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Gerald Bracey

Gerald Bracey

Posted: July 21, 2009 10:14 AM

Mayoral Control of Schools: The New Tyranny


Our Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, has been on a "listening tour" where he's done most of the talking. He advocates, repeatedly, that mayors should take control of urban schools. Obviously he cannot take an honest look at his own accomplishments under this governance system or -- he'd have to shut up.

The usual rationale for a mayoral power grab is it brings more accountability and a clear line of authority. School boards are generally elected in off years and few people vote, allowing special interest groups (usually education unions, some claim) to essentially rig the elections. School boards are fractious and try to micromanage. They are amateurs and prisoners of deeply rooted school bureaucracies.

But do mayors do better? Depends on how you feel about democracy. The Spring 2009 issue of Rethinking Schools said that, as Daley's man, Duncan "has shown himself to be the central messenger, manager and staunch defender of corporate involvement in, and privatization of, public schools, closing schools in low-income neighborhoods of color with little community input, limiting local democratic control, undermining the teachers union and promoting competitive merit pay for teachers."

The most important corporate involvement involves the 132-year-old Commercial Club of Chicago. Yet that organization recently published Still Left Behind, slamming Chicago's public schools as awful and that the reforms they've endured were designed to make the adults running the schools look good, not improve the lives of children. You could say the Club stabbed Arne in the back except that they did it upfront in the open, without once mentioning Duncan's name. The Club report backs up its case with many data.

If we look at the other most visible case of mayoral control, we see an even more autocratic system in place. When the New York legislature handed control of the schools in 2002 to Mayor Mike Bloomberg and his Chancellor, Joel Klein, it created the Panel for Educational Policy, attempting to establish a "balance of authority." The group is universally referred to as the Panel of Educational Puppets. The panelists, "an investment banker, a lingerie store owner and an expert on electromagnetics among them -- rarely engage in discussions with those who rise to address them. They do not debate the educational issues of the day, but spend most sessions applauding packaged presentations by staff. Some have barely uttered a public word during their tenures" (New York Times, April 23, 2009).

And if they do utter a public word, it damn well better be in support of Hizzoner or else they're history. Said Bloomberg, "Mayoral control means mayoral control, thank you very much. They are my representatives, and they are going to vote for things I believe in."

Both Bloomberg/Klein and Daley/Duncan have touted rising state test scores as proof of their success. But analysts in both cities have shown that the rises only show how easy it is to manipulate test scores. In New York, a narrow range of standards is tested and the content from year to year is highly predictable. In Illinois, the state made it easier for systems to meet the standards with new item formats and lower passing scores.

But if one looks at the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), both cities look dreadful and show little progress. This is especially true for black students, the group most affected. Compared to kids nationally in math, for example, NYC's black eighth-graders rank at the 26th percentile, while Chicago's come in at the 18th percentile. In 2003, 9 percent of NYC's black students were proficient or better in math and by 2007 the proportion had "jumped" to 10 percent. In 2003, 4 percent of Chicago's black eighth-graders were proficient or better in math, and by 2007 the figure had risen to 6 percent. The black-white achievement gap shrank slightly in NYC, but grew in Chicago.

A June 2009 Chicago Tribune article noted that two-thirds of all new Chicago teachers leave within five years and that half of the teachers in high poverty areas disappear after only three. Hard to have a turnaround with that kind of turnover.

Of course, some of the teachers got a push. Ron Huberman fired the faculty and staff of 16 schools in less than three months after replacing Duncan. If Duncan had worked the miracles his PR machine claimed, Huberman should have been able to spend most of the day smoking cigars, tweeting and embellishing his image on Facebook. Newsweek said the district "is mired in urban woes -- and, in some cases, a sense of complacency." Complacency? Daley has had control of Chicago's schools for 13 years and Duncan was there for seven of them, but the test scores above are evidence that they didn't do much to stir anything but the public relations pot.

Bloomberg's authority expired in June, but about then collective insanity infected the Senate and the legislature adjourned for the summer without passing a new authorization. Bloomberg says he will ask the governor to call them back into session until he gets a bill, his bill. Checks and balances, anyone?