to run the district.

If Hoosier State officials hand over the district to Ballard, it could also spark a new round of mayoral takeovers. Seattle, for example, would be one possibility; there, the current mayor, Mike McGinn, has already said he wants to take control of the district. Another would be St. Louis, where current mayor Francis Slay has unsuccessfully fought to place reformers on the district’s school board. Newark Mayor Cory Booker is already active in pushing for reform of that city’s woeful school district; it wouldn’t be surprising to see him team up with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to push for mayoral control. And Atlanta still remains ripe for takeover; even as Georgia’s education officials, has finally removed the scandal- and dysfunction-tarred district off probation, it is likely that Mayor Kasim Reed can persuade Gov. Nathan Deal and the Republican-led legislature to hand him control of the woefully-run schools.

Another possibility may lie in countywide takeover of districts. This is especially possible in states such as Virginia, Maryland, Georgia, and Tennessee, where countywide districts (save for areas surrounding cities such as Baltimore and Atlanta) and county government chief executives are already the norm. In the first two states, the districts have to have their budgets approved by county and independent city governments. One can imagine a situation in which the dysfunctional DeKalb County school district near Atlanta is taken over by the county’s chief executive, Burrell Ellis. The newly-formed Memphis-Shelby County district in Tennessee, featured in this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast on expanding school choice, could, in theory, end up under the control of county Mayor Mark Luttrell Jr., if the Volunteer State’s governor, Bill Haslam, pushes the legislature into that direction.

What may happen in Indianapolis in the coming year may mean the return of mayoral control. And this wouldn’t be a bad thing at all.

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