Are elected school boards equal to the challenges of twenty-first century urban school governance? Eli Broad (2003), founder of the Broad Prize for Urban Education, has argued, "I believe in mayoral control of school boards or having no school board at all. We have seen many children benefit from this type of crisis intervention. . . .You should craft legislation that enables school board members to be appointed by the mayor . . . [and] limit the authority of school boards." Chester E. Finn Jr. has written, "School boards are an aberration, an anachronism, an educational sinkhole. . . .Put this dysfunctional arrangement out of its misery" (quoted in Elizabeth 2006).
The nation's nearly 15,000 school boards are charged with providing the leadership, policy direction, and oversight that can drive school improvement. Nationally, about 96 percent of districts have elected boards, including more than two-thirds of the nation's 25 largest districts (Hess 2002). However, after decades of largely ineffectual reform, it is far from clear that school boards are equal to the challenge. Critics believe school districts require more accountability and disciplined leadership than elected boards can provide. The most popular alternative is replacing elected big-city school boards with boards appointed, in some fashion or other, by the mayor.
Today, major cities that feature some form of mayoral control, rather than an elected school board, include New York, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, DC, and Baltimore. Kenneth Wong has noted, "Urban mayors are very different now than the mayors of 30 to 40 years ago. They've become more concentrated on [improving] quality-of-life issues in their cities. . . .And the way they're doing it is by becoming more directly involved in the operation of schools" (Cook 2002, 32).
Those who have studied mayoral board appointment are generally equivocal about the idea. Jeffrey Henig and Wilbur Rich have argued: "Granting a stronger formal role to mayors is likely to reshape the school reform agenda, but precisely how it will do so depends upon numerous factors" (2003a, 256). Michael Kirst has reported that "the impact of enhanced mayoral influence on instruction remains tenuous and unclear," but he sees little support for a "return to school board-dominated regimes in any of the cities that [have] moved toward greater mayoral influence" (2002, 15).
The irony is that today's school boards took on their contemporary shape during the Progressive Era, roughly 1890-1920, in a concerted effort to expunge "politics" from schooling. As James Cibulka (2003, 251), dean of the school of education at the University of Kentucky, has noted, "The governance of K-12 education . . . was designed by political progressives early in the twentieth century to give professional educators authority and to insulate them from political abuses." Consequently, even strong mayors enjoyed little influence over their cities' schools. Reformers had intended for a professional bureaucracy to ensure efficiency, equity, and accountability.
Early nineteenth-century boards had been local and informal, drawing justification from their democratic nature and the presumption that they "kept the schools close to the people of the neighborhood and fostered interest in education" (Tyack 1974, 34). However, by the dawn of the twentieth century, Progressive reformers--in language that sounds more than a little familiar--thought it necessary to "clean out" school boards plagued by patronage and politics. In 1885, reformer John Philbrick of Boston asserted that "unscrupulous politicians" had seized "every opportunity to sacrifice the interests of the schools to the purposes of the political machine" (Tyack 1974, 89).
As the twentieth century dawned, Progressive reformers worked to streamline boards and render them more professional and accountable. As William Howell (2005a, 3) has explained, "Changes in schools reflected and in many instances were induced by larger developments in the nation's political structure and economy. . . . The order of the day put rational control and expertise in the service of objectivity and efficiency; the result was the birth of the civil service, the exaltation of meritocracy and modernity, and the rise of Taylorism, the scientific management of industries and businesses." Seeking to insulate school board politics from rough-and-tumble state and national elections, the Progressives moved school board elections "off-cycle" (so that they were not held at the same time as elections for federal or state offices) and made them nonpartisan. Over time, school boards took on a more corporate cast, with a governance approach modeled on corporate boards in which directors worked with an expert manager.
The effort to separate schooling from politics has given rise to concerns that school systems are not apolitical but instead consumed by undisciplined, petty, and ineffectual politics. More than 30 years ago, assessing the fruits of the Progressive Era reforms, Charles Beard (1970, 314) observed, "It is difficult to say [whether appointment or election] is the better . . . in actual practice. Cities change from one to the other in the hope--usually vain--of taking the school affairs out of the spoils system." Today, would-be reformers worry that efforts to excise politics from school governance have also removed coherence, energy, and accountability. One popular solution: put the politics back in schooling by empowering the mayor to name the local school board. Is this a promising idea? What does the research suggest? What are the pros and cons of this approach? And what are the implications for governance and policy?
Because mayoral control is "almost entirely an urban strategy" (Cibulka 2003, 258), this discussion is geared to the case of large urban districts. The educational challenges in these districts are more daunting, the politics especially complex, and the resulting need for coherence particularly pressing--making mayoral control exceptionally attractive.
Interest in mayoral control has grown, largely because it has been credited with working in some high-profile venues. Proponents particularly point to improvements in Boston and New York City. As the Los Angeles Times opined when Los Angeles debated mayoral control in 2006 "Learning from Boston" 2006, M6): "Nearly 15 years after the mayor and an appointed school board took charge of the Boston schools, the changes are obvious and sometimes remarkable. . . . But Boston's experience is valuable for reasons that go beyond vote counts or test scores. It's not so much what Boston has done as how it has done it. The city was one of the first to adopt mayoral control, and it shows what the governance change can achieve over the long haul."
In Boston, dissatisfaction with the 13-member elected school committee reached a crescendo in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The board was savagely criticized for political opportunism, policy fragmentation, and fiscal irresponsibility. A Boston Globe editorial described the committee as a "disaster," and a special report issued by the city government dryly commented, "Boston is unique. The buck does not appear to stop anywhere" (Portz 2003, 98). In 1991, the city council replaced the elected committee with a seven-person board appointed by the mayor. There followed several years of tension between the then-superintendent and the new board before Thomas Payzant, an official in the U.S. Department of Education and former San Diego superintendent, was named superintendent in Boston in 1995.
Between 1995 and 2006, Mayor Tom Menino and Payzant forged a strong working relationship. Portz (2003, 104-5) has reported widespread agreement that Boston has managed "one of the longest periods on record of stable and cooperative leadership for public education. . . . A more consensual, elite dialogue has replaced the contentious debate, racial divisions, and constituent services. In contrast to long meetings and divided votes, the typical meeting of the appointed committee is both shorter and less contentious." Mayoral control smoothed and sped enactment of Payzant's reform strategy, including the 1996 adoption of Focus on the Children, a comprehensive reform strategy for the schools, and his moves to reorganize the bureaucratic structure of the school district, promote technology initiatives, and establish citywide learning standards aligned to state standards (Portz 2003).
In 2006, Payzant's tenure was capped by Boston winning the Broad Prize for Urban Education. The press release announcing the Broad Prize summarized why Payzant's 11-year tenure is regarded as a success. The Broad Foundation (2006) reported that between 2002 and 2005, Boston consistently outperformed other Massachusetts districts with similar low-income populations in elementary, middle, and high school, in both reading and math; demonstrated greater improvement by African American students than did similar Massachusetts districts; increased fourth and eighth grade reading and math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) at a faster rate than the average of other large American cities, as well as faster than the national average; and sharply boosted the number of advanced placement mathematics and English exams taken by Hispanic and African American students.
A similarly happy tale has been told about New York City's recent experiment with mayoral control of the school board. In June 2002, New York transferred full control of the New York City school system to Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Included in Bloomberg's new authority was the power to appoint the New York City Schools chancellor and the entire school board. New York Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno said, "This bill will bring accountability to the school system . . . and improve the quality of education for more than 1 million school children" (New York State Governor's Office 2002). New York Governor George Pataki termed the move the "most sweeping education reform in a generation" and promised that "we will improve accountability in every school, empower parents in every borough and provide every child with the opportunity to receive a good education" (New York State Governor's Office 2002).
The results have been hailed as positive. U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, in remarks proudly reported by the New York Times, singled out the gains by minority students in New York as evidence of progress in big cities nationwide. She said, "We have proof now that high standards and accountability are paying off. . . . [The] data show that urban districts are helping urban students achieve" (Herszenhorn 2005, M1). Chancellor Joel Klein declared in 2006, "Since 2002, New York City had outperformed other urban districts and made better progress than the state as a whole" (Herszenhorn 2006, M1).
The reported gains have not come without controversy and concerns about the adverse impact of mayoral control. Sol Stern, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, has charged that NAEP results show that New York City's performance did not improve from 2003 to 2005 and "that New York education officials--city and state--have indulged in unwarranted self-congratulation about student achievement" (Stern 2006, B17). Other critics warned that mayoral control reduced transparency and made it harder for the community to assess or monitor district activity. Historian Diane Ravitch and United Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten argued, "The Department of Education now operates in a secretive manner that denies the right of the public to have a say in important decisions or even to know what policy is being considered. . . . It has also now become routine for journalists and other public officials to have to file Freedom of Information demands to obtain the most basic information about the Department of Education's decisions and practices" (Ravitch and Weingarten 2004, A33).
High-profile successes have fueled interest in mayoral control as a tool for reforming troubled school systems. However, the reality is not so simple. Much of what has been written on mayoral takeovers is ambiguous and inconclusive. As Wong and Shen have noted (2005, 86), "No general consensus is emerging about the overall effectiveness of mayoral takeover."
What the Research Says
For all the optimism that developments in New York City and Boston have generated, there is remarkably little evidence that boards appointed by the mayor are more effective at governing schools than are elected boards. Existing evidence is only modestly illuminating, recommending caution when making strong claims about the merits of appointed boards.
The Evidence from Educational Research
In 2002, Deborah Land reviewed research published since 1980 on the role and effectiveness of school boards, noted "the limited number of data-based studies" (2002, 229), devoted less than three pages of the lengthy piece to the scant research on board appointment versus board election, and found little more than conjecture and scattered case studies. Land remarked (2002, 239): "There is not yet convincing evidence that appointment of school board members produces effective governance or greater academic achievement." In 2005, the Center for the Study of Social Policy (2005, 14) surveyed what is known about various governance reforms, including mayoral control; it concluded that there is no clear evidence that mayoral takeovers improve student achievement or fiscal efficiency and that the impact on the relationship between schools and local interest groups is "mixed." The inconclusiveness is due, in part, to the fact that few researchers have sought to examine, in even a proximately systematic fashion, the effects of governance reforms on achievement, reform, school improvement, or similar outcomes. Systematic research has primarily focused on questions such as whether the racial composition of appointed or elected boards is more reflective of the community.
While a survey of existing educational and political science research identifies more than 400 books, articles, and papers that address board appointment and mayoral control in some fashion, fewer than a dozen explicitly examine their impact on school reform in more than a cursory fashion. Most of the research is the work of a small group of scholars replicating and repurposing a limited number of case studies. In the end, there are not even a handful of rigorous, systematic studies that have examined the effect of school governance on some dimension of school improvement.
In 2003, Cibulka (2003, 263) enumerated four sets of questions that researchers have typically asked regarding the merits of appointed boards:
- Do appointed boards produce improved management and financial practices and the elimination of cronyism?
- Do appointed boards produce management that improves the quality of physical plants and the physical condition of buildings?
- Do appointed boards produce increased political support for educational improvement?
- Finally, and most importantly, do appointed boards yield improved instructional practices, educational programs, or student achievement?
Existing research yields no firm answers on any of these counts. Just one study (Wong and Shen 2003) has examined multiple districts and reported quantifiable benefits associated with mayoral control. The researchers analyzed the performance of 14 school districts during the period 1992-2000. Eight of the districts had switched to mayoral control, and the other six had been subject to state takeovers. Their outcome measures included test results, per pupil expenditures, student-teacher ratios, staffing, and survey data. Wong and Shen found mayoral control to be linked to increases in student achievement at the elementary grades and that gains were especially large for the lowest-performing schools, that effects were weaker in the upper grades, that there seemed to be positive effects on financial and administrative management, and that the data suggest that resource allocation shifted after the introduction of mayoral control. Given their small sample size, the short window of time examined, and the reality that those mayors who have sought and received control of urban school systems are not a random cross section of mayors, the findings should be treated with due caution.
In 2005, Wong and Shen conducted another analysis, examining how mayoral control affected finances and staffing in the nation's 100 largest urban school districts during the period 1992-2001. They found that "mayoral takeover did not bring with it the increased financial stability it promised" and that it had little impact on district staffing, with a "lack of a consistent, significant relationship between mayoral takeover and [a] host of management and staffing outcome measures" (Wong and Shen 2005, 95, 99). They concluded that "no general consensus is emerging about the overall effectiveness of mayoral takeover" and that "although there certainly are anecdotal examples of positive change--our analysis suggests that when aggregated across districts at the national level, takeover has not yet changed fundamental district operations" (Wong and Shen 2005, 86, 99).
The limited number of systematic studies that preceded Wong and Shen's efforts reported ambiguous results. In 1967, Thomas Dye studied 67 large cities to examine "the impact of the structure of city school systems on educational outcomes" (1967, 353). Dye controlled for various demographic and political factors, including school board selection. Outcomes examined included per pupil expenditures, teacher preparation, teacher salaries, teacher pupil ratio, teacher turnover, graduation rates, and private school enrollment. Dye found "no significant differences in educational outcomes between school systems with elected and appointed boards" and that "the method of selecting school boards has no consistent directional impact on educational policy" (1967, 373).
Subsequent to Dye's work, Harvey J. Tucker and L. Harmon Zeigler (1978) examined the responsiveness of elected school boards to the demands of the public, measuring communication between the public and the board and the resulting policies in eleven districts. After comparing the impact of public demands, as expressed in surveys and meetings, with policy outcomes, they concluded that the responsiveness of elected and appointed boards to public preferences was inconsistent and the result of many factors. The findings expanded upon earlier work that Zeigler had conducted in the same vein (Jennings and Ziegler 1971).
In the most extensive empirical study of school boards to date, Pennsylvania State University scholars Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer (2005, 104) reported from an analysis of about 7,885 school boards (of which about 300 were appointed) that appointed boards were about 17 percent more responsive than elected boards when they sought to correlate public opinion on spending and district per pupil expenditures. In the entirety of their sophisticated analysis, Berkman and Plutzer do not attempt to examine the impact of board characteristics on measures of student achievement, reform coherence, or board effectiveness.
Following the 1995 Chicago School Reform Amendatory Act, Wong et al. (1997) studied the restructuring of school governance--including the mayoral appointment of board members. Drawing on local interviews, the researchers rated actors on the performance of institutional duties. They found appointed administrators "less accountable to particular constituencies and . . . therefore better able to put system-wide concerns above constituency demands" (Wong et al. 1997, 27). The researchers found that the board's performance rating increased by about 30 percent between 1995 and 1996, though they noted the import of the mayor's "political capital" and that results elsewhere would likely vary from those in Mayor Richard M. Daley's Chicago.
Larry Cuban and Michael Usdan (2002b) studied school reform in six cities and found little evidence that mayoral control helped improve teaching, learning, or educational outcomes. They did find some evidence of increased city and school coordination in cities with mayoral appointment but concluded that context, civic commitment, and reform strategy mattered more than governance arrangements. Michael W. Kirst and Katrina E. Bulkley (2001) examined the history of mayoral involvement in schooling and saw promise in the successes of Boston and Chicago. They noted, however, that both cities had strong mayors and that this helped explain the success of the reforms. In cities like Detroit and Cleveland, limited mayoral authority or energy meant that shifting to an appointed board did not amount to much. They cautiously concluded, "It is always difficult to predict the outcome of governance changes" (Kirst and Bulkley 2001, 29).
Melissa Marschall and Paru Shah (2005, 174) examined interview data regarding school governance and reform collected for the 11 cities studied in the Civic Capacity and Urban Education Project but concluded only that "strong mayoral leadership may indeed play an important role in fostering greater agenda consensus . . . [and] that mayors might be one of the crucial components needed to move cities from conflictual to consensual politics." Stefanie Chambers (2006) examined Chicago and Cleveland, finding that test scores improved under an appointed board but that there were fewer opportunities for grassroots participation by minority community members in the school system.
Even when it comes to political engagement, there are doubts that formal governance structure matters much. Clarence Stone and his colleagues (2001, 94) concluded, in their much-cited 11-city analysis of civic involvement in schooling, "The broad features of governmental structure thus appear to be of no consequence in explaining civic mobilization." Jeffrey Henig and Wilbur Rich's (2003b) edited collection Mayors in the Middle thoughtfully examines the politics and dynamics of mayoral control, but no chapter in that work systematically assesses the impact on school improvement or performance, and the conclusions for policy are decidedly mixed.
Limited Attention to Educational Impact
The attention that political scientists devote to school board selection is limited, and it frequently focuses on ethnic representation: whether elected or appointed boards and their hires are more likely to reflect the community's racial makeup (Meier et al. 1991; Taylor 2001). As William Howell has noted (2005, 14-15), "Political scientists, surprisingly, have given school boards scant consideration. In the past four decades, fewer than twenty-five articles that directly relate to school boards have been published in major political science journals," and those have focused on "racial politics," "desegregation," "social networks," and "bureaucratic politics."
This should not surprise those familiar with the research on urban school systems. Many of the most prominent books on urban school reform in recent years have paid only glancing attention to the impact of board appointment or mayoral control--either because the phenomenon was largely absent or because the focus was elsewhere (see, e.g., Anyon 1997; Henig et al. 2001; Noguera 2003; Orr 1999; Portz et al. 1999; Simmons 2006; and Stone et al. 2001). Even Wilbur Rich's 1996 volume Black Mayors and School Politics paid little or no attention to formal board governance or the mayor's formal authority over the board.
Various published accounts have considered the logic of mayoral control, emphasizing that mayors may be embroiled in local politics but have the ability to build broad coalitions and face down narrow interests (Arsen et al. 2004; Augustine et al. 2005; Hill et al. 2002; Hutchinson 2003; Meier 2003). While such work is useful and informative, it is not able to systematically illuminate the effects of mayoral control on school change, teaching, or educational outcomes. In the end, the research offers scattered, anecdotal support for the notion that mayoral control can aid urban schooling, but its tenor remains decidedly inconclusive.
A Quick Look at Evidence from Other Sectors
The debate over the relative virtues of election and appointment is not unique to education. The same questions have played out in many public sector contexts. In these other cases, including the selection of public utility commissioners and judges, the findings suggest that election and appointment both have mixed results.
For decades scholars have researched the impact of electing rather than appointing public utility commissioners. Earlier research suggested few differences between the two approaches when it came to setting household rates for regulated utilities (Boyes and McDowell 1989; Primeaux and Mann 1986). In an influential study of the policy outcomes produced by various regulatory commissions, however, Timothy Besley and Stephen Coate examined 40 states over a 37-year period, tracking mean electricity prices. Besley and Coate concluded that "elected regulators are more pro-consumer" and that "residential prices are significantly lower in states that elect their regulators" (2003, 1177-78). In an observation directly relevant to school governance, Besley and Coate observed (2003, 1176), "When regulators are appointed, regulatory policy becomes bundled with other policy issues the appointing politicians are responsible for. [On the other hand,] because voters have only one vote to cast and regulatory issues are not salient for most voters, there are electoral incentives [for appointed officials] to respond to stakeholder interests."
Single-purpose, elected boards are more likely to respond to the immediate desires of the most interested parties, while appointed boards become part of a broader political calculus. Other research has found that elected officials are more likely to keep telephone rates down (Smart 1994) and that they tend to favor consumers over life insurance companies (Fields et al. 1997). Such behaviors are appealing but are not obvious signals that elected boards are "better"--only that they are more responsive to the population of consumers (i.e., voters). The costs of this behavior appear to include a lesser degree of financial discipline on the part of elected boards, as scholars have reported that elected public utility commissioners have a strong negative effect on utility bond ratings (Formby et al. 1995).
Studies analyzing elected versus appointed judges have also been widespread. In a review of the research, Anthony Champagne (2003, 413) observed that the effects of how judges are selected have been "one of the most important policy issues in state judicial politics." He observed that "partisanship remains in merit selection systems," both in which individuals are nominated and in which judges are actually named by the governor, and that appointed judges "do not have substantially different background characteristics than do elected judges" (Champagne 2003, 416).
Scholars have attempted to measure how the selection process affects outcomes on a wide range of issues, including judge impartiality and case selection. Gregory Huber and Sanford Gordon (2002) have examined how method of selection affects the decisions of judges. They examined sentencing data from more than 22,000 Pennsylvania criminal cases and found that "[elected] judges become significantly more punitive the closer they are to standing for reelection" (Huber and Gordon 2004, 261). F. Andrew Hanssen has investigated whether the method of selecting state court judges affected rates of litigation. Examining court decisions and civil filings over a 10-year period, Hanssen reported that appointed judges appeared to be more independent and that there was "nearly 40 percent more litigation over utility regulation" (1999, 207) in appointed courts--a sign that their rulings were less predictable.
Elected public regulatory commissions appear to do a better job than appointed commissions of keeping prices down and appeasing public appetites, but they do so at some cost to fiscal discipline. This is good if the aim is to protect the public from predatory corporations, but it is less good if it means that hard decisions are being rejected in favor of popular, short-term decisions. Elected judges appear slightly less independent and more sensitive to public preferences than do appointed judges. While the differences are not enormous, elected board members and judges do appear somewhat more responsive and appointed officials more independent and potentially more attuned to long-term considerations. Seen in this light, the merits of election or appointment depend on striking an appropriate balance between responsiveness and responsibility. Given reason to believe that today's urban boards may be insufficiently resolute when school improvement requires unpopular short-term measures, the appeal of appointed boards is easy to comprehend.
The Critique of Elected Boards
To date, support for appointed boards has been based more on theoretical considerations and selected experiences than on any evidence demonstrating their merits. Kenneth Meier (2003, 413) has argued for mayoral control because it "should centralize accountability, broaden the constituency concerned with education, and reduce the extent of micromanagement."
Elected boards are particularly criticized on five bases--all, to greater or lesser degrees, legacies of the Progressive Era effort to separate educational governance from politics. In fact, most calls for mayoral control or appointment suppose that school governance is hampered not by too much politics but by the wrong kind of politics or by too little disciplined political leadership.
First, as in the case of public utility regulation, critics have argued that a lack of attention and electoral involvement makes it difficult for the voters to hold their representatives even loosely accountable. Chester E. Finn Jr. and Lisa Graham Keegan have observed (2004, 15): "The traditional school board is no longer the embodiment of participatory democracy it was intended to be. The romantic notion that local school boards are elected by local citizens has been replaced with the reality that these elections are essentially rigged. They are held at odd times, when practically nobody votes except those with a special reason to do so. For example, in 2002, just 4 percent of registered voters in Dallas turned out to participate in July elections that replaced six school board members." Sixty-two percent of superintendents and 69 percent of board members themselves agree that school board meetings are "dominated by people with special interests and agendas" (Farkas et al. 2001, 10). Over half the public, including 57 percent of parents, admits not voting in the most recent school board election--a remarkably high rate given the tendency of respondents to overstate their electoral participation (Farkas et al. 2001, 15). It is hard to count on elections to keep public officials in line when elections are nonpartisan and the public does not know who is in office. Public Agenda has reported that 63 percent of adults, and 50 percent of parents, say that they cannot name their local superintendent and that 62 percent of adults, and 48 percent of parents, could not name one member of the local school board (Farkas et al. 2001, 15). As Public Agenda explains, "Most people, for whatever reason, are simply not active in or mindful of school affairs on a routine basis" (Farkas et al. 2001, 15).
Second, critics argue that electoral apathy allows mobilized constituencies, especially public employee unions (i.e., teachers unions), to exert disproportionate influence. Based on a national survey of more than 500 school districts, this author and David Leal found that "teacher unions are generally the leading interest group in local school board politics [and] that union influence is greater in larger, more urbanized districts" (Hess and Leal 2005, 249). For instance, teachers unions are reportedly the most active interest group in board elections; almost 60 percent of board members nationwide say the teachers unions are "very active" or "somewhat active" in their local elections (Hess 2002). Stanford professor Terry Moe (2005) has documented union success in electing favored candidates in California. He finds that school board candidates endorsed by the union win 76 percent of the time, while others win just 31 percent of the time. Even among incumbents, who enjoy advantages that might counter union influence, those backed by the union win 92 percent of the time, while those not endorsed win just 49 percent of the time. Not surprisingly, union-endorsed candidates hold much more positive attitudes than others toward collective bargaining. Moe (2005) has concluded that boards have largely become venues for union influence and that "the unions still have major advantages over other groups in both incentives and resource, and they appear to use these advantages quite effectively and strategically in getting what they want" (286). Because school boards govern districts and oversee contract negotiations, teacher unions are effectively helping to select their ostensible bosses. This has been blamed for lethargic district leadership, a failure to challenge union prerogatives, and problematic personnel practices (Hess and West 2006).
Third, elected boards have been blamed for a lack of coherence and continuity. Shifting membership, concern with public perception, and the desire to placate restive communities by showing rapid improvement mean that superintendents are "under tremendous pressure to produce short-term results" and "feel they must undertake everything all at once" (Wagner 1994, 79) in order to earn their keep. With more than a quarter of board members serving in their first term, no party ties to bind members together, and a need to assemble enough free agents to create a stable board majority after each election, it is not surprising that the firing and hiring of superintendents has become something akin to a ritual (Hess 1999). It is an easy way to cleanse bad blood or signal a fresh start, and superintendents themselves have frequently responded by becoming job-hoppers--moving on to the next, bigger job before they wear out their welcome. This cycle has been blamed for causing constant changes in direction and inattention to implementation (Hess 1999). Addressing the tenuous job security of even seemingly successful superintendents in board-managed districts, scholars at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform have observed: "Mayors should note examples like Alan Bersin in San Diego and Barbara Byrd Bennett in Cleveland, who were fired or not rehired despite having produced both operational improvements and measurable gains in student achievement" (Simmons 2006, 190). In San Diego, after fierce fighting by Bersin and his supporters to maintain a narrow 3-2 board majority through three election cycles, the accession of a marginally hostile third board member in 2004 soon served to halt one of the nation's most ambitious reform efforts. Meanwhile, given that mayoral terms typically last four years and that most mayors serve two or more terms (with incumbent mayors in Boston and Chicago serving more than a decade each)--mayoral appointment is an attractive way to provide stability in urban systems where most superintendents do not last even four or five years.
Fourth, school boards have been faulted for a lack of discipline, a tendency to micromanage, and an inability to handle the essential tasks of governance. Ron Ottinger, former San Diego board president, has explained the board practices that had become endemic in the district prior to the hiring of Alan Bersin as superintendent: "[Board members] had become alternate superintendents. . . . Some submitted hundreds of requests for information or directives to fix issues at particular schools. Chasing these requests ate up significant management time. . . . In addition, boards members attempted to dictate principal selections and barked commands to mid-level staff. District culture was so dysfunctional that it became normal for principals to bypass the superintendent and go directly to board members if they did not get their way" (quoted in McAdams 2006, 74-75). Don McAdams, director of the Center for Reform of School Systems, has observed that "more often than not, school board members are not certain what they are supposed to do--reflect or shape public opinion, micromanage, or act as a rubber stamp" (2006, 65).
Finally, school boards operate in isolation from the mayor and the city's political and civic leadership. Two decades ago, the Institute for Educational Leadership fretted that school boards had ceased to attract members with political clout and lacked firm links to local leaders or city government (Danzberger et al. 1986). While mayors have the ability to coordinate among municipal departments and frequently carry significant weight with the local business community, civic leadership, and state government, school district leaders lack such resources. As the chief executive of the city, the mayor is able to build broad citywide coalitions of interests, rally business and civic groups, and counter the fragmented politics of urban schooling--by balancing the influence of teachers' associations as well as that of single-issue groups. Mayors are also positioned to coordinate other city services with schooling, including youth services, facilities, health care, policing, libraries, and recreation (Kirst and Edelstein 2006, 162).
Why Might Appointed Boards Not Deliver?
While the arguments for mayoral appointment are sensible ones, a variety of skeptics raise important concerns about them. Joseph Viteritti has cautioned (2005, 321), "Mayors and governors are not beyond the reach of the same organized interests that have retarded reform on local school boards." Dorothy Shipps has written (2003, 31): "Chicago demonstrates that mayoral control does not come easily. And once won, it is only the beginning of a protracted learning process." Clarence Stone has fretted (2003, 245): "It is not clear that most mayors possess the combined will and skill needed to lead a far-reaching process of change. . . . Instead of putting mayors at the center of the reform process, it may be more realistic to accord them an important contributing role." These doubts reflect five major criticisms of proposals for mayoral control.
First, there is a concern about a loss of transparency. Malfeasance in recent years at private sector firms like Enron, WorldCom, Tyco, and Sunbeam has shown how an overly familiar board and governance culture can enable management to take shortcuts, cook the books, or adopt practices that do not effectively serve the interests of clients, customers, or shareholders (Shaub et al. 2005). The goals of corporate governance reform in the past five years (including the federal Sarbanes-Oxley legislation that altered accounting and governance requirements) have been to weaken the grip of executives and increase the presence of independent voices on boards of directors. While the corporate and public sector contexts are distinct, appointed boards could well make it easier for politically self-conscious mayors and superintendents to control data, limit accountability, and reduce opportunities for citizen input, just as corporate America has recognized the potential problems that cloistered management can invite.
Second, some voices are likely to be silenced or marginalized under an appointed board. In urban districts, elected members too often violate the norms of effective boards, but they are frequently doing so in an attempt to address real concerns (whether about service provision, treatment of a student, school leadership, or neighborhood concerns). Personal conflicts or accusations of micromanagement often reflect tensions over resource allocation or real disagreement about the school system's direction. Appointed officials, buffered from political and constituent considerations, are more likely to leave significant distributional or value-laden issues unaddressed (Hess 2003). Recall the Chambers (2006) analysis of mayoral control in Chicago and Cleveland, which reported fewer opportunities for participation by minority parents and citizens in the school system. Collegial boards may be reluctant to ask uncomfortable questions or raise unpleasant issues, with this deference coming at the expense of oversight. Corporate America worried that boards became too complacent in the 1990s, and it has rediscovered the value of skeptical outsiders who will not accede too rapidly to the wishes of management (see, e.g., Tosi et al. 2003). In seeking to improve district governance, reformers risk going too far and inviting a new set of problems.
Third, there is the risk that appointed boards would work well initially only to later "go native." A long-standing concern with regulated industries is that the regulators tend, over time, to become dominated by those they are supposed to regulate. Why might this happen? After the regulatory arrangement is established, most public officials and voters move on to other concerns; over time, those who remain most engaged in appointments and in the work of the regulators are those subject to regulation. In education, the concern is that the appointment process can eventually settle into a quiet arrangement in which the appointer rewards friends and placates powerful interests. Politically savvy mayors and their appointed boards may eventually reach comfortable accommodations with teachers unions, other school employee unions, and major service providers.
Los Angeles provides an illuminating example of how this might unfold, as reflected in the 2006 Education Week headline "Mayor, Union Team Up to Push Plan Some Fear Would Turn Back Clock" (Maxwell 2006, 5, 20). When Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's plans for mayoral control stalled, he struck a deal with the United Teachers of Los Angeles and its parent California Teachers Association that would deliver the unions' members unprecedented power in the district. While the plan was ultimately struck down by the state courts, such developments suggest that it may be naive to imagine that mayors will necessarily or consistently face down teachers unions or other powerful interests--especially given the political acumen and ambitions of big city mayors. To be clear, this is primarily a long-term concern rather than an immediate one. The worry is less that mayors will make problematic decisions while seeking to curry favor in the short term (though that certainly remains possible) than that--once the spotlight has faded, attention has moved on, and the "education mayor" is out of office--mayors will shrink from the challenges and their appointees will be quietly "captured" over time.
A fourth concern is that mayors can get caught up politicizing school boards in self-serving ways or that, rather than enhancing municipal attention to schooling, making education part of a mayor's portfolio might leave it vulnerable to shifts in mayoral focus. For instance, in Washington, DC, school reformers witnessed a few moments when two-term Mayor Anthony Williams announced his intention to aggressively tackle problems in the city's schools (a proportion of the school board's nine members are mayoral appointees) only to move on to other pressing concerns. The Education Commission of the States has observed: "The major difficulty with [mayoral appointment] is that education risks becoming just another departmental function in the mayor's office. . . . The decision maker is not going to be judged solely for the quality of the education system. Without a school board, the school system loses viability and a strong public advocate" (Resnick 1999, vii). Michael Usdan, a veteran scholar of school governance, has cautioned: "Although the evidence so far suggests that mayoral involvement in education has largely been a positive experience for cities . . . less enlightened mayors may exacerbate problems through their involvement or seek to politicize public schools in self-serving ways" (2006, 150).
Finally, despite the widespread complaints about board dysfunction and micromanagement, it is not clear that superintendents see boards as the hindrance that popular critiques suggest. For instance, superintendents describe their relationship with the local board as "mostly cooperative" rather than "mostly contentious" by an 87 percent to 6 percent margin in confidential polling; the anonymity of polling matters greatly because we might expect superintendents to fear giving offense in interviews (Farkas et al. 2001, 11). Similarly, board members describe their relationship with the superintendent as cooperative (by a 77-10 percent margin) and relations among board members as mostly cooperative, with 69 percent of superintendents agreeing that board internal relations are cooperative (Farkas et al. 2001, 11). Finally, more than 70 percent of superintendents and board members report that no more than "one or two" board members tend to "represent the interests of specific, narrow constituencies" (Farkas et al. 2001, 11).
Skeptics acknowledge that urban school governance is troubled but argue that mayoral control is unlikely to help and may bring unwelcome side effects. The Education Commission of the States argued in a 1999 brief: "The response to a weak school board . . . should not be to disenfranchise the community by eliminating school boards altogether or transforming them into something other than a community representative body" (Resnick 1999, v). Such cautions gain credence when we recall that school boards have not worked out quite as the Progressives initially intended.
The Principles for Effective Board Governance
Governance reform is not a strategy to directly improve schooling; instead, it seeks to provide effective leadership for improvement efforts. Moreover, as James Cibulka has observed (2001, 35), "Changing governance arrangements clearly can make a difference in the way urban public school systems function, but such a strategy requires the right combination of ingredients." Governance reform aims to provide the leadership that makes school improvement more likely.
There is not a lot of disagreement about what this kind of leadership looks like. A number of the nation's most prominent thinkers on school system governance--including Larry Cuban, Paul Hill, Michael Kirst, Don McAdams, and Michael Usdan--have agreed that effective governance entails four common sense principles. Not surprisingly, those principles reflect the sensible and familiar guidance offered to corporate or nonprofit boards in other sectors.
First, it requires a clear division of authority and responsibilities. Governance must provide accountability and oversight that establishes expectations, provide clear procedures and approaches to doing business, and then use data to monitor performance. Otherwise, those in governance must accept the limited span of their role and take care to respect the prerogatives of management. In Governing Public Schools, Jacqueline Danzberger, Michael Usdan, and Michael Kirst explain that boards should be refashioned as "local education policy boards" and should get out of the business of "presiding over student or employee grievances;" should not "hire, fire, or promote specific personnel except for the superintendent and a few overall administrators at the top of the system"; and should not "approve detailed items such as . . .staff development activities [or] bus routes" (1992, 87-90). In What School Boards Can Do, Donald McAdams (2006) agrees: "The board's responsibility does not end with policy approval. . . . It also includes oversight of policy implementation and evaluation of policy effectiveness" (110).
Second, it requires the development of a coherent and well-ordered strategy, understanding what the strategy requires and how the pieces fit together, and then pursuing it in a systemic fashion. McAdams has explained (2006, 13): "[Boards] must have a clear theory of action for change that drives redesign of their district through the enactment and oversight of aligned reform policies." Paul Hill et al. have elaborated (2000, 24): "Every system-wide reform strategy must have three strong and interdependent elements: incentives for school performance, ways of increasing school capabilities, and opportunities for school staff to change how they serve students."
Third, good governance is characterized by patience and focus. Meaningful improvement on a district-wide scale takes time, careful implementation, and ongoing community support. After improvement is initiated, sustaining it requires that care be paid to planning and transition. As Hill et al. have cautioned (2000, 24), "Sometimes boards lose their focus on a reform strategy because they never truly understood it."
Finally, effective governance engages the civic leadership and overcomes the resistance of narrow constituencies which find their interests threatened. Finding ways to win the active support among business and community leaders and to keep them involved is critical to sustaining focus and maintaining a coherent strategy. Equally important is building broad electoral coalitions that will give the mayor and district leaders time to make a difference. Cuban and Usdan reflect the consensus when they declare, "[Urban school reformers] need to mobilize civic and corporate elites and educate these opinion setters" (2002a, 166).
Both Appointed and Elected Boards Can Embrace These Principles (in Theory)
It is not obvious that a school board need be appointed in order to further these principles. In fact, as Paul Hill (2003) has argued, election may matter less than the focus and unity of a board. Whether elected or appointed, well-run boards of directors--of companies, universities, or nonprofits--exhibit these same behaviors.
That said, urban school districts are so hidebound, school boards frequently so tangled in distractions, and coherence and patience so absent from the organizational DNA that handing the reins over to an active, engaged, and accountable mayor may be the better bet for igniting a tough-minded reform agenda. Absent firm leadership--whether from a mayor or a board--superintendents must hope that a window of opportunity will open, exhaust themselves trying to single-handedly hold a board majority, and fend off those discomfited by change, or find themselves relegated to tinkering. In Houston, during the 1990s, an elected board struggled to push its reform agenda until a state audit found improprieties in the district. It took that opening for Superintendent Rod Paige to solidify board and community support for change; when Paige departed, the board fragmented and the district's effort quickly lost energy and focus. In San Diego, operating as a lone sheriff, Superintendent Alan Bersin spent seven years pushing on the system with one hand while trying to retain his board majority with the other (Usdan 2005). After Bersin finally lost the swing vote on the five-member school board, he was pushed out, and significant elements of his improvement strategy were unwound or reversed. In most districts, fragmentation and a lack of clear political will means that superintendents rarely push very hard, very consistently, or for very long (Hess 1999). Of course, mayors too leave office, and when they do, reforms that rested on their support are likely to unravel. This is a real concern. But the reality is that big-city mayors tend to stick around longer and provide more stability than the shifting majorities that govern urban school boards.
At the same time, early experiences with mayoral control are not typical of broad-brush reform. Reform in cities like New York City and Chicago has been championed by atypical, strong, and visible mayors who wanted control over schooling and chose to put their political capital on the line. It is by no means clear that their scattered successes will be replicated by the next mayor--or by mayors elsewhere who are less powerful and less focused on education.
Ultimately, there is no "best" model of school governance. Appointed boards can provide coherence, focus, and a degree of removal from fractional politics, while elected urban boards are typically chosen in low-turnout elections in which particular interests wield great control. However, such rules are neither hard nor fast. Mayors not infrequently prove susceptible to short-term, self-interested pressures; elected boards can provide coherent leadership. Moreover, there are reasonable concerns about appointed boards: they may be less transparent and less responsive to legitimate community concerns and, in the long-term, reform mayors may be replaced by lesser lights and boards may be captured or allowed to become a musty backwater. Rather than celebrating some abstract notion of "mayoral control," reformers should develop a vision of good governance and then seek arrangements that will deliver it in a given community.
It Is Not Just Whether, But How
Ultimately, how a city pursues mayoral control may well matter more than whether it does so. Authorities on urban schooling argue that governance reform will disappoint unless it is accompanied by sensible attention to style of leadership; to the "invisible infrastructure" of finances, professional development, and staffing; and to the broader coalition supporting school improvement (Kirst and Edelstein 2006; Simmons et al. 2006). Paul Hill (2006) has suggested that mayoral control will only make a difference where mayors have the resources and wherewithal to tackle fractured accounting systems, opaque central administration spending, inequitable resource distribution, and unfunded pensions and retiree health care costs. John Portz (2000) examined Pittsburgh and Boston and concluded that mayoral control matters less than whether the mayor is able and willing to provide political backing for reform.
Ultimately, mayoral appointment can yield a structure more likely to facilitate responsible governance, coherence, continuity, and strong civic support. Of course, the design and the details matter enormously. If Boston has illustrated mayoral control working as intended, Washington, DC, and Los Angeles have, in the past, provided examples of how poor design can yield ineffectual arrangements.
In the aftermath, the Washington, DC, school board was amended to include four mayoral appointees and five members elected by the public. This "hybrid" model was hailed as a superior alternative to straight mayoral control, and its backers included Mayor Anthony Williams, the Washington Post, the Greater Washington Board of Trade, and the Federal City Council (Henig 2003). Six years later, the hybrid design is widely regarded as ineffectual, especially with leadership from a mayor whose attention to schools was flitting and whose energies were concentrated on cleaning up the city's finances, tackling problems in numerous city agencies, and developing downtown. Williams eventually dismissed his partial authority over the school board, likening it to "trying to drive a car with one pedal" (MacPherson 2003). Since 2000, the Washington, DC, Public Schools have continued to shed students, struggle with mismanagement and massive facilities problems, and post abysmal achievement results, all while expenditures have continued to grow.
In 2006, in his first State of the City speech, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa unveiled a plan to replace the Los Angeles School System's elected school board with a council of mayors (composed of the heads of the 27 cities served by the Los Angeles School District). The council was to have authority to hire and fire the superintendent, control the budget, handle collective bargaining, and adopt curricula. After the proposal was received coolly by the United Teachers of Los Angeles, Villaraigosa ultimately cut a deal with the union, which yielded an awkward design that alienated many who initially advocated mayoral control. The final deal gave Villaraigosa direct control of the city's three dozen worst-performing schools, the council of mayors the ability to appoint the superintendent (with the Los Angeles mayor playing the dominant role), and school-level personnel enhanced control over curricula. Meanwhile, the elected school board retained final spending authority and control over the district's education priorities. While the final deal was ultimately voided by a state judge as a violation of the California constitution, it stands as a neon caution to those who would romanticize mayoral control.
An early backer of mayoral control said of the final deal: "The mayor wanted something, so he accepted this ridiculous patchwork. It blows the chance to really address the school board and could leave the district worse off than it was. The fragmentation baked into this deal means there is probably going to be even less accountability and less coherence in L.A. going forward." The urge to do "something," unless it is sensibly designed and implemented, can yield arrangements that prove to be merely a distraction or that aggravate existing problems.
For troubled urban districts, an examination of the evidence provides no persuasive research on the question of mayoral control but does provide good reason to think that replacing an elected board with one named by a strong, active, and accountable mayor is a promising way to jump-start coherent and sustained school improvement. The experience of cities like Boston and Chicago illustrates that sustained mayoral leadership can make a difference. An appointed school board may be less susceptible to narrow demands and better able to summon the focus, patience, and unity to support tough-minded reform. Moreover, replacing an ineffective board atop a dysfunctional system offers an important opportunity to "reshuffle the deck," upend the routines and political understandings that can hinder improvement, and create the opportunity for focused and responsible governance.
In the case of dysfunctional urban districts, mayoral control seems to offer clear advantages in terms of coherence, political leadership, and accountability. The appropriate cautions and concerns still apply, but their significance is mitigated by the degree to which existing animosity and ineffectual governance undermine the board's ability to provide oversight, constituent service, or transparency. Any proposal for mayoral control must be pursued with an eye to a clear division of management authority, a coherent and well-ordered strategy, an appreciation for the importance of patience and sustained focus, and the mayor's obligation to provide civic leadership. If designed to further those ends, mayoral control will provide a more likely path to school improvement than will continued school board governance.
Whether a board is elected or appointed, long-term success requires that the leadership understand the nature of governance and resist the temptation to micromanage, adopt a clear theory of action, embrace a coherent strategy, and have access to quality staff and good data. Mayoral control can help foster these conditions but is not a substitute for or a shortcut around them; it is only promising as a means to provide them.
Transforming any sprawling, underachieving organization is an enormous challenge under even the best of conditions; it may well be impossible while struggling with fragmented or indecisive leadership. However, would-be reformers should note that mayoral control can do no more than offer a heightened opportunity for effective leadership. Moreover, any benefits that adhere with the change may well diminish with time as the initial reform consensus softens, attention shifts elsewhere, and interested parties reconcile themselves to the new dynamic.
A century ago, Progressives pushed "nonpolitical" control and rigid management routines as the proper and "scientific" way to improve education. They happily sacrificed flexibility to advance particular notions of efficiency, uniformity, and professionalism. Those twin legacies, the putatively "nonpolitical" governance of school systems and the rigidity of school operations, have been with us for most of the past century. It is indeed a useful step to recognize that urban school districts are inevitably political entities and that governance must address that reality. However, equally crippling is the legacy of rigidity and uniformity that infuses management, staffing, compensation, and the broader educational enterprise. Those deeper, thornier problems are left unaddressed by the shift to mayoral control. If pursued as an alternative to tackling these challenges, mayoral control may serve primarily as a distraction.
Calls for mayoral control are frequently notable for their removal from any deeper effort to rethink the structure of urban education. Is the familiar sprawling, corporate model suited to the challenges of twenty-first century urban education? Should schools and school systems continue to be staffed by public employees governed by complex contractual and statutory rules? Is the Progressive Era model of a hierarchical system governed by the dictates of 1920s style "scientific management" suited to seizing today's opportunities? Mayoral control may indeed be a useful step but only if pursued with an eye to these larger questions.
Today's problems with board governance are largely the legacy of a poorly conceived and incoherently executed reform agenda advanced a century ago. The penalties for slapdash efforts to remake political structures are large and enduring. Before abandoning an ill-designed arrangement for a headfirst plunge into mayoral control, any community should first ensure that the proposal is sensibly designed, that the mayor is equal to the task, and that it has a game plan that stretches beyond the next mayoral election.
Frederick M. Hess is a resident scholar and the director of education policy studies at AEI. The author would like to thank Rosemary Kendrick and Juliet Squire for their invaluable research and editorial assistance and the Show Me Institute and the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation for their generous support.
1. Upon further analysis, they determine that this is entirely due to appointments ensuring more racially reflective representation in predominantly white districts.
2. Personal communication between the author and a high-ranking California education official on September 26, 2006.
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