Blog: The Educated Reporter

When Mayors Take Over, Do Schools Get Better?

The success or failure of a community often rests heavily on the strength of its public education system.

So, when schools fail, should the mayor take over?

This question is playing out in several cities right now, including Bridgeport, Conn., and Kansas City, Mo., where mayoral takeovers have been proposed as a means of turning around failing public schools.


There’s some evidence that in major urban districts, including New York City, Boston and Chicago, mayoral takeovers have improved student achievement, and led to better relations between teachers and management. But such drastic measures are far from a silver bullet and come with significant risks – both for the mayor who seizes the reins, and the communities that might find themselves disenfranchised from the school management process.

Kansas City’s public school system had its accreditation yanked by the state on Jan. 1. Mayor Sly James proposed taking over the schools, an overture that has been met with skepticism from lawmakers and educators, as the Kansas City Star reported.

But some parents see a takeover as a chance to remake a flailing system  that is falling short on its obligations to students — and the city.

In an interview with NPR’s “All Things Considered,” Fred Hudgins, whose three children have attended Kansas City’s public schools, suggested that the loss of accreditation could serve as a “wrecking ball” that would let the city start on fresh ground.

“You have civic leaders, you have politicians, the mayor even came in and gave a plan, which has never happened that I’m aware of [in] over 40 years,” Hudgins said. “And I think we’re starting to look at how … we fix our city because, truly, this is a citywide problem. It’s not just in the school district.”

Reporter Sylvia Maria Gross, with the Kansas City NPR affiliate KCUR, looked into the pros and cons of a mayoral takeover. In an interview with Gross, Brooklyn College education professor David Bloomfield warned that “Mayoral control isn’t a panacea. Local people should depend on local circumstances for their decision.”

The mayor’s plan is based on the research of Brown University Professor Kenneth Wong, who found potential benefits to school district takeovers. Districts that have been taken over show greater growth in student achievement when compared with similar urban districts.

“Most of these systems under mayoral control have improved in terms of management – financial management as well as administrative management,” Wong said in the KCUR interview. “Mayoral leadership is able to leverage a lot of resources both inside and outside of the public school system to work together to address more holistically some of the neighborhood challenges: social isolation, jobs, crime, gang violence.”

Not everyone is as certain as Wong.

Brent Gahn, spokesman for the Missouri School Boards Association, told me his organization believes a mayoral takeover in Kansas City would be a mistake.

Replacing the elected board would disconnect the public from “direct input in the policies and direction of the school district,” Gahn said. “If ever there was a time when the community needed to be engaged in the future of the school district, this is it. A mayoral takeover would be moving in the opposite direction.”

Gahn said he believes a more likely scenario for Kansas City would be to break up the district into four regions, an idea that’s gaining traction among the state’s lawmakers.
 
Mayoral control can be a double-edged sword, said Rick Hess, resident scholar and director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

“If you’re talking about dysfunctional urban systems that are caught up in micro-politics, and you need clear direction, coherent leadership and more heft in the statehouse and business community, then mayoral control can make good sense,” Hess said. “But mayoral control doesn’t guarantee that there will be energetic and influential leadership using it in thoughtful ways.”

Hess acknowledged that local school board races typically draw abysmally low voter turnout (a phenomenon I certainly witnessed while covering Clark County, the nation’s fifth-largest district). School boards also tend to be dominated by special interests, “hardly the recipe for strong governance,” Hess said.

As a result, school boards are often divided by competing priorities, and that can lead to mismanagement, Hess said. But there’s a potential silver lining to that kind of contentious governance.

“Because boards disagree, the information gets out there to the public,” Hess said. “There are concerns that more mayoral control leads to less transparency about what’s really happening in the school system.”

With careful strategic planning and the right priorities in place, it can make sense for public schools to cede authority to an outside leader, Hess said.

“But anyone who is suggesting mayoral control is a fix or always a better option is engaging in hyperbole,” Hess said. “For some districts mayoral control makes a lot of sense but you need to do it smart, and you need to do it with your eyes open.”



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