If there is one district that sorely needs the strong leadership that can come with mayoral control of schools, it is Detroit’s traditional school district. Once again under the receivership of Michigan’s state government, the Motor City’s traditional district remains the worst-performing big-city school operator in both the Midwest and the nation. With 69 percent of its fourth-graders and 57 percent of eighth-graders being functionally illiterate in 2011, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Detroit’s has become infamous for perpetuating educational neglect and malpractice. With revelations that Detroit paid $2 million to provide health insurance for ineligible dependents of district employees, bought 160 unused BlackBerry smartphones and 11 motorcycles on the taxpayers’ dime, and acquired five floors in the landmark Fisher Building for $24 million (or more than the $21 million price tag paid by its owner for the entire building), the district’s financial mismanagement has been even more spectacular. Meanwhile the efforts of Detroit’s state-appointed czar, Roy Roberts, and predecessor Robert Bobb to turn the district around has been complicated by lawsuits brought by the district’s lame-duck board, which has done all it can to reassert control in spite of its longstanding mismanagement.
This is a situation that calls for a district being put into the hands of a city’s mayor, who as the chief executive of city government, can both launch a strong overhaul effort and be accountable for its success or failure. But sadly, in the case of Detroit, the city government itself is on life support. After decades of fiscal and governmental mismanagement under the tenures of Coleman Young, the scandalous Kwame Kilpatrick, and Ken Cockrel, Detroit is in such dire shape that Wolverine State Gov. Rick Snyder moved last week to put the city into state receivership. Current Mayor Dave Bing, who came into office four years ago with high hopes of success, has struggled to overhaul city operations, as the notoriously inept and dysfunctional city council has fought every move he has attempted to make. Even a simple deal struck by Bing to lease the famed Frederick Law Olmsted-designed Belle Isle park to the state for $6 million a year in annual rent fell apart after city council-members in a fit of pique, declined to decide on approving it. Add in the fact that Detroit is one of the few big cities where violent crime rates have actually increased in the last decade, and one can conclude with some assurance that the district may actually be in slightly better shape than the city government itself.
The very plight of Detroit’s district — and the inability of either the city’s mayor or other officials to play any meaningful role in overhauling it — is a sobering reminder of why there is no one solution for advancing the much-needed reform of American public education. Certainly municipal officials at all levels should play active roles in overhauling failing and mediocre districts. In fact, the very success of district overhauls by big-city mayors such as New York City’s Michael Bloomberg and Rahm Emanuel’s predecessor in Chicago, Richard Daley fils (as well as Bart Peterson’s charter school authorizing efforts during his tenure as Indianapolis mayor, and John Norquist’s school voucher initiative in Milwaukee) makes clear that mayoral control — and even control of countywide districts by county chief executives — is likely the best approach to governance and systemic reform so long as the traditional district model remains the norm for providing education. But as seen in Detroit and in other municipalities plagued by corruption and dysfunction throughout district and main government operations, the very idea of mayoral and county executive control is not workable. These realities explain why we must continue to redefine American public education by moving away from the traditional district model.
One of the main successes of the school reform movement is that it has forced an abandonment of early 20th-century progressive era thinking that municipal officials should never be involved in district operations. Since the 1990s, when Boston’s Tom Menino and Chicago’s Daley moved to successfully take over flailing districts, mayors have increasingly understood that systemic reform is critical to their efforts to economically revive their cities. These days, it is the rare mayor who doesn’t isn’t attempting to either take control of a district, play a stronger role in district operations, or pushing for the authority to launch charter schools and early childhood education programs. The effort of outgoing Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (with the help of New York City colleague Bloomberg and other reformers) to weigh in on tomorrow’s elections for three seats on the board of L.A. Unified is just the latest example of municipal leaders embracing reform. While county government leaders haven’t played a prominent role in fostering reform — and only a smattering of states, notably Virginia, Maryland and Indiana, who put county governments in control of district finances — there are some like Prince George’s County, Md., County Executive Rushern Baker who are attempting to do.
But mayoral or county leader control only works if the municipal governments themselves are doing well handling their main activities, including fighting crime and improving quality-of-life; one can dare say that the mayoral control efforts in New York City, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Cleveland are extensions of the decades-long efforts by city leaders to make their communities fit for children and families. But there are plenty of municipalities who have been struggling with corruption, ineptitude, and fiscal mismanagement for decades. In those situations, handing over control of a failing district (or even just a merely dysfunctional one) to a municipality doesn’t make sense at all. In some cases, the combining of dysfunctional districts and inept municipal governments may end up leading to even worse results for children, families, and taxpayers alike.
One example of a district better off not in the hands of a municipality is the one in DeKalb County, Ga., where your editor covered government and schools during the early parts of what is now a 16-year career. Late last month, Peach State Gov. Nathan Deal, Deal sacked six members of DeKalb’s board after revelations of infighting between board members and news that the district couldn’t even account for as much as $12 million it spent on textbooks. With the district at risk of losing its accreditation (for whatever it is worth), and evidence that the bureaucracy’s fiscal failures were so spectacular that it couldn’t even come up a budget for “common yearly expenses”, Deal exercised his privilege under state law to restructure the district, and get it back on track.
Certainly DeKalb could use the strong oversight of the main county government. After all, the district is on its fourth full-time or interim superintendent in three years; one former top school boss, Crawford Lewis, still faces charges of racketeering and bribery charges related to a scheme to funnel more than $80 million in construction contracts to a firm run by the husband of Lewis’ top lieutenant. One of his successors, Cheryl Atkinson, was widely criticized by district board members and families alike, quite likely for just not being what they wanted in a superintendent, as well as for not addressing a decade of fiscal mismanagement by her predecessors. Add in the fact that the district is doing poorly in preparing many of its kids for lifelong success — with only 29 percent of black high school students and 21 percent of Latino students took trigonometry and other college-preparatory math courses in 2009-2010 (according to the U.S. Department of Education), and one can surmise that the district is .Considering how poorly DeKalb’s board has governed its operations, the district couldn’t do any worse if put under the main county government. Or so would one think without knowing what’s happening on the ground.
But it actually could be worse. DeKalb’s main county government itself has been plagued by at least a decade of corruption. The current CEO, Burrell Ellis, is under investigation by a grand jury for allegedly rigging bids to favor those firms that supported his election campaign. His predecessor, Vernon Jones, who did manage to keep the county’s finances in shape, was plagued by allegations of sexual assault and illegally using campaign funds to support the passage of a 2005 bond referendum. Meanwhile allegations of other corruption — including alleged bid-rigging in the county’s watershed agency, and accusations of employees pocketing cash payments in exchange for giving out permits — have also sullied the county government’s reputation. Sure, corruption will always be as much a part of government as moves by legislators to name water as an official beverage. But in light of the DeKalb district’s problems, putting it under control of a main county government that isn’t exactly attending to its operations in a sensible way is not a good step at all.
Then there is Baltimore, whose board is jointly appointed by the city’s mayor and the governor of Maryland (and, until 1997, was run solely by the city itself), which has been one of the poster children for failing big-city districts. Certainly the district is nowhere near providing all children with high-quality teaching and curricula. Although Baltimore increased its five-year promoting power rate (based on eighth-grade enrollment) from 60 percent to 75 percent between 2001 and 2010 — and has reduced the percentage of young men overdiagnosed as learning disabled from 13 percent to 10 percent in that period — it hasn’t done all that well in getting students prepared for lifelong success. The percentage of functionally-illiterate fourth-graders (as measured by NAEP) increased from 58 percent to 60 percent between 2009 and 2011, while the percentage of eighth-graders reading Below Basic has remained unchanged (at 46 percent) over that time; and with only 1.2 percent of high schoolers taking Calculus (and another 4 percent taking statistics, trigonometry and other college-preparatory math courses), Baltimore is hardly helping the few students who do graduate get the knowledge they need for successfully attaining undergraduate or technical school credentials.
Yet Baltimore’s city government would hardly be fit to take back full control of the district under any circumstances. With a homicide rate that has declined by a mere 7 percent between 2001 and 2010 (and, unlike many cities, has increased by 30 percent over the past 25 years), Crab Cake City’s municipal leaders haven’t shown attentiveness to the quality-of-life issue most-prominent on the minds of citizens. Nor have any of the city’s top executives can claim to have had much success in reviving the fortunes of what was once one of the nation’s most-prosperous cities. Martin O’Malley (who has failed upward to become Maryland’s governor) achieved little of note during his tenure, while successor Sheila Dixon was forced out of office after coping a plea to a misdemeanor fraud conviction. Current Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake can claim credit for some modest fixes to the city’s busted pension, but she also taken flack for moves such as revoking City Council President Bernard Young’s box seats to Ravens football games after he withdrew support for continuing subsidies for a money-losing auto race. Considering how poorly Baltimore schools fared under full mayoral control, and how it is doing slightly better under partial state oversight, it wouldn’t make sense to put Baltimore back under the city government on a full-time basis.
To be sure, there are plenty of cities and counties equipped to take control of failing and mediocre districts. It would make sense for Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed to ask Georgia’s state officials to let him take control of the dysfunctional district, while it would make sense for Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard to do the same when it comes to the flailing Indianapolis Public Schools district. But there are plenty of cases in which states would do well just to embrace the Hollywood Model of Education, break down failing traditional districts, and push for the expansion of charter schools as well as the launch of voucher programs that can help poor and minority kids attend private and parochial schools fit for their futures. Keeping both failing districts and incompetent cities alive just doesn’t help anyone, especially children.