Last resort for troubled schools: city hall?

Oakland, Calif., is latest city to debate giving control of school

Oakland, Calif., a city where poor public schools drive families to move out of town, is the next in line to consider handing greater power to the mayor to fix them.

But bypassing or diminishing the independent role of school boards is giving pause to some people in this troubled city, as local lawmakers today take up a plan to improve public education.

Among the questions: Does granting a bigger role to the mayor trample grass-roots democracy and rekindle the very cronyism that progressives sought to eradicate from city hall politics a century ago? Or does this power shift do far more good than harm for failing schools, offsetting such broader concerns?

While other desperate American cities have taken the controversial step, it represents a particularly dramatic power shift in Oakland, and its consideration is expected to lay open many of the issues in play in communities across the nation.

The shift toward greater mayoral control over school boards and education in general has already taken place in Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, and Detroit. In addition, a number of smaller cities around the country are contemplating similar changes.

Looked at purely in educational terms, the transfer of power seems to have worked. Fewer strikes, healthier budgets, and improved student performance are some of the results, say education experts. And the public seems to like what it sees, supporting renewal of the strong mayor approach in Boston and Chicago.

Still, these changes are recent enough that many analysts remain skeptical about their long-term prospects and worry about what might be lost in the bargain.

"I think it can be a dangerous precedent," says Libero Dela Piano of the Applied Research Center, an Oakland advocacy group that works on race and education issues. Making Mayor Jerry Brown education czar, as a commission appointed by the mayor has recommended, "puts a lot of power in one person and in a city as culturally and racially diverse as Oakland, that can be dangerous," says Mr. Dela Piano.

Boston gave the mayor the power to appoint members of the school committee in the early 1990s and city council member Charles Yancey remains a staunch opponent: "Public education needs more public support, not less. If the school committee is an appointed body, that means voters have less responsibility and involvement."

Educationally, Mr. Yancey says, there have been "no significant improvements" in Boston's schools as a result of the move. Other education experts say there have been clear gains in accountability and curriculum, if not yet in test scores.

Michael Kirst, a Stanford University professor who served on the Oakland commission, says transferring power is often the drastic step systems need. "The issue doesn't even come up unless you have major structural failure" in a school system, he says.

Indeed, in Oakland's case the problems are longstanding. The school district was put into state receivership in the 1980s, not for fiscal reasons but for poor educational performance.

Still, in a heavily minority city like Oakland, the move away from an elected school board has profound significance. As Mr. Kirst notes, the switch means "you lose an electoral base and regional diversity" that is part of the city's political culture.

Looked at broadly, elected school boards for many cities have been a tool not just for education but for civil rights. They provide a bottom rung on the ladder of political power for greater minority representation in city politics.

That can also pose problems. "School board votes and elections are particularly vicious," says Ed Blakely, chairman of the Oakland commission recommending an appointed board. "For many of them, it's all about preparing for higher office" rather than reforming the schools.

Analysts see Chicago as the clearest example of school improvement as a result of stronger mayoral control. "In the last three years, student performance, particularly in elementary school reading and math, has improved," says Kenneth Wong, an education professor at the University of Chicago.

On the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, more students in third through eighth grades this year scored at the national norm in math and reading than in 1996, says Mr. Wong. There also is labor peace in Chicago now that the district and unions have a four-year contract.

Advocates of greater mayoral control don't contend that it fixes schools. But, they argue, it streamlines authority and creates a structure more responsive to policy changes.

"One of the problems with elected school boards, over time, is they tend to get more and more involved in hiring than is healthy.... That stops fast when the board is controlled by the mayor," says Kati Haycock, director of Education Trust.

But drawing a direct line from such institutional change to better student performance isn't possible yet, and some question how effective this shift will ultimately be.

"The key question is, how do we get parents more involved. That's what we need to stimulate. Elected school boards don't guarantee that. But just relying on a corporate-style appointed board won't do it either," says Bruce Fuller, an education professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

Ironically, mayoral control over schools was seen as a serious problem earlier this century and moves to "professionalize" education and give it greater independence took hold in many US cities.

At least in the case of troubled schools, "we're going back to the system that existed in the early 1900s," says Stanford's Kirst.

But some experts say the way mayors function today is so different that the threat of cronyism and a lack of advocacy for the schools are lesser threats. Mayors are accountable for the quality of education today in a way they never were before, say some analysts.

The plan in Oakland will come before the city council today and, if it moves forward, it could be put on the March ballot.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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