The Economist provides some background/context for Mayor Fenty’s schools proposal:
As mayors become leaders of school reform, cities look to New York
WHEN Adrian Fenty became mayor of Washington, DC, this month, he immediately announced a plan to take over the city’s schools. He is not the first to propose such a scheme, and will not be the last. Although in most cities schools are run by an elected board, this is changing fast. Boston’s mayor began the trend of “mayoral control” in 1991: it has spread to Cleveland, Chicago and a dozen other cities and counties, including Los Angeles, where it is now the subject of a court battle. But it is Michael Bloomberg, who took charge of New York’s school system—the nation’s largest—in 2002, who has become the paradigm of the mayor-educator.
Bloomberg blazes the trail
The sad state of city schools has never been plainer, thanks to testing required by No Child Left Behind, George Bush’s 2002 education law. In 2005 51% of fourth-graders in big cities scored “below basic” on a standard reading test, compared with a national average of 38%. Mayors are eager to step in, well aware that bad schools not only harm students, but drive away the middle class and make cities less competitive. But what can mayors do that school boards cannot?
Mr Bloomberg, who gave his state-of-the-city address on January 17th, offers an answer. His power over schools has made him directly accountable for them, streamlined organisation and allowed him to make New York a test-bed for reform. It has also, some say, demonstrated the dangers of letting a mayor’s power go unchecked.
As Mr Bloomberg campaigned for mayor in 2001, it was clear that New York’s school board was failing its 1.1m students. The board, removed from the city’s budget process, had little control over school finances. The consequences were dire. Many high schools were losing more than half their students before graduation. Mr Bloomberg promised change.
With the central school-board disbanded, the mayor got to work. He appointed as his education “chancellor” Joel Klein, a former top trust-buster at the federal Department of Justice. Together, they dissolved the city’s 32 school districts and replaced them with ten regions. They chose a uniform curriculum for reading, writing and maths. And they began to close large high schools and open small ones in their place. Mr Bloomberg set up 15 small high schools in 2002, and got money from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2003 to help open 169 more.
Two years after seizing control, Messrs Bloomberg and Klein began a push to give more power to certain schools. Management scholars such as William Ouchi, of the University of California, Los Angeles, argued that decentralisation had saved American businesses; it could save schools too. In 2004, New York began opening schools where principals have more control over everything from budgets to staffing. If a principal does not meet the mayor’s targets, he can be fired. Last spring, 322 principals, a fifth of the total, joined this “empowerment” programme.
Many parents, teachers and experts—not to mention the mayor—say the reforms are a triumph. Last year Mr Bloomberg’s first crop of small high-schools had a graduation rate of 78%, compared with 58% city-wide. The empowerment schools have also shown signs of success, with better rates of attendance and grades.
But some who favoured mayoral control in 2002 now complain that Mr Bloomberg is a dictator, hastily imposing plans after little public input. The uniform curriculum for reading and maths was poorly chosen, argues Diane Ravitch, a professor at New York University. Randi Weingarten, head of the teachers’ union, describes teachers using egg-timers to try to follow rigid lesson plans. The effect of the uniform curriculum is unclear. Elementary school students have performed well in some local tests, but their scores in national exams have hardly budged.
Mr Bloomberg’s small-schools initiative has also drawn criticism. When the mayor closed big schools to open small ones, many displaced students simply crammed into other schools nearby. David Bloomfield, a professor at Brooklyn College, argues that although the small schools are promising, the rush to open them has placed too great a strain on larger schools, where most students are still enrolled. One Brooklyn high school has as many as 46 teenagers to a class.
Yet the mayor, when faced with complaints, has usually forged ahead. He proved particularly autocratic in 2004, when he announced a plan to keep failing students from advancing to the next grade. A similar scheme in the 1980s did not raise achievement levels and was deemed a failure. But when members of Mr Bloomberg’s advisory board opposed the policy, he sacked them. Mr Klein argues that critics’ inability to block change is a good thing. City schools, he says, need “bold, tough leadership”. In his state-of-the-city address, the mayor announced yet more reforms, tackling everything from teacher tenure to funding. He plans to disband his ten regions, and give principals even greater autonomy by letting them choose between different methods of support.
Education scholars generally agree that mayors can help failing districts, but they are starting to utter warnings. Last summer the editors of the Harvard Educational Review warned that mayoral control can reduce parents’ influence on schools. And they pointed to Mr Bloomberg’s aggressive style as an example of what not to do. All this must be weighed up by the New York state legislature in 2009, when mayoral control is up for renewal—or scrapping.