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Chicago: Time to End the Billionaires' Experiments With Mayoral Control?

Yesterday the Chicago Board of Education voted four to two to move ahead with the largest wave of school closures in history. Mayor Richard M. Daley took control of that city's schools back in 1995, and they have been under mayoral control ever since. In the wake of the hugely unpopular school closures, many are calling this system into question. Meanwhile Mayor Rahm Emanuel is seeking to invest $55 million into building a new sports arena and hotel complex.

Mayoral control has been very popular with education philanthropists and the Department of Education as well. In 2009, Arne Duncan spoke out on the subject:

"At the end of my tenure, if only seven mayors are in control, I think I will have failed," Duncan said.
He offered to do whatever he can to make the case. "I'll come to your cities," Duncan said. "I'll meet with your editorial boards. I'll talk with your business communities. I will be there."

It is interesting that when Duncan lists those he needs to convince, voters, teachers, parents and students do not even enter the picture. This is about political muscle.

At around this same time, the wealthiest man in the world was also speaking fondly of mayoral control. Bill Gates said,

There's a lot of issues about governance, whether its school boards or unions where you want to allow for experimentation, in terms of pay procedures and management procedures, to really prove out new things. As those things start working on behalf of the students, then I believe that the majority of teachers and voters will be open-minded to these new approaches. And so we have to take it a step at a time - they have to give us the opportunity for this experimentation - the unions, the voters. The cities where our foundation has put the most money in is where there's a single person responsible. In New York, Chicago and Washington, DC, the mayor has responsibility for the school system. So instead of having a committee of people, you have that one person. And that's where we've seen the willingness to take on some of the older practices and try new things, and we've seen very good results in all three of those cities. So there are some lessons that have already been learned. We need to make more investments, and I do think the teachers will come along, because, after all, they're there because they believe in helping the students as well.


Gates provided $4 million to support mayoral control of the schools in New York City in 2009. The Broad Foundation has also been very active in promoting both mayoral control, and actively supporting the closure of public schools and expansion of charter schools in their place.
A few months back, Chicagoans discovered the Broad Foundation actually had published a detailed guide explaining how to go about closing schools in your community. Though the Broad folks have since pulled it from their web site, it remains available here: School Closure Guide: Closing Schools as a Means for Addressing Budgetary Challenges

The Walton Family Foundation, which has also supported the expansion of charter schools, was found to be the source for money for "community engagement" meetings that were part of the school closure process.

Bill Gates suggested that in time teachers and voters would come along to see the benefits of the experiments the billionaire reformers want to do in our schools. That was four years ago - and the experiments have run their course. A research paper by Elaine Weiss and Don Wong took a close look at the results in Washington, D.C., New York City, and Chicago, exactly the three cities touted by Gates as the petri dishes for his market-driven experiments. Their report, Market Oriented Reforms' Rhetoric Trumps Reality, found the following:

  • Test scores increased less, and achievement gaps grew more, in "reform" cities than in other urban districts. Reported successes for targeted students evaporated upon closer examination.
  • Test-based accountability prompted churn that thinned the ranks of experienced teachers, but not necessarily bad teachers.
  • School closures did not send students to better schools or save school districts money.
  • Charter schools further disrupted the districts while providing mixed benefits, particularly for the highest-needs students.
  • Emphasis on the widely touted market-oriented reforms drew attention and resources from initiatives with greater promise.
This may be part of the reason teachers in Chicago have not been so eager to "come along." They have filed a lawsuit to reverse the school closings. Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis has made it clear the union will oppose Emanuel's re-election, and said yesterday "Clearly, this kind of cowboy mentality, mayoral control is out of control."


In Los Angeles, teacher Monica Ratliff went up against a campaign that was heavily funded by billionaires, including New York mayor Michael Bloomberg - and won this week, providing us with a reminder of why risky elections are less popular than mayoral control with this crowd.

As voters learn more about how these experiments are unraveling public schools in their communities, they seem to less willing to come along. Perhaps we will rediscover the power of democracy, and bring back elected school boards that are more responsive to the people of their communities.

What do you think? Have the experiments in education reform enabled by mayoral control run their course? Is it time to get our schools back under the control of elected school boards?

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