The Big Idea: Hizzoner Students

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Ex-mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s vitriolic pledge to “blow up the Board of Education” ruffled more than a few feathers, especially because it came on the heels of the Columbine massacre.

But it struck a chord, too. New York’s faltering public schools need a radical jolt. A state legislative task force, consisting of unions, educators and business groups began hearings this past November to look at changing how New York’s public schools are run. One of the ideas they’ll consider is whether New York City should follow the lead of other large urban districts in an experiment to save crumbling schools and failing students: shifting control of the public schools from the Board of Education to the mayor’s office, a measure Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other candidates for his job embraced.

In the 1990s, dropout and illiteracy rates grew to such embarrassing proportions in Chicago, Cleveland, Boston and smaller cities that their mayors wrested control from their school boards in a bid to save their cities’ reputations and their own political futures. Mayors won support from business leaders and state legislatures, if not from teachers and parents, by promising that tighter control of the system would improve educational outcomes for students.

It didn’t, or at least not as dramatically as people had hoped. While it may not guarantee higher literacy and lower dropout rates, mayoral control can accomplish a few key objectives: It speeds coordination of school services with parks and public safety, and in Chicago, after Mayor Richard Daley took over the school system in 1995, it even helped attract the middle class back to the city.

The biggest payoff, it turns out, is financial. By positioning schools as economic engines, mayoral control corrals business as a stakeholder in schools. Better students mean better prospective employees. And that keeps business-meaning jobs, consumers and votes-in town. Often mayors will shoulder the burden of increased accountability for school performance-meaning no more blame games with the Board of Education-because they gain greater access to both public and private financing.

“From Lindsay right through Giuliani, the BOE’s independence has not helped it in the resource area,” says Noreen Connell, executive director of the Educational Priorities Panel. (Connell even believes the state legislature may make mayoral control a condition of settling the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit, though State Assembly Education Committee Chair Steven Sanders says that’s not in the cards.)

But if holding one person accountable makes the business community and state governments more confident investing money, it also leaves them more comfortable making demands. Mayoral control thus introduces some powerful new players to an already overcrowded, chaotic and highly political arena. “It raises the influence of the business community in a playing field they didn’t used to dominate,” says Dorothy Shipps, an education professor at Teachers College at Columbia University, whose studies of the Chicago experiment will appear in two forthcoming books on urban education.

In New York, where in only two of 32 community school districts more than half of students read at grade level, the pressure to deliver numbers could be intense. Already, last year’s battle over Edison schools has pitted teachers, parents and students against the school board, and the chancellor against the business community.

What has dogged most urban school reform efforts is not finding the right person to do the job but struggling to involve and appease the myriad stakeholders in education-parents, teachers, principals, unions, business and students. In Chicago, the delicate task of getting all these multiple partners to act in concert proved much more difficult than anyone anticipated.

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Chicago’s first big step in mayoral reform came in Daley’s selection of a noneducator, city budget director and financial whiz Paul Vallas, to serve as “CEO” of the schools. Business leaders in Chicago wanted an “outside the box” thinker; parents and principals wanted an educator. Vallas, like schools CEOs in other cities, ultimately appointed an educator to head academic instruction.

Vallas’ first victory was creating a clear strategy for increasing school financing. He understood politics and policy enough from his days as a state revenue analyst to know that a school board doesn’t hold much clout with the state legislature or private business (read donors), but a mayor does. With Daley’s help, Vallas got additional state financing and raised property taxes in Chicago, directing the revenues to the schools.

But a fiscal strategy alone wasn’t enough. While every school received badly needed building renovations, there was no parallel rollout of strategic instruction reform. To improve student performance, say education experts, instruction needs to improve in tandem with financing, building improvements and principal training. “They need to be parallel processes,” says Richard Elmore, a professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education who has studied District 2, on Manhattan’s East Side. “Chicago made the mistake of focusing on financing and administration first, leaving the toughest part of reform”-student achievement-until the fourth and sixth years of mayoral control.

In the end, Chicago’s efforts fell short on the big hot-button issues: test scores and turning around failing schools. Though scores increased initially after the mayor appointed Vallas, they didn’t improve across all racial and economic groups. And after six years of mayoral control, half of Chicago’s students remain below national norms.

Vallas trotted out a number of programs to combat low student test scores, but none seemed to cohere around a single strategy for improving math and reading proficiency. “He had a program for every problem, but the programs would be launched before they were fully designed or [staffed],” says John Ayers, executive director of Leadership for Quality Education (LQE), the education-centered spinoff of a Chicago business group much like the New York City Partnership.

LQE and the rest of the business community advocated for “school choice”–i.e., charter schools-and better people management. Business, like many stakeholders, wanted better teachers spread throughout the system, not concentrated in the best schools, which the teachers tended to favor. It also promoted more outsourcing of education services to nonprofits and private companies-a trend gathering speed in New York as well.

When business puts its money behind schools, it wants to see results. When a mayor banks his political future on schools, he wants outcomes he can cite. This public and private sector demand for improvement can provide a much-needed impetus for schools, but it also creates a new mandate for listening to outside interests.

In Chicago, a rescue plan for the city’s worst-performing schools was a painful display of how powerless a mayor’s school management team can be when business stakeholders expect a high return in exchange for their support. Under the plan, the schools were reorganized or assigned a curriculum from the central office. But reorganization simply prolonged disarray among weak schools, while the centralized curriculum didn’t improve student test scores. The business community was displeased. “There was too much stick, not enough carrot,” says Ayers. The intervention in curriculum not only failed to bring significant improvements, he says; it penalized students instead of teachers.

Shipps agrees, but sees a different cause. “There were very few incentives for teachers,” she says. With a standard curriculum from the central office, she adds, teachers felt no responsibility for their students’ learning. The experiment became a microcosm of the familiar blame game between the Board of Education and City Hall: “The last thing we want is to pit students against teachers in terms of who’s going to get blamed for the failure of a school,” says Shipps.

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If New York’s new mayor wants to head a drive for higher math and reading scores, he will have to meet an unspoken and perhaps unfair expectation to reform all of the system simultaneously, not sequentially. Can one person jumpstart all that-and run a city at the same time?

Assemblymember Sanders, whose committee will be key in deciding whether New York City gets to try this experiment, doesn’t think so. “A unilateral decision maker is inconsistent with the reality of multiple stakeholders who need to be involved in public education,” Sanders says.

No matter who runs the schools, it’s that power to manage and inspire the teachers on the front line that will make or break reform efforts. “By now people should see it’s not one person who turns [the schools] around,” says Jan Atwell, executive director of the United Parents Associations. “It’s the people in the trenches.”

Rekha Balu is a freelance writer who writes widely for business publications.