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Mayoral control of schools worked for New York City, but other poor districts haven’t been so lucky

Since New York City’s mayor took control over public schools in 2002:

On-time graduation rates have risen to the highest point in a decade.

Dropout rates have fallen.

The percentage of students considered proficient in English and math on state tests are now close to the statewide average.

And no one is calling for a return to how the school district was run prior to mayoral control.

In fact, it is just the opposite. Many people want to see that city’s mayoral control model made permanent when state legislation that permits it comes up for renewal in June.

But if you think that mayoral control is the answer for Buffalo’s struggling and failing schools, beware. Other poor districts – including Detroit and Cleveland – also have tried giving their mayors control of schools but had disappointing results.

“Mayoral control doesn’t really solve any problems,” said Diane Ravitch, a nationally known public school advocate and historian. “Where there’s poverty, there’s low test scores.”

While she considers mayoral control “rational” for a city such as New York, that doesn’t mean it will translate into progress in Buffalo, where the mayor has plenty of other things to worry about, she said.

“It’s not a simple solution,” Ravitch said.

Still, Buffalo residents would love to see academic results that mirror what occurred in New York City. And with Buffalo‘s School Board, at a minimum, fractured and with student performance lagging 20 percentage points behind the state average on English and math proficiency exams, some stakeholders here, as well as in Albany, are looking more favorably on a mayoral control model.

But if that happens, one important ingredient is necessary.

“The commitment on the part of the mayor is critical,” said Kenneth Wong, a Brown University researcher and expert on mayoral control models for public school districts. “We can think about the best design, but it is up to the mayor to make it work.”

So how does mayoral control work in New York City and what influence has the mayor brought to education in the Big Apple?

Under the New York City model, the formerly decentralized school district has become a much more centralized organization, with the School Board changed to a 13-member Panel for Educational Policy.

Change in mayors

New York City’s mayor appoints eight of the 13 members, and all serve only as long as the mayor wishes. The remaining five members are appointed by each of the five borough presidents.

The members of the Panel for Educational Policy are not subject to a formal vetting process, and they don’t get to select the chancellor, who is equivalent to a superintendent. The mayor gets that power.

From 2002 through 2013, then-Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg used his extensive education powers to make sweeping changes in the nation’s largest school system, including many controversial reforms.

He broke down large, struggling schools and reopened several smaller ones in their place. According to the New York Times, Bloomberg shut down or began phasing out 157 schools in 12 years and opened 656 smaller ones.

Bloomberg also welcomed charter schools. At least 173 opened in his tenure.

And Bloomberg poured huge sums of money into the district, aided by wealthy partners such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Under his direction, the city’s Department of Education also took a more data-driven approach to evaluating and rating schools, embracing an education reform model that stressed accountability and bottom-line results.

After Bill de Blasio became mayor last year, much of this changed. And that transition also shows how the school policies and direction depend on the strengths and goals of whoever happens to be mayor under this model.

After de Blasio’s election, many top district administrators left as the new administration embraced a more collaborative and cooperation-minded approach.

Under de Blasio, the district abandoned what some criticized as a cutthroat corporate-reform agenda in favor of a model that turned the teachers union into partner instead of an opponent. The city’s relationships with operators of charter schools have cooled considerably.

In comparing the two districts, it is important to remember that public schools in New York City and Buffalo are separated by more than distance. They are also separated by size and history.

New York City serves more than 30 times as many students as Buffalo – a million students there, compared with 32,000 here, and it has had 13 years to refine its structure and function under a powerful mayoral control model.

Prior to mayoral control, the sheer size of the New York City district seemed to create insurmountable obstacles.

Different size, history

“Elections for a school board don’t work in New York City,” said Ravitch, the public school advocate and historian. “Citywide, anyone who wants to run for school board is a total unknown.”

While Buffalo’s School Board is currently fractured and unstable, an argument can be made that a city this small still can more easily find a way to right itself without giving up the democratic principles of an elected board.

Moreover, there’s no guarantee that a mayoral control model would work in Buffalo, no matter how it’s structured, without an unwavering commitment and vision from the mayor.

In Yonkers, where for decades the mayor has had the power to appoint School Board members, graduation rates have risen, but the mayor is fighting for even greater control over the district in light of financial mistakes by the past superintendent.

In Cleveland, mayoral control has brought stability and less infighting since 1997, but student performance and graduation rates have remained lackluster.

So where does that leave Buffalo?

Ravitch – who opposes corporate reform agendas, high-stakes testing and rigid accountability measures – said Buffalo should not consider mayoral control a solution for the troubles that ail the district.

“There are no magic bullets in education,” she said. “It’s very hard work.”

If Buffalo decides to implement mayoral control, Ravitch recommended what she is recommending for New York City: Term limits for the appointed board members to preserve some measure of independence, the selection of the superintendent by the board, and a vetting system created by organizations that are known for their concern for children.

Wong, the mayoral control researcher at Brown University, holds a different opinion.

When a school district is looking at “academic bankruptcy,” evidenced by many low-performing schools, chronic leadership instability and conflict among influential parties, mayoral control can make a difference for the better, he said. But the mayoral control model should include checks and balances, which the New York City model does not, Wong said.

Buffalo seen as ready

Wong encouraged a model that includes a more fleshed-out nominating process for board members, along with hearings and interim reports before the Common Council.

He also recommended the state legislation allowing for mayor control include a sunset provision, which Mayor Byron W. Brown has previously said he would support. A four-year time frame would be a good initial span, Wong suggested. Finally, he said that the teachers union should be consulted. Treating the union as a hostile enemy only slows down the reform process for any district, he said.

Is Buffalo ready for this model?

Wong thinks it is. After previously speaking to Byron Brown’s deputy mayor, Ellen E. Grant, Wong said he is under the strong impression that the Buffalo mayor is ready to move forward.

“When I talked with the deputy mayor, that was my first question: ‘Is the mayor ready?’ ” Wong said. “Sometimes, mayors are pushed into this situation.”