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Although Chicago's schools remain mired in a host of convoluted social and economic problems, the overall trend has been positive since these initiatives were implemented; however, analysts suggest that it remains unclear whether these modest gains can be attributed solely to the mayoral oversight or a combination of other factors as well (Merl, 2005).
According to analyst, Kenneth K. Wong, a professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University, there should be no doubt, at least in the cases of Chicago and Boston -- where mayoral control has been in place the longest -- that the successes enjoyed to date can be attributed to the "right kind of mayoral takeover -- with clear authority and a highly motivated municipal leader; the key to the successful implementation of this regimen for these two cities, at least, has been the fact that "the mayors have been willing to put their political capital into reforming the schools" (Merl, 2005, n. p.). By contrast, the Detroit mayor had only been given the responsibility for reforming the city's school system without being provided the requisite concomitant authority, a combination that spelled certain doom for the approach there. "In that city [Detroit], schools did not improve under a system in which the mayor and governor appointed the board members," Wong added (Merl, 2005, n. p.). Given the enormity of the problems facing major cities' school districts, the changes for failure appear to far outnumber any chances for success for any reform effort, but that has not stopped cities from trying.
In 1991, Merl reports that voters in Boston gave their mayor the authority to replace the elected school board members with his own appointees and turned down a ballot initiative intended to resurrect an elected school board; further, Boston also finances the school system which Merl notes is a longtime practice that provides a mayor with even more power to regulate the schools. Perhaps one of the most advantageous aspects of having such levels of mayoral oversight in place is the continuity it provides to the decision-making process. A Boston public schools representative pointed out that, "Some people still think having an elected board would cure all our ills, but the continuity of leadership we've had with the mayor, the superintendent and the school committee all working together helps tremendously when you are trying to reform an entire school district all at the same time" (Merl, 2005, n. p.). The New York City mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg, also inherited an ailing school system when he assumed office; in response, Bloomberg sought and obtained broader powers over the largest school system in the country in 2002. Merl reports that Bloomberg's increased authority included the ability to abolish the school board in favor of an advisory panel comprised of his appointees and the presidents of the city's five boroughs; Bloomberg was also allowed to transform the school system into a city department and the new mayor hired Joel I. Klein, a former assistant U.S. attorney general in the Clinton administration, as chancellor; Klein consolidated district offices and increased teacher training opportunities among other initiatives (Merl, 2005). The jury is still out on the effectiveness of mayoral oversight of the schools in Boston, largely because the mayor has only been in office a short period of time and the modest gains in math scores continue a trend that began before the mayor assumed office (Merl, 2005).
Rationale Opposing Mayoral Control of Public Schools.
According to Merl, "It's becoming a popular idea for the seemingly intractable problems of big urban school systems: Let the mayor take over" (2005, n. p.). As noted above, though, in some cases, mayoral oversight has provided some demonstrable improvements in academic performance, but it remains unclear whether these can be attributed solely to this shift in authority. Likewise, in some cases, such as Detroit and Oakland, the initiatives have failed entirely (Merl, 2005). According to Merl, Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown characterized his attempts with adding appointees to the seven-member elected school board a failure; in fact, the author points out that the majority of studies of such arrangements have shown they will not work for very basic reasons: "turf": "The elected board members jealously guarded their position and tended to marginalize the appointees," Brown said, "So, instead of increasing mayoral influence, it tended to polarize the board" (Merl, 2005, n. p.). In the case of Los Angeles, though, there are some profound issues involved in the imminent mayoral election. According to Merl, Mayor James K. Hahn has proposed adding at least three appointees to the seven elected officials who oversee the Los Angeles Unified School District. Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, Hahn's challenger in the upcoming election, has called for giving the mayor "ultimate control and oversight" of the district; the City Council and Board of Education are reviewing district governance as possible alternative as well (2005).
This announcement followed the incumbent Mayor Hahn's proposal to give the mayor the power to appoint at least three members to the Los Angeles school board (Fausset & McGreevy). In their recent coverage of the Los Angeles mayoral elections, Fausset and McGreevy report that this push for "ultimate control and oversight" represented a profound change in both candidates education strategies, both mayoral candidates now say the next mayor of Los Angeles should have unprecedented control over the city's ailing public schools" (p. 8). As noted above, while such initiatives have not been in place in most municipalities sufficiently long enough to provide any substantive results, the experiences of those major cities that have embraced this approach can be extrapolated to predict what can reasonably be expected in the Los Angeles scenario as well, and these expectations are discussed further below.
Likely Impact of Greater Mayoral Control.
The announcements by both the mayoral incumbent and the candidate in Los Angeles concerning their intention to seek greater authority over the city's school systems may not affect the outcome of the election one way or another, particularly since the incumbent is at a distinct advantage already. By all accounts, though, the proposed changes by the mayoral candidates in Los Angeles could reasonably be expected to affect minorities, for good or bad, more so than their non-minority counterparts, no matter what the outcome. According to Henig and Rich, "One of the most important stakeholders in central city school systems is the large and typically growing minority community" (p. 1). Unfortunately, this inordinate impact may be overlooked in the effort to implement such far-reaching goals as mayoral oversight of a city's school system. Nevertheless, it can also reasonably be expected that educational reformers will continue to use governance and organizational changes in the LAUSD in an attempt to improve the performance of education, even though these mechanisms may only provide an indirect and uncertain strategy for improving the delivery of educational services to an increasingly diverse population base (Bulkley & Kirst, 2000).
The research showed that the public school systems in major cities across the country are being faced with a wide range of challenges that do not offer any easy solutions. One of the more timely alternatives that is being increasingly advanced in major cities is to provide the mayor with increased oversight of the city's school systems through various stratagems intended to help eliminate cronyism and corruption, as well as wasteful practices through the consolidation of resources and personnel. While the majority of the experiments with this alternative to date have shown mixed results, the criticality of the issues involved do not allow for the luxury of time and more money spent in meaningless studies and continuing debate. The nation's schools are in trouble and something must be done now to resolve these problems, and cities such as Los Angeles remain at the forefront of those seeking to identify complex solutions to these complex problems including giving their mayors more control over their schools.
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Merl, J. (2005, May 8). Mayors Get Mixed Grades in Running City Schools. Los Angeles Times,…[continue]
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