By Paul T. Hill and Ashley E. Jochim
Should Mayor Byron W. Brown take over Buffalo’s schools? It’s probably a good idea, at least for starters.
But here’s the rub. Though mayors have a lot of authority, they also ultimately answer to the same employee unions and single-issue advocates as the school board. Mayors have to worry about elections and none can act quickly enough to make all their policies stick.
Public education can be stable and have democratic oversight. But that’s not possible if anyone, whether the mayor or some elected body, has the power to force new policies on schools whenever they feel like it.
The answer to stabilizing governance of public schools comes from the American system of constitutional government, with limited powers and checks and balances.
Local governing bodies – mayors or school boards – could be limited to making only a few meaningful decisions. They could sponsor new schools for neighborhoods that need them, close schools where kids don’t learn and offer the opportunity to run schools to new groups with promising ideas.
Individual schools – not the mayor, superintendent or board – would make hiring and firing decisions, set salaries and decide how to allocate their budgets for salaries, instructional materials, technology and extracurriculars.
The constitutional system could make democracy work for, rather than against, schools. Elected officials would have the power to make sure a neglected neighborhood or group of students got a school designed to meet its needs, but would leave the running of the schools to the educators.
Schools would not be taxed to pay for a central bureaucracy or be bound to the provisions of citywide union contracts. Schools’ relationships with the local board would be arms-length, limited to contracts, memoranda of understanding, charters, etc.
Because almost all the money would follow students to the schools they attend, schools would be able to pay the best teachers more. Educators would be free to use their imaginations about how to manage (and expand) school time, employ technology and work with community resources like museums and scientific institutions. This could make teaching attractive to many talented people already in Buffalo who now won’t consider it.
All of this is possible if the mayor and other Buffalo leaders look beyond what will and should be a brief period of mayoral control and seek a long-term solution.
The first step is to petition the governor and Legislature for a state law that would allow Buffalo to govern itself under constitutional principles.
Paul T. Hill, Ph.D., and Ashley E. Jochim, Ph.D., are researchers at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington Bothell.