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New Book Highlights Alternative Governance Structures for Urban Schools

Guest blog post from Alyssa Morones

Washington

Mayoral control, state-run school districts, and charter districts could improve both the efficiency of school administration and students' academic achievement, according to researchers and school leaders who gathered to discuss urban school governance here this morning.

The panel, hosted by the Center for American Progress and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, marked the release of Education Governance for the Twenty-first Century: Overcoming the Structural Barriers to School Reform. The book was edited by Paul Manna, a professor of policy at the College of William & Mary, in Williamsburg, Va. and Patrick McGuinn, a professor of political science and education at Drew University, in Madison, N.J. of a new report from CAP focused on mayoral governance.

Panelists included Kenneth Wong, a professor of education policy at Brown University, in Providence, RI; Nelson Smith, a consultant on education policy for the National Association of Charter School Authorizers; and Neerav Kingsland, the chief executive officer of New Schools for New Orleans. Wong also contributed a chapter to the new book.`

Though it is not a "sexy" topic, addressing inefficiencies in school governance is critical to improving student achievement, said Chester E. Finn, the president of the Fordham Institute and a former assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Education, in introductory remarks.

Wong suggested that mayoral control could simplify governance and help cities streamline K-12 and higher education systems. "Right now there are too many cooks in the kitchen. Superintendents face an ungovernable system. Mayoral control would make education governance more coherent," said Wong. "It would identify a single office [the mayor] and would hold that office accountable." He cited the New York City school district as one where mayoral control had gone hand in hand with improvement in students' academic achievement.

Kingsland focused his remarks on charter districts. He gave a brief history of school governance in New Orleans, where the majority of schools are charter schools, and highlighted the successes of charter schools in that city. Kingsland suggested that school leaders need to be more willing to let educators and individual school leaders have autonomy. "The thinking right now in education governance is, 'Once I get power, I will consolidate it and make schools better,'" he said. "The culture needs to change from a power grab to relinquishing power and handing it back down to parents and educators."

Smith highlighted state-run districts in Louisiana, Tennessee, and Michigan as an example of a non-traditional governance structure that might have promise.

The panelists also fielded questions on parental involvement, the Common Core State Standards, and one particularly newsy question from the Fordham Institute's Michael J. Petrilli on recent school closings in Chicago, where the district is under mayoral control. "Is this a success [for that model]?" Petrilli asked.

"From a financial standpoint, something had to be done," said Nelson. He went on to advise that the resources being saved by the closings should go toward improving the schools that remained open, to better fund academic, extracurricular, and art programs. "The experience at schools in these places should be better because of it."

Jackie Zubrzycki contributed to this blog post.

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