Mayoral Takeover Cools the Crucible of Democracy
by Thomas L. Alsbury - June 25, 2009
The experiment of mayoral controlled schools, while leading to the arguably unremarkable student achievement gains, may result in cooling the “crucible of democracy” by creating a less responsive, more insulated governance structure in urban school districts.
A recent New York Times article (Hernandez, 2009) paints a dismal picture for political science researchers and policymakers who hypothesize that mayoral control of schools would be characterized by a new style education mayor who better implements educational reform and innovation and relies on educational experts appointed to advisory panels (Wong & Shen, 2008, p. 321). In the news story, theory is not reflected in reality as citizens attempted to address the New York City Panel for Educational Policy, the oversight group replacing the old Independent School Board of Education. First, the appointed panelists included an investment banker, a lingerie store owner, and a specialist in electromagnetics - not educational experts - an oft-stated deficit of locally elected board members. Second, the panel rejected no mayoral proposals and previous panelists who cast a dissenting vote were removed from their seats. Mayor Bloomberg remained unapologetic and noted, they are my representatives, and they are going to vote for things that I believe in (Hernandez, 2009, p. 3). In the news story, citizens attending the meeting doubted their concerns would be regarded seriously and agreed their voices were diminished as a result of mayoral takeover.
This story, however, does not deter advocates of mayoral takeover. Indeed, they support how mayoral control limits competing interests by consolidating decision making (Wong & Shen, 2008, p. 223). Proponents go on to note, The school system is integrated into broader municipal governance, allowing for citywide interests to prevail over parochial ones (p. 323). The elimination of stakeholder voices appears to be the primary, albeit taciturn, goal of mayoral takeover; efficiency trumps diversity and collaboration.
The challenge to mayoral governance is that while centralized control may be more efficient, some view it as less democratic. Lutz and Iannaccone (2008) noted that if the American voters believe they make no difference, American Democracy will die. Their sentiment reveals a belief that the fecundity of democracy is couched in the liberty to have ones voice heard; a concept that seems incongruent with governance reforms that silence competing voices for the sake of efficiency.
Lutz and Iannaccone (2008) noted that education being governed by locally elected school boards was not only unique to American democracy but represented the crucible of democracy. They also believe that local school elections in America provide the closest example of democracy for the American people (p. 5). The scant opportunity for citizens to exercise local democratic control is diminished further with the movement to mayoral governance of local schools. In the final assessment, the question to be asked is whether more efficient governance, via command decisions by a single partisan mayor, translates into more democratic governance or better schooling.
On the topic of democratic governance, some argue that because of low voter turnout for school board elections, school boards do not adequately represent the citizenry (Ziegler & Jennings, 1974). In fact, Wong and Shen (2008) note, mayoral elections, with higher voter participation, actually enhance democracy in the sense that more voters participate. They go on to argue that a higher and broader vote makes mayoral elections less susceptible to the influential groups that are overrepresented in school board elections (p. 325). However, several key points are missed in this argument. First, while mayoral election turnout is higher, voter decisions are spread thin over broad mayoral issues from taxes to city services. The inability to vote based solely on their satisfaction with school leadership diminishes direct influence over school leadership.
Second, while school board election turnout is about 20% overall (Shen, 2003) compared to national election turnouts of around 50%, parents with children in schools currently represent approximately 25% of the total electorate. This suggests that perhaps a higher percentage of citizens with children in the schools are participating in school board elections when compared to the overall public in general elections. Third, voter turnout for school board elections increases dramatically when there are issues of community dissatisfaction with the school (Alsbury, 2003). In fact, research indicates that school board members are regularly defeated in school elections by citizens demanding a change in their schools. Alsbury (2003) found that, on average, 30% of the school board members turned over in every biennial election, representing a majority vote turnover on boards and the subsequent removal of the superintendent in 74% of the districts over the course of his seven-year study. These numbers would seem to indicate that while researchers debate over whether elected school boards are democratic, citizens are busy exercising their democratic liberty to replace their school leadership at a fairly frequent rate.
However, even conceding the point that public participation in school board elections is too low, Boyd, in a 1976 article in the Teachers College Record, asked, Is educational government really worse (i.e., more insulated and less responsive) than most other branches of government (p. 576). He argued that mayoral decisions are certainly no less politically partisan than decisions made by a school board. In fact, Boyd (1976) argued that most boards operate within a zone of tolerance where leaders are free to run the school system within certain boundaries. However, if they stray outside the zone, they encounter community conflict and opposition. As a result, school leaders tend to avoid operating too far outside the interests of the community (Boyd, 1976, p. 544). He concluded that elected school boards may be more, rather than less, responsive than most other branches of local government. He also noted that citizens viewed school boards as much more accessible and peculiarly conspicuous than most other government entities (p. 544).
Boyd, in the same article, went on to indicate that large urban school districts, because of their multiple layers of bureaucracy and increasingly pluralistic community values, were more apt to ignore community opinion. This seems to agree with the proponents of mayoral control who argue that the fragmented and overly bureaucratic systems of urban school systems leads to arguments among school board members and diminishes their ability to enact systemwide reform because individual stakeholders are more closely tied to the concerns of their particular constituent group (Wong & Shen, 2008, p. 323). However, Boyd (1976) argues that the predisposition of urban school boards to ignore their patrons should support governance reforms that increase patron voices, like community control and decentralization of school governance; the exact opposite of central command mayoral control.
Some may argue that despite the potential of a diminished democracy, mayoral control should be used to govern schools if it gets results. However, while most studies have reported mixed results on whether mayoral takeover translated into student achievement gains, a study by Wong and Shen (2008) indicated that mayoral control resulted in improved student achievement in reading and math. While their study demonstrated a statistically significant improvement in achievement, student gains can be translated into 1.5% more students reaching Annual Yearly Progress over their five-year study of mayoral controlled urban districts. While the Wong and Shen study is arguably the most rigorous of its kind, one can still not presume direct causality; that is, we cannot be sure that the change to mayoral governance is what caused the improved test scores. This point is highlighted in a critical response to a 2007 newspaper story lauding the success of mayoral control in New York. The critic noted that while student test scores were used from 2000-2005, the mayoral takeover did not occur until 2002, reforms did not start until 2003, and the first test results reflecting the mayoral reforms would not be evident until 2004. The critic went on to indicate that scores actually increased more prior to the mayoral takeover than after, and credited these increases with curricular reforms of previous school leaders. This example, while anecdotal, may directly influence the conclusions of the Wong and Shen study because their student testing data spanned from 1998-2003 and New York was included in their sample. This demonstrates the complexity and influence of significant and often unidentifiable variables in studies of this type.
Finally, the risk of wholesale support for mayoral takeover nationally is a real risk to non-urban school districts. Even proponents of mayoral takeover are careful to point out that their research only supports the governance reform in the largest 125 to 375 urban districts. That leaves over 13,500 school districts operating under elected or appointed school board governance. In fact, Wong and Shen (2008), while supporting mayoral governance, repeatedly write in their studies that, mayoral control is appropriate for a small number of urban school districts (Alsbury, 2008, p. 321). Proponents of mayoral takeover correctly argue for the importance of studying alternative governance because approximately 41% of students reside in these few urban districts. However, this still leaves the vast majority of communities and students operating under the traditional elected school board system. Considering the number of school boards, superintendents, and communities in need of guidance on how to better govern schools, the paucity of research funding and the diminished interest in supporting studies to improve traditional board governance models is short-sighted and threatens to cool rather than incandesce the crucible of democracy.
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Boyd, W. L. (1976). The public, the professionals, and educational policy making: Who governs? Teachers College Record, 77(4), 539-578.
Hernandez, J. C. (April 23, 2009). School panel is no threat to the mayors grip. New York Times, Retrieved May 23, 2009 at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/23/nyregion/23panel.html?_r=1&fta=y.
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