Can mayoral control fix what ails Ohio’s urban school districts?

Ohio’s urban school districts, like many others across the country, face a slow burning governance crisis. Elected school boards in cities like Columbus, Dayton and Youngstown are proving incapable of providing the leadership their cities, schools, families and children need to be successful. In Dayton, for example, long-time board member Yvonne Isaacs summed up the challenge when she told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 2012, “There is really no continuity in terms of the vision and the direction of the district…I think what we have lost is the ability to collaborate and to set vision.” Youngstown’s dysfunction is legendary and it faces a state takeover.

But, no city in Ohio displays better the dysfunctionality of big city elected school boards than does Columbus. Columbus City Schools is a district in turmoil. Mayor Michael Coleman spelled out the challenges in a recent Columbus Dispatch op-ed thusly:

“The children of Columbus City Schools need our help. Forty-seven percent of kids enrolled in the district attend schools receiving a D or F grade by the Ohio Department of Education, while just 21 percent go to A or B schools. The district ranks near the very bottom statewide in terms of how much a student learns in a given year.

State and federal investigations into allegations of student-data manipulation hang like a black cloud over the district. The results threaten to further lower the academic-performance scores of our schools, and administrators could face indictment.

Our schools are at a crossroads. If we continue along our current path, Columbus City Schools could be designated for academic emergency, which would lead to state control of the district.”

To address these stark challenges Mayor Coleman has convened an education commission that includes 25 of the city’s top business, community, labor, education and philanthropic leaders. Their charge has been to help the city develop a community-wide strategy for moving the schools forward and to aid the district in recruiting and hiring a top-flight superintendent to turnaround the troubled district. In response to this offer of assistance, the school board has basically told the Mayor and his commission to stick it. They apparently feel they can handle the challenges facing the district on their own. Yet, there is absolutely nothing in their recent actions that gives anyone hope that they can turnaround the troubled schools, manage their growing legal challenges or attract a fantastic district leader to work with them in running the state’s largest school district.  

Despite the school board’s obstinacy and poor judgment, Mayor Coleman has reiterated his position that “he has no plans to take over the district.” That’s too bad because the city’s children and families would surely benefit from his control of the schools. A just released report by the Center for America Progress on Mayoral Governance and Student Achievement argues persuasively that, “Over the past decade, mayoral-control school districts have generally improved districtwide performance relative to average school district performance statewide.”

The report’s authors, professors Kenneth K. Wong and Francis X. Shen, document how mayoral control over 11 districts has had a positive impact on both student achievement and financial performance. The report is a must read for anyone concerned about improving Ohio’s urban school districts, and one of the district’s studied is Cleveland where the mayor has appointed the nine member school board since 1998. Cleveland, it is important to note, is in the midst of the boldest school reform efforts of any large district in Ohio. This has been driven by the personal leadership of the Mayor Frank Jackson.

According to Wong and Shen, mayoral control is not a magic bullet, and in the cities where it has existed the longest it demands a committed mayor who owns the school reform issue and the community knows it (e.g. New York City, Chicago and Boston). More, it requires “reinvention and reinvigoration” over time. Wong and Shen note, “Our study suggests that even if mayoral control is initially successful, that success may be time bound. Reinventing mayoral control – whether through new leadership or new governance practices – seems necessary to reinvigorating student achievement gains.”

Most surprising, and encouraging, is that Wong and Chen report that mayoral control can and does facilitate better relations between labor and management, and this is despite the fact that many of the mayors cited in the report also embrace charter schools as part of their overall reform strategy. Specifically, they write, “mayors are facilitating strategic partnerships among key stakeholders to improve efficient management of school districts. Education mayors seem to have the ability to leverage cooperation – and occasionally even concessions – from school employees’ unions.” As evidence of this, Wong and Chen point to New Haven, Connecticut and the efforts of Mayor John DeStefano and the New Haven Teachers Union to negotiate a 2009 contract agreement that created a teacher evaluation system based on student performance, while raising teacher salaries by as much as 10 percent.

In Columbus, it is worth pointing out, that the president of the Columbus Education Association, Rhonda Johnson, has stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Mayor Coleman and his education commission. Events in Columbus, and other troubled urban districts in Ohio and beyond, should encourage serious consideration of mayoral control in more cities. Such serious consideration, however, demands a careful read of Wong and Chen’s new report.    

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