From San Francisco to New York City, mayors and state legislatures are contesting local school boards for control over classrooms.
It's a flat-out challenge to one of the deepest traditions in American public education: schools being run by boards that are anchored in the community.
The United States has long had the strongest system of local control in the industrialized world, and critics of the current takeover trend worry that communities - and especially racial minorities - are being disenfranchised.
But pressure for change, driven by sagging student achievement and education's growing role in state budgets, is formidable. Some 23 states have passed laws authorizing state or city takeovers of school districts in crisis.
"Mayoral control is a new phenomenon in troubled urban school systems, and the early signs in the cities that have moved this way look promising enough for others to follow suit," says Ted Sanders, president of the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.
Last week, San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown called for returning that city to a mayor-appointed board, after 30 years with an elected board. The change would result in more qualified people on the board and improvements in public schools, he said.
Meanwhile, New York City's new mayor, Michael Bloomberg, wants to abandon an appointed board in favor of a commissioner who reports directly to the mayor. And last month, New York Gov. George Pataki (R) called for putting mayors in charge of schools in the state's six largest cities, including Albany and New York.
In addition to state-level momentum, the education act signed by President Bush last month requires states to identify low-performing schools and hold them accountable for improvement.
"Mayors are realizing that education is a key to the growth of the city and bringing back of a middle class," says Michael Krist, professor of education at Stanford University. "Both mayors and states are getting more aggressive, and the big losers are school boards."
But current moves to center more control on City Hall are already generating a backlash from critics. They argue that the shift from elected boards will distance poor and minority voters from decisionmaking.
Cleveland - now starting a $1 billion school-construction project - is gearing up for a vote this fall on whether to return to an elected school board after three years of control by City Hall. Mishandling of a $60 million bond issue was one reason the state turned control of schools over to the mayor in 1998.
While both mayoral candidates in last year's election campaigned to keep control of the schools in City Hall, opinion polls show a majority of voters want to go back to an elected board.
Indeed, the US tradition of local control runs deep. Across the country, some 15,000 local school boards handle everything from repairing gutters to setting educational goals. Of the 95,000 people on these boards, 96 percent are elected.
That system is now under siege in many urban centers. Early takeovers in cities like Boston (1991), Chicago (1995), Cleveland (1998), and Detroit (1999) were prompted by a meltdown of school finances or governance. In Baltimore (1993) and Philadelphia (2001), the state engineered the takeovers.
In some cases, elected school boards conspicuously mismanaged funds - overspending credit cards or bungling millions in funding for school construction. In others, petty squabbles and erratic behavior spilled out onto the front pages of local newspapers, undermining public confidence in the capacity of local boards.
More recently, pressure for change is coming down to the central issue of student achievement.
Most students in urban public schools aren't doing well. And with new state and federal testing regimes, such failures are becoming more and more conspicuous.
Moreover, states recently displaced local communities as the leading source of funds for public schools. Since 1978-79, revenues from state governments have slightly exceeded those from local governments, such as property taxes, according to the US Department of Education. Increasingly, state lawmakers see governance changes as a way to get more for their education dollars.
"The basic problem is that school boards are a 19th century idea that made sense when most communities were small and self-governing, and people tended to grow up and live and die in the same place.... That has all changed now," says Chester Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and an adviser to GOP presidents.
States are moving to take the reins in places like Maryland's Prince George's County, where the elected Board of Education faces a takeover by the legislature. Board members have conducted a very public feud with one another and with county Superintendent Iris Metz, whom they fired on Feb. 2, after a contract dispute.
"Our board has spun into dysfunctionality, leaving people with no alternative but to advocate for change," says Doyle Niemann, a member of the county's education board.
The state has blocked the firing and may give a five-member crisis team the right to approve the board's contracts and personnel decisions.
"A lot of people are concerned about giving up their right to vote. There is a large African-American community in Prince George's County, and a lot of tension undergirding the debate," says Sen. Paul Pinsky (D), a former school teacher and chairman of the county delegation.