School Boards Descending

, Lindalyn Kakadelis, Leave a comment

What’s the best way to bail out troubled urban schools? Around the country, school boards are increasingly getting the boot, with officials calling instead on big-city mayors to lead struggling school systems. Nationally, roughly a dozen of our 75 largest school districts are now run by mayors, including school systems in Boston, Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia.

School boards in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and Detroit are also feeling the heat. On Tuesday, the D.C. Council began the process of giving Mayor Adrian Fenty more control over D.C.’s failing, dilapidated public schools. Not surprisingly, this news came as a bitter pill to school board members, some of whom are resigning.

In California, L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is waging a court battle to take control of the failing L.A. Unified System (a law granting him partial control was passed in September by the California Legislature). Yet the school board is fighting tooth and nail to retain power, even though the system is in total disarray. In Detroit, school system administrators have warned a divided school board to focus on financial issues, or else an “outside financial manager could be appointed to oversee the district.” Clearly, this is another system ripe for a mayoral takeover.

Is mayoral control the magic bullet for urban educational disaffection? The jury is still out. But whether schools are led by a city executive or a school board, one thing remains the same: no system can be maximally responsive to the needs of students without the external competition provided by school choice. Without competition, schools have no incentive to change and improve; floundering city systems around the country are proof positive of this.

Obviously, school choice can’t fix all that ails our urban schools. But choice programs in cities like Milwaukee, Wisconsin are transforming troubled school districts, boosting achievement along with parent involvement. Two new studies should garner additional support for choice, particularly in urban, low-income areas. The first study, based on a field experiment of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School (CMS) District, evaluated the impact of information on school choice preferences. Researchers found that low-income parents were much more likely to choose high-performing schools when provided with basic information like school test scores, rebutting the paternalistic view that poor parents don’t value academics. The second study, also of the CMS district, found that school choice reduced discipline problems. Beleaguered school officials in unsafe, rowdy schools ought to take note.

Who’s keeping us from implementing widespread school choice anyway? The GOMs (Gatekeepers of Mediocrity) stand in the way, lobbying against choice for three simple reasons: cash (they want to keep it), control (they want to keep it), and competition (they want the private sector to keep it – far, far away). But if the uptick in mayoral takeovers tells us anything, it’s this: public education is in a heap of trouble, and a lot of people know it. Sooner or later, choice will win the day.

To learn more about school choice as well as the latest education news, visit the Alliance online at Check out the “Headlines” section of our home page, updated daily with articles from every major newspaper in the state. At the Alliance, we are committed to keeping you informed and empowered as we join together to improve education for the children of North Carolina.