Mayors seek to take charge of schools
AP | January 8, 2007
WASHINGTON -- The statistics tell a sorry tale about the public schools in America's capital. A majority of fourth- and eighth-graders are failing to read or do math at basic levels. Roughly four in five schools are not meeting achievement goals under the federal No Child Left Behind law. Just 43 percent of students graduate from high school in five years.
The new mayor, Adrian Fenty, got an earful about the situation during last year's campaign. "I heard repeatedly, 'Fix the schools.' It was a tidal wave," Fenty said.
So he is trying to do what a dozen other city leaders around the nation have done: gain control over the schools. For Fenty, that means convincing the city council and Congress to support his plan to require the superintendent to report to him and to further limit the authority of the elected school board. A majority of council members have signaled a willingness to back the new mayor.
The problem for Fenty and his colleagues is that mayors generally lack the power to overhaul schools.
"Mayors are held accountable for something they have no responsibility for," said Fritz Edelstein, who recently stepped down as a senior adviser to the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
In most places, elected school boards and the superintendents they hire govern school districts. It is a structure set up about a century ago to insulate schools from political strife and corruption in city government.
Yet it has not always worked as planned.
For example, before a mayoral takeover of New York City's schools, an investigation into a Bronx school board Bronx found that members routinely misused district personnel and resources - once ordering X-rated pay-per-view movies.
Those kind of problems, plus low voter turnout for school board elections and sagging test scores, have fueled a movement since the 1990s for mayoral control of schools. Besides New York, it has happened in Boston, Chicago, Cleveland and Harrisburg, Pa.
The California Legislature gave the Los Angeles' mayor partial control over schools. But a judge last month struck down that law, saying it violated that state's constitution. The mayor is appealing.
Mayoral control of schools is being debated in Albuquerque, N.M., and Seattle too.
City leaders and their allies make the case that better schools help make cities prosper. Mayors say they are better equipped to take on the infighting, inertia and high turnover rates associated with school boards and the superintendents who report to them.
New York's mayor, Michael Bloomberg, put it this way when Fenty and members of the District of Columbia City Council visited recently: "There's an old story that a camel is a racehorse designed by a committee and there's a lot more truth to that than not," Bloomberg said. "You don't run things by committee. You don't try to come to consensus when it's our children's future."
Such statements have earned Bloomberg criticism from people who say he has failed to seek community input and operate in a transparent way, said David Bloomfield, who heads a program at Brooklyn College that trains school administrators.
Bloomfield said there has been an increase in no-bid school contracts since the mayoral takeover in 2002 and that many parents feel there is no place to air concerns without an elected board.
Michael Kirst, a professor emeritus at Stanford University and an expert on school governance, said a takeover makes the system less democratic.
"Before mayoral control, you'd go to your school board member and raise hell," Kirst said. He said the trade-off is "strong, integrated leadership."
Bloomberg, a Republican in his second term, says he has broad support among voters, including for his handling of schools. A recent public opinion poll put his approval ratings around 70 percent.
Ken Wong, a school governance expert at Brown University, analyzed test scores in about a dozen cities with mayors in charge of schools from 1999 to 2003. The results showed modest but statistically significant progress in reading and math for elementary and middle-school students. Wong said data is insufficient to make the same judgment about high school students.
"Mayors are turnaround artists, not saviors. Our analysis suggests that mayors can steer the ship in the right direction, but that there is still a long way to go before their districts achieve acceptable levels of student achievement," Wong wrote in a report accompanying his analysis.
Tom Payzant, who recently stepped down after a decade as the mayor's appointed school superintendent in Boston, says it was important for him to be part of the mayor's Cabinet.
"When you think about trying to align policies and programs that affect children, youth and families, there is a much greater opportunity than there is in the system where the municipal government is totally separate from the school government," Payzant said.
Critics say it is precisely because mayors have so many other issues to address that schools should be managed separately.
"Mayors have a lot on their plate. It's a wonder that some of these mayors think they also have time to take over public schools," said Anne Bryant, executive director of the National School Boards Association.
Yet Fenty, sworn in last week as Washington's mayor, said he would make the time.
"We have a crisis on our hands," Fenty said in a news conference describing his bid for school control. "I am asking today for that responsibility to be placed squarely on my shoulders."
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