A tale of two cities: reality check on mayoral control of urban school districts.

Author:Burney, Nona M.
 
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Abstract: This article represents a preliminary exploration of the impact of mayoral control of two large urban school systems and the legislative changes in school governance and policies--spearheaded by business leaders and politicians--which affect students, teachers, and traditional school leaders in terms of accountability, decision making, and school renewal. Through the voices of university professors who teach in teacher education and administrative preparation programs, and the teachers and administrators who work in these school systems, we challenge a unique governance structure that potentially disenfranchises the "grassroots" of public education, i.e., parents, teachers, school administrators and students.

The authors initially employ data drawn from legislative documents and other school reform artifacts of both cities, print media in both cities, the researchers' personal observations while working in Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and Cleveland Municipal School District (CMSD), teaching graduate courses to CPS teachers and administrators, and from discussions and interviews with CPS teachers and administrators regarding school reform successes and obstacles. The long-term goal is not only to increase the scrutiny of politically motivated educational policy, but to challenge education preparation programs to provide teachers, administrators, and other educational leaders with the tools needed to be successful in their craft, for children's sake, in light of these new governance structures.

Introduction

This inquiry grew out of a conversation about an observation one of us made regarding the not-so-apparent connections between redevelopment projects in the city of Chicago and the locations of schools placed on probation and eventually reconstituted by Chicago Public Schools administration. This conversation led to discussions about how these actions could take place without much dissent from educators and the general public because the process was being "controlled" by the mayor's office--the mayor having authority over the school system and influence over community development projects. This dialogue led to the suspicion that Cleveland might be facing similar experiences--placing control over the schools in the hands of the mayor.

As a result, we decided to look at the two cities, Chicago and Cleveland, to ascertain why the management and leadership of two major urban school systems would be taken from the educators and placed in the hands of municipal/corporate leaders. Our inquiry has led us to the basic premise that at the core of the mayoral controlled school system takeovers are key political, corporate and legislative figures who have formed a partnership designed to control access to knowledge, money and power. To achieve this goal, governance of large urban school systems has to be placed in the hands of mayors and their municipal appointees, who not only will control the districts' financial assets, determine who has access to knowledge, and decide which stakeholders have voice in those decisions, but will have the power and "clout" of the "City Hall" behind them.

We contend that the real issues are not about student achievement and learning, they are about power and money and who controls. If we extend this line of reasoning in the context of existing corporate influence over municipal governments, mayoral control of school systems is the logical preference over the traditional board-superintendent governance structure. In the municipal governance structure, key decision-makers (e.g., Board of Trustees or Municipal School Board) need not be elected by the people--they are appointed by the mayor or his designees, and as a result, need not be concerned about the views or concerns of "grassroots" stakeholders (parents, teachers, school administrators, students). However, in the traditional board-superintendent structure, all are elected/selected by the people and are answerable to them. The key difference is that, under the municipal structure, the chief school officials have the power and influence of the mayor's office supporting them as opposed to the chief school officials under the traditional structure, who may even have the mayor's office fully opposing them.

Background

While not apparently a strategy that comes out of educational reform literature or research (e.g., Hill, Campbell & Harvey, 2000; Hill & Celio, 1998), municipal control of public schools is clearly one which students, parents, teachers, principals and career central office personnel (a.k.a. superintendents) of some major cities must endure as a result of business and legislative fiats aimed at reforming large urban school districts. Two school systems, Chicago (IL) and Cleveland (OH), are examined with these questions in mind: Why is mayoral leadership of large urban school districts perceived as preferred over the traditional elected school board/superintendent model? If the reason for creation of this new structure is to improve public schools, how, if at all does mayoral control of school systems generate or accelerate the process of school renewal? Where is the voice (influence, power, control) of traditional school leaders, i.e., central office administrators, principals and teachers in this latest process of school renewal?

In both cities, traditional school leaders, i.e., principals, central office administrators and classroom teachers, find themselves responding to and implementing a school renewal agenda not of their own making, perhaps created out of political expediency rather than research on "best practices" or "effective schools." They have discovered that formal processes of identifying benchmarks of student achievement are dictated by "City Hall." The combined political poll-driven/economics "bottom-line" business strategies of research with which the new management is most familiar, seems to foreclose recognition of research findings, particularly qualitative data, which present a richer view of student achievement, teaching and leadership.

We initially use data drawn from legislative documents and other school reform artifacts of both cities, print media in both cities, the researchers' personal observations while working in Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and Cleveland Municipal School District (CMSD), teaching graduate courses to CPS teachers and administrators, and from discussions and interviews with CPS and CMSD teachers and administrators regarding school reform successes and obstacles. The long-term goals of our exploratory study are to increase the scrutiny of politically motivated educational policy, and to challenge education preparation programs to provide teachers, administrators, and other educational leaders with the tools needed to be successful in their craft, for children's sake, in light of these new governance structures.

Genesis of Mayoral Control

Chicago Public School System

In 1987, U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett proclaimed Chicago Public Schools (CPS) "the worst in the nation." Many in Chicago were not surprised by Bennett's remarks for, in fact, the city was failing to educate its children, as indicated by the following quote from the Chicago Tribune (Squires, 1988):

Chicago Public Schools are hardly more than daytime warehouses for inferior students, taught by disillusioned and inadequate teachers, presided over by a bloated, leaderless bureaucracy, and constantly undercut by a selfish, single-minded teachers' union. (p. x) Approximately one year after Bennett's proclamation, and following the city's longest teacher strike and a massive school reform rally convened by the former Mayor Harold Washington, a rather sweeping reform plan was adopted by the Illinois Legislature, which shifted significant powers and responsibilities from central administration to local school communities (Bryk, Sebring, Kerbow Rollow, & Easton, (1998).

Reform was not deemed completely effective until 1995, when Mayor Richard M. Daley joined forces with the state's Republican leaders to revise the School Reform Act of 1988. Mayor Daley (1997), in an address to the National Press Club, stated:

Instead of bailing out the schools, the Republican State Government decided to turn over responsibility to the City of Chicago ... I wanted this new responsibility ... It was only with authority over the schools that I could take action and demand results, to improve performance and make our schools accountable. (p. 3) The 1995 amendment to the Reform Act provided freedom from fiscal crisis and a strong administration that could intervene for schools in decline. The Chicago School Reform Amendatory Act:

** reversed the trend towards decentralization of school operations;

** turned control of the school system over to the mayor;

** gave the mayor power to appoint a new School Reform Board of Trustees;

** created a corporate style of management by replacing the position of superintendent with that of ChiefExecutive Officer (CEO), with systemwide authority to hold schools, including principals and teachers accountable;

** formed linkages among the school board, district administration and city hall created through mayoral appointments;

** reduced competing authorities. (Wong, Anagnostopoulos, Rutledge, Lynn, & Dreeben, 1999)

Cleveland Public School System

In 1995, when the tenth superintendent in seventeen years, and other high ranking school personnel resigned, and the District was potentially accruing a debt of $1.4 billion, substantially impairing the ability of the District to fulfill its commitments regarding desegregation, the Federal Court ordered the State Superintendent of Public Instruction to assume immediate, complete, direct supervision of the Cleveland Public Schools (Reed v. Rhodes, 1996). By March 1998, prior to the mayor's takeover, the Federal Court ruled that the Defendants had met all of the demands of the Remedial Order, the 1978 court mandate that the school district...

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