Mayoral control holds obvious promise. Crucial backing from strong mayors has allowed reform-minded superintendents to move the ball in Boston, New York, Chicago, and DC. These happy tales have led some enthusiasts to champion mayoral control more broadly. So far, so good. The risk is that advocates oversell mayoral control without due concern to its design or its risks.
There is little compelling evidence to suggest that mayoral control is a consistent remedy. Most of the existing research consists of case studies of a handful of cities where strong mayors demanded control of the schools and threw themselves into school improvement. More generally, Stanford University's Michael Kirst has concluded that it is "difficult to predict" whether mayoral control will help.
Ultimately, the case for mayoral control rests on the conviction that it is hard enough to transform troubled schools under the best of conditions, and that it is impossible amidst undisciplined politics, acrimonious governance, and incoherent and impatient governance.
In such cases, handing the reins to an engaged and accountable mayor may make good sense. In a bit of an understatement, though, let's simply note that all mayors are not engaged or accountable. Mayors may politicize school systems for short-term political ends or neglect schools for other priorities and transparency, and with it accountability, can suffer. How mayoral control is adopted matters more than simply whether it is.
On that score, there are at least four elements critical to determing whether mayoral control "works":
1] Transparency. In the past decade, in cases like AIG and Tyco, corporate America saw that overly cozy boards could fail to provide essential scrutiny. The council should insist on regular public hearings and reports on district affairs.
2] Strong oversight. In New York, the civic leadership and the newspapers have sometimes allowed enthusiasm to trump healthy skepticism. Mayoral accountability only works when local public officials and civic leaders are prepared to ask hard questions and insist on verifiable measures of performance.
3] Agreeing in advance on metrics. How to judge the success of reform should be settled up front. Metrics should encompass more than test scores and graduation rates—measures for gains in teacher quality, safety, construction, finances, and other key responsibilities should be established.
4] Finally, mayoral control only works where, as in Boston or Chicago, mayors put their reputations on the line and their political clout to work. If mayors, or their successors, lose interest while tending to economic development, public safety, or a multiple other constituent concerns, we're going to find ourselves in a decade bemoaning the harmful legacy of mayoral control.