Education Secretary Arne Duncan: The Importance of Board and Mayor Partnerships

By Arne Duncan

A recent report from the U.S. Conference of Mayors gives this pithy piece of advice for would-be reformers: “If schools don’t work, the city does not work.”

As the former superintendent of the Chicago Public Schools, I can attest that schools play a pivotal role in the social and economic vitality of cities. In today’s global economy, the reputation of a city’s schools can either be a deadly deterrent or a potent drawing card for business, workers, and families.

I saw firsthand that a mayor’s influence over a troubled big-city district can be a powerful tonic for the local economy and for school reform. But it is no panacea -- the success of school reform still depends on the vision, commitment, and resources that a mayor can bring to bear, working in tandem with the superintendent and appointees to the board.

In troubled big-city districts, capable and committed mayors often are better-situated than a school board operating as a solo entity to challenge the status quo and push for transformational reform. Mayors can facilitate the cradle-to-career health and social service networks that support student learning.

It takes more than a school to educate a student. It takes a city that can provide support from the parks department, health services, law enforcement, social services, after-school programs, nonprofits, businesses, and churches. And it takes a group of caring, committed individuals -- the mayor, the city council, and the school board -- working together.

Most boards work well

Elected boards are not the cause of the failures of urban school systems. Yet too many big-city districts today suffer from frequent turnover of superintendents, school boards dominated by adult interests, and pass-the-buck blame games for stagnant or failing student performance.

To be sure, the vast majority of school systems today still have elected boards -- and most work fine. A well-run school board that works cooperatively with a good superintendent can do a great deal to boost student learning. Upwards of 95 percent of the nation’s 14,500 school districts currently are managed by elected school boards -- a fact that is not going to change anytime soon.

Mayors control the school system in just seven large cities, though in a handful of other big-city districts, they have partial control of the governance structure.

Yet if speculation about the obsolescence of elected school boards is exaggerated, it is also the case that boards cannot continue to blindly contend that they are simply misunderstood institutions who are the ultimate arbiters of participatory, grassroots democracy. The reality is more complicated -- and surprising.

Historic shifts in governance

The ironic truth is that modern-day school boards evolved a century ago to control many of the abuses of mayoral control in earlier eras. From 1850 to the 1920s, mayors typically had direct control of city schools. But in the Gilded Age and the era of Boss Tweed big-city political machines, mayors handed out school board appointments based primarily on patronage and party loyalties.

In the Progressive era, the membership of school boards began to change -- and mayors slowly lost control of urban districts to elected boards in the first decades of the 20th century. The adherents of the Progressive movement contended that school governance needed to become more scientific -- with school boards run by professional educators freed from politics.

To ensure that schools boards were seen as above politics, the Progressive reformers pushed to have elections moved “off-cycle” and made nonpartisan so that races would not get entangled with mayoral or national campaigns. Yet the unexpected result of off-cycle elections was that only a tiny minority of voters -- less than 10 percent in cities today -- ever bothered to vote in a school board race.

Far from increasing accountability, the low voter turnout empowered adult constituencies in school districts to exert disproportionate influence over the selection of board members. Today, most urban voters can name the mayor. Yet few can name a single school board member.

Over time, school boards have taken on some of the very characteristics that the Progressives had hoped to avoid. Many school boards still serve as excellent reform partners. But too many urban boards end up micromanaging schools, are dominated by narrow parochial interests, and get trapped in maintaining the educational status quo.

How Chicago turned around

After nearly 75 years where big-city mayors had little or no control over schools, the Massachusetts legislature put Boston’s district under mayoral control in 1992. A city-commissioned study of the district at the time stated with some exasperation: “Boston is unique. The buck does not appear to stop anywhere.”

More recently, the drift to mayoral control in big cities has gained momentum from the school accountability movement and economic globalization. Students today compete not just with the kids down the block but with students in China, Denmark, India, and Canada. At the same time, the No Child Left Behind Act’s school improvement provisions have cast a new spotlight on failing schools.

No mayor, with or without control of the schools, wants to be known as the mayor of a city with a failing school system. As the poor performance of some big-city districts has been highlighted, tinkering from a distance and the hands-off policies of recent decades have lost their appeal for many mayors.

Not every urban district is best served by mayoral control. But struggling big-city districts with a history of revolving-door superintendents and ineffective school board leadership are good candidates for mayoral takeovers.

Chicago was one such city. In 1987, U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett said Chicago had the worst public schools in the nation, claiming they were in “an educational meltdown.” The following year, the state legislature passed a law that created local councils at every Chicago public school, with parents elected to serve on the councils.

Though well-intentioned, the local school councils failed to appreciably boost student achievement. When Mayor Richard M. Daley took office he sought and won the authority from the state legislature to run the city’s schools, starting in 1995. Like the emerging breed of executive-minded mayors in other cities, Daley believed the city’s public schools played an important role in economic development. He didn’t want to pin economic revitalization on new office buildings, a museum, or an aquarium -- in fact, he added a school to the aquarium.

Under the watchful eye of the mayor and the school board he appointed, my predecessor Paul Vallas and I were able to make sweeping changes to the public schools. This would have been difficult to accomplish under the elected board. I served seven years as superintendent and -- because I served at the pleasure of the mayor -- I was one of the longest tenured big-city superintendents in the country.

Before I took office, Daley and Vallas already had balanced the school budget. And during my tenure, the district closed large, failing schools and broke up large schools into themed specialty academies and smaller learning communities. Parent choice expanded dramatically with the introduction of high-quality charter schools and new magnet schools. Social promotion of students was halted. After nine teacher strikes between 1970 and 1987, the Chicago Public Schools have enjoyed labor peace without a single walkout in 22 years.

Rallying behind a cause

In Chicago, the entire city rallied behind the cause of transforming schools and elevating student learning and attainment. The mayor drew on the expertise of school board appointees who were experts -- not just in education but in health and finance. Sister agencies, the business community, law enforcement, philanthropists, nonprofits, social-service agencies, the religious community, and parents all got directly involved in the city’s schools. An independent research center assessed the impact of district reforms and provided invaluable policy input.

Not every constituency was always pleased, but we worked to be collaborative and inclusive. Our groundbreaking performance pay plan for teachers was designed by some of the city’s leading teachers.

Elected school boards generally cannot marshal a comprehensive array of wrap-around services to support student learning. But in Chicago getting the entire community involved paid off for the only school reform constituency that ultimately matters -- the students. Graduation rates rose, college enrollment increased, and achievement scores on state assessments not only shot up but rose faster than elsewhere in the state.

You can see evidence of this sort of progress through partnerships in other big-city school districts. In Boston, Mayor Thomas Menino and the school committee work together to promote the growth of student achievement. In appointing the school board, Menino works from a slate determined by a nominating committee consisting of community representatives. In Norfolk, Va., the school board is appointed by the city council, and the two groups meet regularly to look at issues that affect not just the schools, but the community as a whole.

Not coincidentally, both Boston and Norfolk have been recognized by both the Broad Foundation and NSBA’s Council of Urban Boards of Education as the best urban school systems in the country in recent years.

These partnerships can be found in cities with elected school boards as well. In San Francisco, for example, the board has a “Partnership for Achievement” agreement with the city, which outlines common goals for the city and the district and mutual obligations for funding enrichment and support services that promote student success.

No one questions that districts under mayoral control, such as New York, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., still have a long way to go to further boost student performance. But they have a palpable sense of momentum and urgency that often is missing in districts with elected boards.

Mayoral control is not the solution to the woes of big-city school districts, any more than elected school boards are the cause of urban ills. But it can be a critical first step to overhauling a failed status quo.

Mayoral partnerships with school boards have shown great promise in the last decade. I hope more mayors opt for this approach in struggling big-city districts like Los Angeles, Milwaukee, and Detroit. Turning schools over to the mayor is by no means the sole prescription for reforming large urban districts. But continuing the fickle tinkering of the past is a step backwards. Our children in failing urban schools deserve better.

Arne Duncan is the U.S. Secretary of Education.