Mayors step in to lead public school systems
A Dec. 15 hearing is scheduled in Los Angeles Superior Court on a lawsuit challenging recently passed legislation that gives Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, as head of a panel of other mayors, control over the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) that serves 727,000 students. Opponents say the new law violates a constitutional prohibition against entities outside the public school system, like mayors and city councils, from controlling city schools.
Proponents of such takeovers say mayors provide better management and accountability than school boards, but opponents say it puts too much power in the hands of one politician. Meanwhile, mayors of other large cities are considering similar school takeover plans, and some smaller cities’ mayors are taking a more active role in their school systems.
Villaraigosa says mayoral takeover of LAUSD schools, which have suffered from dismal test scores and dropout rates that are sometimes as high as 50 percent, is an effort to improve school achievement and increase accountability. Scott Folsom, president of the 10th District Los Angeles Parents and Teachers Association, which is a plaintiff in the case against Villaraigosa, questions whether part of the legislation that gives the mayor direct control over three low-performing high schools will cause him to favor those schools.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg took over that city’s 1,400 decentralized schools when he assumed office in 2002. Dispensing with the board of education, Bloomberg centralized the education system and its curriculum. The new, centralized curriculum eases the transition for students who change schools in the middle of the school year, says New York City Department of Education Director of Communications Julia Levy. Bloomberg also mandated that third-grade students would be held back for failing test scores.
New York’s mayor-led school system has served as a model for Villaraigosa and others, such as newly elected Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty. With a 46 percent graduation rate and the loss of thousands of students each year to private and charter schools, Washington’s public schools are a completely broken system, says Neil Richardson, policy director for Fenty’s election campaign. Richardson says all 146 precincts in the city support Fenty’s plan for mayoral takeover.
The Washington-based U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM) supports a strong mayoral presence in school systems. “Mayors are the CEOs of their cities,” says USCM spokesperson Fritz Edelstein. In January, USCM released a guide to assist mayors in determining their level of involvement in the city’s schools, Fritz says, and to date, it has distributed 4,500 copies.
Several cities have strong partnership arrangements between mayors and school superintendents, Edelstein says. In 2003, the Hartford, Conn., charter was changed to give Mayor Eddie Perez nearly complete control over his town’s school system, though the superintendent still handles daily operations. Perez appoints five of the school board’s nine members, and in 2005 after appointing himself to the board, Perez was unanimously elected as chair.
According to the USCM guide, that does not qualify as a full takeover because Perez still has to work with a school board, but Perez’s Director of Communications Sarah Barr says that is just a technicality. “In essence, under the charter, it is a takeover,” Barr says. “As chairman of the board [of education], the buck stops with the mayor.”
Annie Gentile is a Vernon, Conn.-based freelance writer.