Faced with the daunting task of turning around failing schools, a number of cities over the past 20 years put their mayors in charge of the job. Although this strategy ran counter to a long tradition of school board independence, it was seen as the most effective way to speed up the pace of reform.
The most dramatic example was New York City, home of the nation's largest school district. In 2002, Mayor Michael Bloomberg convinced the state Legislature to grant him the power he sought. Whether he has been successful depends largely on who is queried. What is undeniable, however, is the controversy surrounding Bloomberg's recent appointment of Cathleen Black to be the new chancellor, replacing Joel Klein, who will take a post with News Corp.
The problem for Bloomberg was that New York State requires a waiver for anyone who lacks education qualifications. The mayor succeeded in getting the waiver by agreeing to allow Shael Polakow-Suransky to be named the chief academic officer to serve under Black. This concession satisfied Education Commissioner David Steiner ("Mayor Reaches Deal With State On School Pick," New York Times, Nov. 27).
The deal came after six of eight members of a panel voted to deny granting an exemption. Steiner initially expressed "serious concerns" about the waiver. But he caved, despite a poll by Quinnipiac University finding that 47 percent of city voters disapproved of Bloomberg's appointment of Black, with 29 percent in favor and 25 percent undecided. More important, voters with children in the city's public schools disapproved of the appointment by 62 to 25 percent.
What this controversy underscores are the potential disadvantages of mayoral control of schools. For one thing, when mayors run for election (or re-election), schools become only one issue in the minds of voters. As a result, their votes are hard to interpret. Did they approve primarily what the mayor wants to do (or did) for schools, or did they approve primarily what the mayor wants to do (or did) to reduce crime?
For another, when power is vested in one person's hands alone, personal ties play an inordinate role in appointments. This is certainly the case with Black. She and Bloomberg move in the same social circles. But what about others who do not? Are they out of consideration? That's another reason Bloomberg has been criticized. Most searches for school leaders involve transparency through a public process. Bloomberg operates in secrecy. It's his arrogance that has soured many parents in New York City on mayoral control ("Behind Anger Over an Appointment, Discontent With the Mayor," New York Times, Nov. 26).
Finally, mayoral control gives one person the means to shape the education debate on his terms. Bloomberg has been able "to deflect criticism, dominate the media, and use the schools as campaign props" because of his absolute power, according to Manhattan Institute senior fellow Sol Stern ("PR but not the 3 Rs," Los Angeles Times, Mar. 25, 2006). It was concern about cronyism and corruption that caused reformers more than 100 years ago to remove operation of schools from mayoral control. The belief then was that electing members of a school board would be more democratic.
Unless clear evidence emerges that school districts perform better when mayors are in charge, it may be time to rethink our love affair with the current trend. Right now, the evidence is mixed.