Commentary | Education

Lessons—Mr. Mayor, Schools Chief. Mr. Fix-It Is Another Story

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These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.

[THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN THE NEW YORK TIMES ON APRIL 17, 2002]

Mr. Mayor, Schools Chief. Mr. Fix-It Is Another Story

By Richard Rothstein

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg wants to run the city’s schools. Cautious leaders might flee from this mission, but the mayor says he should be blamed if New Yorkers remain dissatisfied with public education after he has had a chance to fix it.

Yet nationwide, mayoral control has not ensured adequate student proficiency. Where mayors or other noneducators run schools, test scores have crept up, but they have also done so elsewhere. In all urban districts, regardless of who is in charge, there are big minority-white achievement gaps and many schools perform far below state standards.

In reality, it has always been easier to change how schools are governed than how they instruct.

As it happens, Mr. Bloomberg would not be the first New York mayor to take charge of schools. Remember Mayor A. Oakey Hall? In 1869, Mr. Hall’s political patron, William M. Tweed, dominated Albany. The Legislature turned schools in Manhattan (then a separate city) over to Mr. Hall to guarantee that Tammany Hall patronage would guide teacher hiring as well as construction and supply contracts. (No significance should be read into Mayor Bloomberg’s wish to move school offices to the Tweed Courthouse.)

In 1873, Boss Tweed was jailed and Mr. Hall was succeeded by a reform mayor who empowered neighborhood school boards. But decentralization did not improve instruction – pupils still learned to read aloud without understanding what they read. So in 1898, a new city charter created a powerful superintendency and a central bureaucracy of professional educators.

That system lasted until 1969, when it was again decided that children would learn more if community boards had control. Today, however, increased centralization is again in favor.

If Mayor Bloomberg gets the Legislature to give him direct control of schools, perhaps he will then be able to raise test scores. Although he can already negotiate the teachers’ contract and set the school budget, he will no longer have to persuade board members, whom he cannot remove, that his policies make sense. He will have a chancellor to do his bidding. He will be able to speed school construction and insist that health care, welfare and housing agencies collaborate with schools.

Then, if schools fail, we will know that the mayor is to blame – unless, of course, he deflects responsibility by saying the Legislature and governor are at fault for not providing enough money.

That is what happened in Baltimore. There, schools were part of city government when, in 1987, Kurt L. Schmoke was elected mayor, pledging to fix education. Mr. Schmoke then hired a private company to run low-scoring schools, but the company was ejected after it apparently misstated test scores to prove its success.

Mayor Schmoke then had Baltimore sue the State of Maryland, asserting that the state did not adequately finance city schools, which spent less per pupil than suburban schools. In 1997, a settlement provided a little more money and removed education from mayoral control.

Other cities have also fiddled with school leadership. Illinois lawmakers decentralized Chicago education in 1988, giving parent-led school councils the power to appoint principals. Improvement did not follow, so the Legislature reversed course in 1995, giving control to Mayor Richard M. Daley who put a city budget official, Paul Vallas, in charge. Test scores stayed low, so Mr. Daley replaced him last year with another executive with little school experience.

In Los Angeles, Mayor Richard J. Riordan had no formal power over schools but gained effective control by backing a slate of school board candidates, elected in 2000. They appointed the mayor’s choice as superintendent, former Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado. Mr. Romer vowed to modify a teachers union contract that limited principals’ power, but backed down in negotiations.

In Boston, an elected board was abolished and Mayor Thomas M. Menino now appoints the superintendent. The mayor has coordinated recreation and welfare services with schools, but Massachusetts still categorizes many Boston schools as failing.

Nationwide, some cities have recently given control to mayors while some have replaced career educators with other outsiders. New York City, seeking private sector expertise, turned to Harold O. Levy, a corporate lawyer. San Diego put its federal prosecutor in charge. Jacksonville, Fla., Seattle and Washington hired former military officers to run the schools. But gains in achievement in these cities have been too modest to relieve the sense of crisis.

It is hard to imagine why Mayor Bloomberg should not be in charge. Some hoped-for benefits may be won. But we should be skeptical of claims that mayoral control will solve problems that plague all school systems. If Mr. Bloomberg has a secret formula, he will soon have to disclose it.

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