Schools can win, lose with mayors

/ 20 February 2012 / jennifer

Star Tribune Editorial,February 20, 2012 –

Consider mayoral appointments, not city hall control, for boards.

It might seem like an easy fix for achievement-challenged urban school districts: Put the mayor in charge of the schools so that voters and taxpayers have a single person they can blame, or credit, for student performance. If only it were that simple.

Fewer than two dozen large cities across the country have increased mayoral involvement or have put mayors directly in charge of their schools, typically in response to governance problems, poor results or both.

The mayoral-control push began in the 1990s, and now a group of GOP legislators wants to bring that model to Minnesota. They propose that the mayors of St. Paul and Minneapolis appoint their school superintendents and several board members.

Research is mixed on mayoral control of public schools. Some have reported increased test scores, but the same kinds of improvements have been made in similarly situated districts with elected boards.

Community input and careful analysis of individual districts should drive decisions this critical. In other cities, school board or administration corruption, or gross incompetence, prompted mayoral control. Although they face challenges today, Minneapolis and St. Paul have much healthier districts.

An oft-cited 2010 Rutgers University study examined several school districts — including those in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C. — and concluded that mayoral control is no “magic bullet” for urban school reform, in part because the process leaves too many parents and community groups feeling left out of the policymaking process.

The researchers also found that mayoral involvement could bring stability, attention and increased public and private funding to schools.

“Mayoral involvement, if not control, should at the very least be considered as part of an overall district improvement strategy,” the report said.

That’s why a hybrid school board system that includes elected members and mayoral appointees is worth considering.

DUELING STUDIES
“Mayoral control systems do indeed perform better than their peers. … Education mayors were not spending more than their urban peers to achieve success — they were spending differently.”
KENNETH WONG, education policy professor at Brown University and author of “The Education Mayor”
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“For all the optimism that Boston and New York City have engendered, there is remarkably little evidence that mayors or appointed boards are more effective at governing schools than elected boards.”
FREDERICK HESS, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and author of a mayoral control study

A hybrid form of governance in Minneapolis and St. Paul would allow mayors to make appointments to boards that are now dominated by DFL-endorsed, union-backed candidates.

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said a hybrid board would create more opportunities for people with needed skills but few political connections.

Rybak and his St. Paul counterpart, Chris Coleman, are deeply involved in school issues already, and both believe that successful schools are directly tied to building successful cities.

They both have good relationships with their current superintendents and work closely with their districts on joint projects.

Despite the push at the Legislature, neither Rybak nor Coleman endorse full mayoral control. They both no doubt realize that a mayor focused on education could help lead school improvement, while another with different priorities might produce very different results.

Legislators should tread carefully: There’s no guarantee that having so much power and accountability for schools in one highly visible and political office would be a panacea for students.

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