The Metropolitan Forum Project Reviving Citizen Civic Engagement

Mayors and schools: the critical link

Neal Peirce

San Diego Union-Tribune

February 14, 2003

The walls of separation between school systems and city governments are crumbling -- remarkably fast.

Mayors of cities as large as New York and as small as Harrisburg, Pa., have despaired about their school systems and begun to assert authority and accept responsibility for public school performance. As New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg has said: "If reading and math scores aren't significantly better, I will look in the mirror and say I've failed."

Mayors are recognizing that cities can't succeed without literate, skilled populations. A new book, "Powerful Reforms with Shallow Roots," tries to plumb the depths of the new phenomenon. Written by Larry Cuban, professor emeritus of Stanford University, and Michael Usdan, recently retired chief of the Washington-based Institute for Educational Research, the book focuses on six cities where the school systems have had to accept very unconventional leaders, often at the insistence of the mayors -- Chicago, Boston, Seattle, San Diego, Philadelphia and Baltimore.

Cuban's and Usdan's first message: We are in one of those revolutions that periodically grips the educational world. A century ago, Progressive-era reformers yanked schools from control of crony-ridden political machines. Instead, corporate-like boards of elected business and professional people were put in charge. They, in turn, appointed university trained superintendents.

Fast forward to the 1990s. Suddenly, mayors and their business-sector allies became alarmed with the big-city school bureaucracies they believed had become bloated, mismanaged and unresponsive, often in a hammerlock of strong teacher unions.

Their solution? To reassert the mainline political control lost a century before, making schools -- to the degree they could – simply departments of the city government. So in dozens of ways -- some overt, some subtle -- mayors are stepping in.

Their almost universal belief, report Cuban and Usdan, is that if sound business principles of effective, efficient management get applied, with clear lines of authority and accountability, then administrators and teachers will shape up, test scores will improve and ultimately the schools' graduates will have marketable skills to perform well in an information-based economy.

It may all, in time, work out well. But right now, Cuban and Usdan report, these powerful reforms don't seem to have deep roots. The reforms are top-down, with insufficient buy-in from principals and especially teachers. Academic scores haven't improved noticeably except, in some cities, at the elementary (but not high school) levels.

With big enrollments of minorities and immigrants, and parents who lack the resources of many middle-class Americans, these school systems may have the toughest time of any in America to meet high new standards.

Another challenge: the peril of quick political change. Take Boston, where the mayor now appoints the school board and the bitter desegregation disputes of the '70s are fading fast in memory. Mayor Thomas Menino has a close, productive relationship with Superintendent Tom Payzant, former U.S. assistant secretary of education and former superintendent of San Diego Unified School District. For the moment, Boston is enjoying blessed stability.

Similarly, in Chicago, the Illinois Legislature handed Mayor Richard Daley full control of the schools and Daley, through two hand-picked superintendents, has centralized authority and improved management dramatically.

Yet in either Boston or Chicago, a personality change could throw everything up for grabs. There also had been hope in Philadelphia, New York and Memphis, only to be dashed when superintendents were replaced and their reform strategies quickly dismantled. Philadelphia is in a continuing struggle over direct state takeover of its schools.

In San Diego, Alan Bersin, erstwhile U.S. attorney and now superintendent, is highly regarded yet perennially one vote away from losing majority control to his union opponents on his school board. Seattle Superintendent Joseph Olchefske, a management guru hired from the private sector, is currently explaining an embarrassing $34 million budget shortfall.

A big hope in mayors' takeover of schools had been that all sorts of allied services -- recreation, cultural, libraries, housing, medical, employment, security -- would be coordinated with education. Such ties can be especially critical for poor and immigrant families, creating stability that enhances learning and better school performance.

Yet of all the reform cities they studied, Cuban and Usdan report, only Boston reports even modest progress on these allied fronts. So is the reform glass half full -- or half empty? Despite disappointments, I'd opt for half full. Ossified school bureaucracies are learning they have to change; union seniority rules are getting loosened.

And smart mayors know they've just begun. Mayor Ron Gonzales of San Jose provided (for Education Week) a pretty good list: start home-buyer programs to help teachers find homes in town; invest in preschool programs and quality child care; alert police to focus on reducing violence near schools; extend the school day with quality after-school programs; encourage charter schools for seriously underperforming students.

And "beat the drum continuously," wrote Gonzales, to mobilize civic leaders, businesses and the media to keep education at the top of the public agenda.

Peirce can be reached via e-mail at

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