Center for American Progress Report: Mayoral control of schools

24 Mar

As more and more question the effectiveness of the current school structure, some mayors have assumed control of their city schools. Frederick M. Hess writes in the American Enterprise Institute article, Assessing the Case for Mayoral Control of Urban Schools:

Are elected school boards equal to the challenges of twenty-first-century urban school governance? Eli Broad, founder of the Broad Prize for Urban Education, believes in “mayoral control of school boards or . . . no school board at all.”[1] Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, has called school boards “an aberration, an anachronism, an educational sinkhole,” urging, “put this dysfunctional arrangement out of its misery.”[2]

Aberration or not, the nation’s nearly fifteen thousand school boards are still charged with providing the leadership, policy direction, and oversight to drive school improvement. Nationally, 96 percent of districts have elected boards, including more than two-thirds of the twenty-five largest districts.[3] After decades of largely ineffectual reform, however, it is far from clear that school boards are equal to the challenge. The most popular alternative is replacing today’s boards with some form of mayoral control. Cities with a variation of this arrangement today include Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. The take-no-prisoners leadership styles of school chancellors in New York City and Washington, D.C., have drawn particular interest.

Where It All Began

The irony is that today’s school boards took their contemporary shape about a century ago, when Progressive Era reformers launched a concerted effort to expunge “politics” from schooling in the name of efficiency, equity, and accountability. As James Cibulka, president of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, has noted, K–12 governance was “designed by political Progressives early in the twentieth century to give professional educators authority and insulate them from political abuses.”[4] Consequently, even strong mayors had little influence over the local schools.

Early nineteenth-century school boards had been local and informal, justified by the presumption that they kept schools connected to their neighborhoods. By the dawn of the twentieth century, however, Progressives–in language that sounds more than a little familiar–thought it necessary to “clean out” boards plagued by patronage and politics. In 1885, Boston reformer John Philbrick asserted that “unscrupulous politicians” had seized “every opportunity to sacrifice the interests of the schools to the purposes of the political machine.”[5]

As the twentieth century dawned, Progressives worked to streamline boards and render them more professional and accountable. University of Chicago political scientist William Howell explains: “The order of the day put rational control and expertise in the service of objectivity and efficiency; the result was the birth of the civil service, the exaltation of meritocracy and modernity, and the rise of Taylorism, the scientific management of industries and businesses.”[6] Seeking to insulate board politics from rough-and-tumble state and national elections, Progressives moved board elections “off-cycle” and made them nonpartisan.

Efforts to separate education from politics gave rise to concerns that school systems were not apolitical but rather consumed by undisciplined, petty, and ineffectual politics. Assessing Progressive Era reforms more than thirty years ago, historian Charles Beard observed, “Cities change from one [approach] to the other in the hope–usually vain–of taking the school affairs out of the spoils system.”[7]

Today, reformers worry that excising politics from school governance has also removed coherence and accountability. One popular solution: put the politics back in education by handing control of the schools to the mayor or empowering mayors to appoint local school boards. This is primarily debated in the nation’s large, urban school systems–those cities where educational challenges are more daunting, politics are especially complex, and the need for coherence is particularly pressing. Is it a promising idea? What does the research suggest?                             

The Center for American Progress has completed the report, Mayoral Governance and Student Achievement: How Mayor-Led Districts Are Improving School and Student Performance by Kenneth K. Wong and Francis X. Shen

Here is a summary of the Center for American Progress Report about mayoral control:

Top 5 Things to Know About Mayoral Control of Schools

By Juliana Herman | March 22, 2013

In many cities across America, it’s not just schools that are failing—it’s the entire school district as well. Huge numbers—if not the majority—of students throughout these districts are not reading at grade level and lack basic math skills.

This is a problem greater than any one school. In response, some cities have shaken up the way their school districts are run, giving greater control to their mayors and implementing what is called “mayoral control” of schools. School districts are traditionally controlled by a locally elected school board, which makes decisions about how schools are run, including hiring and firing the school superintendent. Mayoral control, however, is a shift in the power structure wherein mayors are given a greater degree of authority over schools. Often, though not always, mayors are given the power to appoint members who will replace some or all members of the elected school board.

The move to mayoral control is one element in the larger discussion about who should run our schools, but it is also a significant and potentially impactful alternative to the traditional structure—and it comes at a time when schools and students are desperate for alternatives.

The Center for American Progress recently released a new report analyzing the impact of mayoral control. The report, titled “Mayoral Governance and Student Achievement: How Mayor-led Districts Are Improving School and Student Performance” by Kenneth K. Wong and Francis X. Shen, looks at the impact of mayoral control on resource management and student achievement in 11 different school districts across the country.

Based on CAP’s new report, here are the top five things to know about mayoral control of schools:

It’s been done all across the country in cities of all sizes

Some variation of mayoral control has been implemented in a geographically diverse range of urban cities, from New York City to Indianapolis to Los Angeles and many places in between. These cities have different student populations, structures, and histories, but empowering the mayor to make at least some of the decisions about schools has been tried in all of them….

Mayoral control comes in many shapes and sizes

Despite what the name might imply, there is no “one and only” type of mayoral control. Different cities have taken different approaches, and new formats are still being invented. There is a lot of room for variation depending on local priorities, decisions, cultures, and any number of other factors. The term “mayoral control” simply signifies that the mayor has more power now than he or she did before. What that means in practice is up to the city or state in question.

There are, however, a few common forms or degrees of control. Some cities have given their mayor the power to appoint the entire school board and the CEO, or superintendent, of the school district. Examples of where this has happened include Washington, D.C., and Chicago. In New York City the mayor appoints the CEO and the majority—though not the entirety—of the board. Together, these three cities have “very high” degrees of mayoral control. Cities that empower the mayor to appoint at least the majority of the school board, but give the boards the authority to appoint the CEOs, fall into the high degree of control classification. This category—also the most common—includes Boston, Massachusetts; Cleveland, Ohio; Hartford, Connecticut; New Haven, Connecticut; Providence, Rhode Island; Trenton, New Jersey; and Yonkers, New York. Even within this category, there is variation: The mayors of Boston, Cleveland, and Providence must choose their board appointees from a list of nominees….

Mayor-led districts may use resources more strategically

There is evidence that districts operating under mayoral control may spend their money differently, more strategically, and with a greater focus on the classroom than districts governed by elected boards. For starters, mayoral-led districts have more resources per student overall than similar city districts, though the cause of this is hard to identify definitively. On average, districts under mayoral control also focus on teachers: A greater percentage of their total staff is teachers, producing lower student-to-teacher ratios. Relative to the largest city districts, mayor-led districts have less central office staff and administrators as a percent of their total staff. This prioritization on teaching and learning might be an important factor in contributing to higher student achievement…,

Mayor-controlled districts have seen increases in student achievement

Although other factors are important, the ultimate measure of any change in our education system is whether it improves student learning and achievement. In Boston, Chicago, New York City, Washington, D.C., and other cities, mayoral control is associated with just that. Students saw improvements—in some cases significant improvements—on both state assessments and on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test administered nationally to fourth and eighth graders. Looking at the National Assessment of Educational Progress scores, for example, the percentage of Bostonian fourth graders proficient in math went from 12 percent to 33 percent—an increase of 21 percentage points—under mayoral control. Similarly, the percentage of fourth graders in Washington, D.C. that were proficient in reading went from 10 percent to 20 percent—an increase of 10 percentage points—after the city moved to mayoral control….

It doesn’t work everywhere, but it can be a catalyst for reform

Mayoral control was less successful in cities such as Cleveland, Ohio, and Yonkers, New York. In Cleveland student achievement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress improved just slightly, if at all, and the gap between the average among large cities and the district’s achievement widened—not narrowed—for almost every grade, subject, and student population. This is exactly the opposite of closing the achievement gap. To be clear, it’s impossible to know why achievement stagnated in these cities, and certainly numerous factors other than mayoral control are involved. But it is important to recognize that mayoral control may not be the right solution for all districts….


Mayoral control of schools can be effective. Mayor-controlled districts have seen improved student achievement across all subjects and student groups. Moving to a mayor-led district can also help spur innovation and advancement. In cities with lagging student achievement, getting more engagement from mayors or increasing their authority over schools could be part of the solution. But voters and policymakers should be sure to design a variation of mayoral control that works for their city and consider the possibility that a different “shake up” strategy might be a better fit.

Juliana Herman is an Education Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress. 

To speak with our experts on this topic, please contact:

Print: Katie Peters (economy, education, and health care)
202.741.6285 or

Syracuse 2020 offers the concise pros and cons of mayoral school control:



  • Promote gains in accountability and efficiency through increased testing and control of personnel operations
  • Clear goals and accountability resting with the mayor as opposed to boards with differing positions.
  • Better coordination with other agencies in terms of child welfare, safety, public health, recreation, job training, economic development and overall community development strategies
  • Ability to hire chief executive officers from outside of educational systems
  • Increased fiscal stability
  • More political participation because of broader voter participation in elections
  • Promotes the  idea of a progressive community
  • Potential for gaining political capital


  • Business approach does not recognize differences in public personnel and public service systems
  • Mayor’s power is diluted through necessary delegation of authority,
  • Schools are intense people centered organizations quite unlike treating sewage and collecting garbage.
  • Too reliant on idiosyncrasies of individual mayor
  • Better public oversight due to open board meetings
  • Results of mayoral control are unimpressive when matched to NAEP tests
  • Results of outside CEO’s uneven…/MAYORAL%20CONTROL%20OF%20SC

Moi wrote about school superintendents in Life expectancy of a superintendent: A lot of bullets and little glory:

Just about anyone in education has a tough job these days, from the building staff to the superintendent. There is pressure to perform in an environment of declining resources. Lately, the job of superintendent of large urban school districts has been characterized by turnover. Thomas E. Glass in The History of the Urban Superintendent writes:

The twenty-first century finds one-third of America’s public school children attending one of ten large urban (large-city) school districts. By 2020 approximately one-half of public school enrollment will be clustered in twenty districts. The educational stewardship of a majority of the nations youth rests uncomfortably on the shoulders of a very few large-city school superintendents. Their success and the success of their districts may very well determine the future of American democracy.

Urban districts are typically considered to be those located in the inner core of metropolitan areas having enrollments of more than 25,000 students. The research and literature about large-city school districts portray conditions of poverty, chronic academic underachievement, dropouts, crime, unstable school boards, reform policy churn, and high superintendent turnover.

The typical tenure of a superintendent in the largest large-city districts is two to three years. This brief tenure makes it unlikely a superintendent can develop and implement reform programs that can result in higher academic achievement–let alone re-build crumbling schools buildings, secure private sector assistance, and build a working relationship with the city’s political structure.

The large-city superintendency is a position defined by high expectations, intense stress, inadequate resources, and often a highly unstable politicized board of education.
Read more: Superintendent of Large-City School Systems – History of the Urban Superintendent, The Profession, School Boards,

Characteristics of the Large-City Superintendent

See, District Administration’s article, Superintendent Staying Power

There is no one-size-fits all in education, there should be a variety of options.


Ravitch: Mayoral control means zero accountability                              

Resist Mayoral Control                                                                                           

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