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Education Sun Jan 02 2011

Is it Time to End Mayoral Control of the Schools?

Find a profile of Mayor Richard M. Daley. In it, you'll find a sentence about how the Mayor wrested control of the schools from special interests to institute reforms that special interests had been resisting for years. For "education reformers" fixated on introducing market pressure into public schools, "mayoral control" is a dream, a way to accelerate all the subsequent reforms they so badly want.

By introducing mayoral control first, it becomes much easier to institute the various "reforms" beloved of groups like Broad-Gates and Stand for Children. Despite claims to rampant grassroots desire for the types of reforms they espouse, efforts to shut down neighborhood schools in favor of charters, break down parental control of schools through privatization, and otherwise subject public education to market forces often face resistance from parents and community groups. Mayoral control of schools makes it possible to push through reforms quickly and with fewer regulatory and democratic hurdles.

It shouldn't be surprising that the "Chicago model" of mayoral control has not exactly inspired confidence in the other cities seeking it.

Like with many ideological movements, these market-focused education reformers can be concerned more with conforming to an ideal than evaluating material fact. This means that fact must be conformed to ideology. Mayor Daley "wrested control" of the schools away from parents in 1995. Some fifteen years later, Chicago still has one of the lowest performing urban school districts in the country. While standardized test scores have improved occasionally and slightly, the improvements hardly counter-indicate popular control of schools.

Yet it is unquestionable that mayoral control has: (a) seen an enormous increase in the size of the schools bureaucracy; (b) seen hundreds of millions of dollars siphoned from the public schools into TIF districts without opposition from a school board controlled by the Mayor; (c) arbitrarily increased the importance of high-stakes standardized testing.

It would seem that these problems are non-partisan and non-ideological. Mayoral control has not improved performance to any convincing degree while introducing these problems. So why should we stick with it?

Because! That's why, hippie! Plug your ears. Cover your eyes. La la la la la la la mayoral control good la la la la la democratic control bad la la la teachers are lazy.

It reminds me of when critics of communism would point out the repressive, destitute communist regimes, and defenders would plug their ears and say, "They just weren't communist enough."

Here in the real, practical world, an experiment undertaken should be instructive on the point in question.

A coalition of public school advocates in Chicago has taken on the issue. Fifteen years of mayoral control, they argue, has failed. It's time to restore independence to the Board of Education and fill it with parents, educators, and experts, not financial and real estate wheeler-dealers as currently composed. The plan put forward by this coalition would require the Board to be composed of parents in the system from the North, West, and South Sides, teachers, administrators, academics, and student advisers. These would all be elected positions. [PDF].

The remaining Mayoral candidates have not responded warmly to the plan. Gery Chico, one time Board President, Rahm Emanuel, and Carol Mosley-Braun all expressed outright opposition, saying it would "politicize" the Board. City Clerk Miguel Del Valle came closest to support, but said he could not endorse the proposal as-is, as it would simply introduce campaign money into the process.

Chico, Emanuel, and Mosley-Braun's objection is nonsensical. That the Mayor appoints the Board which then crafts and implements a public policy program is exactly why the Board is necessarily political. Del Valle's concern is more on the nose. On the North, West, and South Sides there are power brokers, ward organizations, and church-associated groups that could mobilize considerable resources, disproportionate to grassroots support, to further school privatization; if there's one thing these "reform" groups are good at, it's raising and spending money. A Board election that wasn't publicly financed would regularly face the same pressure that school reform legislation in Springfield is subject to: big money interested in privatization the school system through "market" reforms.

CTU President Karen Lewis, through a spokesperson, addressed this concern to GB: "[T]he status quo--a Board of Education power brokered by one--can only be improved upon. After 15 years, it's time to give democracy a chance, messy as it may be."

I am inclined to agree. There are no remaining arguments built on anything besides idealism or ideology with which mayoral control can defend itself. Democracy and accountability in principle shouldn't be eschewed without compelling arguments for a greater public good. There's no good to be seen, so let the people rule.

UPDATE: The Chico campaign distributed this Tribune editorial opposing the elected school board idea. The editorial read in part:

Last week, the Chicago Teachers Union and a handful of community organizations demanded that the next mayor relinquish control of the system. They want to change state law to create an elected, 13-member school board to replace the current seven-member board, which is appointed by the mayor. Under the proposal, seven of the 13 seats would be reserved for parents and community members from different parts of the city. Two seats would go to teachers and one each to an administrator, an education researcher, a paraprofessional and a business person.


Shifting control of the schools to an elected 13-member board would be a real mistake. It would limit the field of candidates by imposing tight requirements on who could run for which seats. Board members wouldn't answer to the entire city, they would answer to certain interests, including the powerful teachers union.

Apparently, the Tribune fears a Board balanced between different interests that already exist (such as parents, teachers, and neighborhood groups) and prefer one that was subject to only one interest: that of the Mayor (and, vicariously, given the historical composition of the Board under Mayoral control, financial and real estate interests).

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Brendan / January 4, 2011 5:01 PM

You say that "Mayor Daley 'wrested control' of the schools away from parents in 1995," but they were no more in control of CPS in '95 than they are today.

What's your basis for even suggesting that they were?

Brendan / January 4, 2011 5:13 PM

Also, the CTU board proposal is utterly convoluted, complex and no more democratic than an appointed board. Requiring someone to hold a certain job is simply the CTU's way of giving the union direct votes on the board.

No matter how well-intentioend, it is quite simply a badly written proposal.

If the city is to have an elected board, then it needs to be an open board.

Ramsin / January 4, 2011 6:10 PM

"Wrested control from parents" may be overstated; it may have been better to say, "wrested exclusive control for himself from the legislature."

The trend in schools governance was moving towards democratization and Daley staunched this flow with the Amendatory Act in 1995. LSC governance began in earnest in 1988, and LSCs, dominated by parents, were originally canvassed for consent to Board members. The creation of the CEO position (rather than a superintendent) serving at the pleasure of the Mayor rather than through consent also turned around the democratization trend. The Board also assumed control of training for LSCs, which, again, weakened the democratic control of individual schools.

Your point is well taken--I did not mean to imply that Daley eliminated direct elections for the board, which never existed.

As for the CTU's proposal, I don't think your objection that Board positions be defined by professional experience is really fair. Such qualifications are necessary for judges, county coroners, etc. Looking at the Board composition now, the only qualification seems to be that they not be educators.

Dan Johnson-Weinberger / January 4, 2011 10:26 PM

For the record, it was State Representative Carol Moseley Braun who introduced and passed the bill creating Local School Councils. She shares a long history with others of advocating for community empowerment in education.

Brendan / January 4, 2011 11:34 PM

Comparing judges and coroners (i.e. licensed professionals) to school board members is a false correlation.

And the explanation is a simple one, judges and coroners are expected to perform the actual duties of the profession.

School board members are not the people actually teaching in the classrooms.

Now, you might say "that is precisely the point."

But that would be like saying the mayor or aldermen should be required to be policemen, firemen or Teamsters because they are elected to run the police, fire and sanitation departments.

No, the CTU proposal is about the CTU trying to gain leverage, not about the children or the parents.

Brendan / January 4, 2011 11:36 PM

And don't get me wrong, I favor the idea of an elected school board (as well as elected City Colleges and Park District boards).

I just don't favor the CTU's version.

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