Mayors in the Middle: Politics, Race, and Mayoral Control of Urban Schools / Edition 1

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Desperate to jump-start the reform process in America's urban schools, politicians, scholars, and school advocates are looking increasingly to mayors for leadership. But does a stronger mayoral role represent bold institutional change with real potential to improve big-city schools, or just the latest in the copycat world of school reform du jour? Is it democratic? Why have efforts to put mayors in charge so often generated resistance along racial dividing lines? Public debate and scholarly analysis have shied away from confronting such issues head-on. Mayors in the Middle brings together, for students of education policy and urban politics as well as scholars and school advocates, the most thoughtful and original analyses of the promise and limitations of mayoral takeovers of schools.

Reflecting on the experience of six cities—Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and Washington, D.C.—ten of the nation's leading experts on education politics tackle the question of whether putting mayors in charge is a step in the right direction. Through the case studies and the wide-ranging essays that follow and build upon them, the contributors—Stefanie Chambers, Jeffrey R. Henig, Kenneth J. Meier, Jeffrey Mirel, Marion Orr, John Portz, Wilbur C. Rich, Dorothy Shipps, and Clarence N. Stone—begin the process of answering questions critical to the future of inner-city children, the prospects for urban revitalization, and the shape of American education in the years to come.

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What People Are Saying

'Mayors in the Middle' asks and answers the crucial questions education leaders and policymakers need to know about the role and impact of mayors in big cities. Using recent historical cases presented in detail, it demonstrates the very different political and educational trends in each city. Mayors can do some important things to improve education in big cities, but their impact will probably be limited and ephemeral.
Michael W. Kirst, Stanford University
In an era when political leaders are looking for structural panaceas to solve complex urban school problems, this important and timely analysis judiciously examines the trade-offs inherent in the recent movement toward 'mayor-centric' governance structures. The authors warn that mayoral takeovers are a tool and not a cure-all for long-standing school problems that are inextricably interwoven with issues like race and poverty. Their caveat that the policy outcomes of structural change are invariably less dramatic than reformers expect is particularly significant, as is their judgment that the success of mayor-centric strategies is contingent upon local contexts.
Michael D. Usdan, Senior Fellow, Institute for Educational Leadership
This superb book refocuses urban politics research on the role of mayors in dealing with two of the most important urban issues: race and education. Students of urban politics, race, and inner-city education will benefit from reading it.
John F. Witte, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Frederick Hess
This is a timely work, given the growing interest in reforming the governance of urban education. Addressing a topic of pressing interest to policymakers and community members, Mayors in the Middle can teach us a great deal about urban education and municipal governance. The editors are respected scholars in the areas of education and urban affairs with well-deserved reputations for balance and thoughtfulness. In this volume, Henig and Rich have assembled a solid set of case studies and have coupled those with broader pieces that frame the issue and put the empirical work in useful perspective.
Frederick Hess, American Enterprise Institute
This book provides a very useful addition to the literature on educational reform, focusing on large cities with mayor-centric educational systems. Its thesis is worthy of consideration by educational scholars and policymakers.
Robert M. Stein, Rice University
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691115078
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 11/24/2003
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 280
  • Product dimensions: 6.06 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Mayors in the Middle

Politics, Race, and Mayoral Control of Urban Schools
By Jeffrey R. Henig and Wilbur C. Rich

Princeton University Press

Jeffrey R. Henig and Wilbur C. Rich
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0691115060

Chapter One



SCHOOLS in many of our inner city school districts are failing. Children who attend them are at risk. The risk is not just short-term for it puts in jeopardy the learning careers of many minority students. Students in non-urban school districts are more than fifty percent more likely than urban students to score at or above the "basic" level in reading, mathematics, and science. Much of this performance gap is attributable to social and economic problems, such as poverty and racial discrimination, which fall especially hard on inner city children and are largely outside the schools' ability to control. But the poor performance of inner city schools is not solely attributable to the low incomes and minority status of the populations they serve. Although white students in large central cities perform as well as their white counterparts nationally on SAT scores, for example, African American students in large cities score substantially worse than their national counterparts.1 Forty-six percent of nonurban students in high poverty schools reach the basic level in reading, for example, compared to only 23 percent in high poverty urban schools; in math the comparable rates are 61 percent to 33 percent achieving basic level, and in science they are 56 percent to 31 percent (Olson and Jerald 1998; Stone, Henig, et al. 2001).

America has not been blind to the problem of poorly performing schools. Over the past two decades the need to improve the nation's public schools has consistently been high on the public agenda. Public attention escalated in 1983, when the National Commission on Excellence in Education announced "a crisis in confidence," and nearly two decades later education issues continued to be a prominent factor in the presidential platforms of both Al Gore and George W. Bush. In a 2000 Gallup poll, only 36 percent of Americans said they were satisfied with the quality of K-12 education in the nation (Chambers 2000). Such sustained agenda status is unusual in a country where a fickle media and citizens with a limited span of attention have been known to shuttle issues in and out of the limelight with surprising rapidity (Downs 1972). While much of the language of this broad school reform movement has been framed in more general terms, it is the special case of urban schools that has provided much of the imagery of failure and near despair.2

Despite glimmers of success and incremental signs of progress, the results of this sustained attention have been disappointing.3 Hot new reforms and celebrated school reformers cycle through urban school systems in quick succession, raising high hopes that are soon deflated. This pattern, variously labeled "policy churn," "spinning wheels," "reform du jour," has engendered a deeper sense of fatalism among some and a desperation-driven readiness to adopt radical solutions among others (Farkas 1992; Hess 1998; Henig, Hula, et al. 1999; Stone, Henig, et al. 2001).

Out of this context has emerged a new approach. Rather than focusing on a particular pedagogical philosophy or way to organize schools-indeed, rather than focusing on any specific vision of schools, teachers, classrooms, and the ways they interact-this model emphasizes a straightforward change in the formal structure of governance. But unlike a rival model that seeks to stimulate reform by turning sharply away from government and relying instead on market forces and consumer choice (Chubb and Moe 1990), this approach locates responsibility squarely on elected leaders and traditional institutions of local democracy.

Traditionally, Americans have endeavored to keep elected municipal politicians out of their school administration. Now that approach is being turned on its head (Mahtesian 1996; Stanfield 1997; Kirst and Bulkley 2000). Drawing on theories of public administration, analogies to corporate practice, and what has been heralded as a proven success led by Chicago's Mayor Richard M. Daley, more and more school reformers are looking to mayors for leadership. While some believe mayors already have enough formal and informal power to fill this role if they can be convinced to do so, the more serious efforts have involved a wholesale transfer of formal decision-making authority to mayors, usually at the expense of elected school boards. While this "mayor-centric" approach is sometimes promoted and adopted by local interests, more often it has involved intervention by governors and state legislators who claim that they must take extraordinary steps in order to rescue a faltering system unable to heal itself. While the theories and rationales for this reform are framed in universal terms that should apply to any community struggling with disjointed educational initiatives and ineffective schools, actual cases to date nearly always involve central city school districts with predominantly Black students and school leadership.

This book examines the movement to put mayors in the middle of urban school reform through the window of six cities that have chosen, or been forced, to give mayors a strong formal role in school governance. While similar in many respects, the case cities-Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, and the District of Columbia-vary in the route they have taken to mayor-centrism, the particular form they have adopted, and the lessons they seem to present. Through the case studies and the wide-ranging essays that follow and build upon them, we hope to raise and at least begin the process of answering some questions that are critical to the future of inner city children, the prospects for urban revitalization, and the shape of American education in the years to come.

  • Is the movement toward mayor-centrism the kind of bold institutional change that can build strong civic capacity and break the cycle of ephemeral reform initiatives, or is it just the latest entry in the copycat world of American school reform du jour?
  • Does giving city hall the authority to select school board members, dictate budget priorities, and manage the day-to-day operations of the educational system give central city residents a clearer target at which to direct their hopes and frustrations and break the reactionary hold of an educational bureaucracy that has acted as a "public school cartel" (Rich 1996), or is it better understood as a power grab by corporate leaders and state legislators with their own visions of urban revitalization and a belief that they can pursue those visions more effectively if power is moved into venues in which their access and influence is more assured?
  • Are the racially defined battle lines that frequently form around proposals to put mayors in charge of schools epiphenomena fueled by misunderstandings and misplaced loyalties deliberately stirred by entrenched groups seeking to maintain their privileged status, or is race-based politics rooted in real and deep conflicts of interest that are central to understanding this serious effort to reshape the formal structure of urban governance?

It is a mark of the complexity of the challenge-and indication of the näiveté of some of the prominent solutions commonly offered-that this book's analyses of these questions point to mixed motives, multiple dimensions, complex consequences, and context-specific answers.

A Break with American Tradition

Public school districts have enjoyed structural autonomy, if not political independence from city halls, for generations. We are seeing that autonomy threatened. Why? Despite their frustrations, Americans still have abiding faith in public schools (Moe 2001). They are losing faith, though, in the governance structures in which public schools are embedded. In groping for a rational response to the urban public school crisis it was perhaps predictable that mayors would volunteer, or allow themselves to be drafted by state legislatures, to rescue the school system. It represents, nonetheless, a sharp break with the past.

The notion that changing the formal structure of governance can lead to better schools has deep roots in American political and intellectual history. The current shape of public education governance owes much to the Progressive Era reformers who, early in the twentieth century, sought to improve public education by buffering it from political interference. Establishing school districts as relatively autonomous governments, with dedicated revenue streams and nonpartisan modes of selecting school boards, was seen as a way to grasp authority out of the hands of urban machines (Tyack 1974). Beginning in the 1960s in some cities, and developing considerably later in others, a second wave of school reformers set out to undo some of these changes. Believing that the Progressive Era reforms had led to an overly centralized and bureaucratic system, they sought to alter the formal structures of school governance in order to put more decision-making authority at the neighborhood or school level (Gittell, Hoffacker et al. 1980).

While the current reform movement shares with both the professionalizers and the decentralizers a strong confidence that formal governance structure matters, the substantive thrust of its proposals is to reverse many of the changes introduced by its predecessors in school reform. Like the professionalizers, they believe it is important to centralize decision-making authority in order to pursue citywide objectives and to have a clear pathway to accountability. But like the decentralizers, they believe that authority and accountability should run directly through electoral politics, with the education bureaucracy implementing democratically defined policies, rather than effectively setting policy on its own.

More specifically, the current school takeovers by big city mayors represent the melding of school and municipal politics. Public acquiescence to this fundamental change in the way schools are governed may be testimony to widespread frustration with poor performance on achievement tests, fiscal mismanagement, or violence in the public schools. An alternative explanation is that this may be yet another state-legislature-driven reform aimed at undermining minority control of big city schools. In any case, the changes will tell us much about how public demands to do something are translated into political action.

This do something imperative, found in public opinion surveys, also reflects a loss of confidence in elected boards, superintendents, and other traditional school decision makers. The new trends toward mayoral appointed school boards, chief executive officers (CEOs), and the hiring of "nontraditional" superintendents from business and the military also reveal an envy of corporate management structures. Long-standing notions of representative boards and pluralistic policymaking have been tossed aside.

In the 1980s and into the 1990s, critics of public schools were particularly harsh (Chubb and Moe 1990; Lieberman 1993; Rich 1996). Some claimed that public school professionals were unwitting contributors to the current organizational malaise and pedagogic bankruptcy. Even defenders of the public school system raised questions about the efficacy of school management, curriculum trends, and the continuing doldrums of student achievement scores. Conversely, neither critics nor supporters during that era looked to city halls as the solution to the public school crisis. Mayors, then, were still seen as part of the problem and not the solution.

Today, though, some of the same individuals and organizations that looked askance at local politicians favor giving unprecedented appointment powers given to mayors; some believe that such a radical structural change maybe the best or only way to stimulate "real" school reform. Proponents of a mayor-centric approach to school reform argue that it promotes efficiency, comprehensive rationality, accountability, and democratic participation. Mayoral control, it is asserted, is likely to promote efficiency because it puts decisions about spending in the hands of the same actors who must make decisions about taxation and other forms of revenue, a linkage that is severed by the formal structures in many cities.4 Mayoral control is designed to promote comprehensive planning by putting decisions about schools in the hands of a leader in position to steer decisions about child welfare, safety, public health, recreation, job training, and economic development-issue areas that bear heavily on the tasks that schools are expected to perform but which typically are outside the sphere of influence of superintendents and school boards. Mayoral control promotes accountability and democracy, at least in theory, by placing responsibility in the hands of an easily identifiable actor who is subject to election in high visibility, high-turnout campaigns.

This mayor-centric strategy raises two broad kinds of questions. One set of questions addresses issues relating to the emergence of mayor-centrism on the school reform agenda and its prospects for success. Why have mayors come back into favor as instruments of school governance, why at this particular time, and why in the particular places that it has? Is the emergence of mayor-centrism a response to objective indicators of school failure? Has it emerged through a learning process during which other approaches were first tried and found wanting? Do local, indigenous movements for mayor-centrism differ in important ways from those that are externally developed and forcefully imposed? What types of organizations and interest groups promote (and oppose) this approach and what are their motivations for doing so? When such proposals are resisted, what determines who wins and who loses?

The second set of questions involves the consequences in districts that put such formal changes into place, and the conditions and strategies that make effective reform a more or less likely outcome.


Excerpted from Mayors in the Middle by Jeffrey R. Henig and Wilbur C. Rich Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii
List of Contributors ix
Chapter One
Mayor-centrism in Context 3
Jeffrey R. Henig and Wilbur C. Rich
Chapter Two
Baltimore: The Limits of Mayoral Control 27
Marion Orr
Chapter Three
Chicago: The National "Model" Reexamined 59
Dorothy Shipps
Chapter Four
Boston: Agenda Setting and School Reform in a Mayor-centric System 96
John Portz
Chapter Five
Detroit: "There Is Still a Long Road to Travel, and Success Is Far from Assured." 120
Jeffrey Mirel
Chapter Six
Cleveland: Takeovers and Makeovers Are Not the Same 159
Wilbur C. Rich and Stefanie Chambers
Chapter Seven
Washington, D.C.: Race, Issue Definition, and School Board Restructuring 191
Jeffrey R. Henig
Chapter Eight
Structure, Politics, and Policy: The Logic of Mayoral Control 221
Kenneth J. Meier
Chapter Nine
Mayors and the Challenge of Modernization 232
Clarence N. Stone
Chapter Ten
Concluding Observations: Governance Structure as a Tool, Not a Solution 249
Jeffrey R. Henig and Wilbur C. Rich
Index 267

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