Friday, August 11, 2006


The new issue of the Harvard Educational Review presents five essays on the growing phenomenon of mayoral involvement in U.S. schools. The authors agree that most mayoral involvement in education – including takeovers -- is grounded in the mayors’ genuine desire to make their schools better. And while the authors also agree that the impact of this involvement is usually more salutary than detrimental, they offer some cautions as well.

· For example, Michael D. Usdan notes that while mayoral involvement in education is often advanced as a way to make school systems less political by diminishing the sometimes fractious politics of school boards, mayors themselves may be tempted to politicize the schools in self-serving ways.

· Michael W. Kirst and Fritz Edelstein write approvingly of the "maturing" of the mayoral role in education in the present, but point out that a century ago, mayors’ corrupt use of their power over education is what led to the development of independently elected school boards in the first place.

· Kenneth K. Wong describes how mayors have used their political capital to build institutional support for education, expand the managerial capacity of school districts, and promote better working relationships between school districts and other levels of government. However, he also observes that these mayor-driven policy efforts can run the risk of marginalizing communities with less political clout.

· Paul T. Hill offers a broad caution, warning that mayors can easily get caught in the thicket of central office finance systems unless they first make a serious attempt to understand this complex aspect of school district affairs.

· Finally, Warren Simmons, Ellen Foley, and Marla Ucelli observe that while mayoral involvement in education often spurs short-term organizational efficiencies in school districts, mayors must move beyond superficial reorganization to promote meaningful changes to the instructional core of schools and classrooms.

We can all agree that mayoral involvement in education has the potential to improve schools. After all, when a mayor makes a public commitment to improve his or her city’s public schools, this creates an electoral incentive to actually follow through. On the other hand, while it is true that school board elections typically have low voter-turnout rates and are often influenced by powerful organized interests like business coalitions and teachers unions, school boards retain one big advantage: They are the only mechanism that provides a direct point of entry for citizens -- especially parents -- to express their concerns about education to the very officials who make education policy.

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