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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Mayoral Control: In The End, It Became a Voting Rights Issue

In New York City parents are furious with Mayor Michael Bloomberg and public school chancellor Joel Klein for destroying channels of communication to and from New York City's Board of Education elite. We are seeing the true rise of the public education-political-complex which resembles President Eisenhower's "military-industrial-complex" in many ways. Read the article below published in 2006.

Detroit Leaning
Mayor Villaraigosa has been touting a straightforward plan to take over the county's public schools,

By Ryder Palmere, City Beat

In recent weeks, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (pictured below) has a made a show of traveling to Chicago and New York to talk to mayors Richard Daley and Michael Bloomberg, respectively, about how to follow their lead and shift control of L.A.'s public schools to his office. In both instances, he talked to two powerful operators in classic, strong-mayor systems, where the mayor is able to appoint and manipulate the school board, and the city council, to achieve his ends.

The situation in L.A. may be much more complicated - even to the point of confusion. The City of L.A. has a relatively weak mayoral system, where the city council has significant budgetary and appointment power, and, from the plans presented thus far, it doesn't seem that Villaraigosa would end up with as much authority as his counterparts in Chicago or New York. They may not, then, be the most accurate comparisons for what might happen in Los Angeles.

Even in those cities, however, school advocates report that mayoral takeover has yielded mixed results. In New York City, the country's largest public school district, the jury is still out. Bloomberg claims that test scores across the district jumped instantly with his involvement - and then campaigned on the issue - but most school watchers say it's too early to make that claim. In Chicago, where Daly first grabbed control of the school system in 1995, takeover has given the mayor power to undertake dramatic, high-profile makeovers on inner-city schools, but overall test scores remain low and most school facilities remain in underfunded or even dilapidated condition.

To that end, it seems more pertinent (and perhaps more realistic) to look at a city whose mayoral powers, and takeover bid, were relatively weak. Like Detroit.

In 1998, Republican Michigan Governor John Engler sized up the city schools' plummeting test scores and rocketing dropout rates and asked then-Mayor Dennis Archer to take control. He and his Deputy Mayor Freman Hendrix were against the idea. Their concern was that it would create more division within the governing structure, amplifying the existing problems. But Republicans controlled the state legislature and pushed through the takeover, which took effect in March 1999.

Many legislators questioned the move from the outset. In early 1999, state Senator Burton Leland, a Detroit Democrat, was quoted as saying, "What gives this chamber and the governor the right to remove an elected body? The present school board was elected by a million people in Detroit, and you're going to throw them out?"

Hendrix saw the takeover as a recipe for disaster. After the structure was put in place, the first concern of those backing it was how to make it stick. "I remember saying 'You'll never make it permanent,'" he says. "The best thing that anybody can hope for is to run as fast ´´ as you can and make as many academic and capital improvements as you can. Because after five years, Detroit is going to vote, and when they do, they're going to vote to return to a fully-empowered school board."

That is what precisely happened. The mayor appointed a new board, which then selected Dr. Kenneth Burnley to serve as CEO of public schools and assume powers originally designated to the superintendent and the board. He then set budgets, made policy decisions, and negotiated contracts within the public school system. The mayor's appointed board thus had control of the CEO, but voters did not, and many were immediately at odds with the system. Lacking a forceful control of city council, the mayor was unable to take strong measures to rebuild infrastructure or change policy outside the school system to support the effort - and didn't have the money to do that, anyway. The best they could hope for was better financial management of the district.

Assuming Villaraigosa could find money and work his magic in the community, the Detroit system is still less compromised than that proposed by Villaraigosa on March 20. His plan would retain a greatly-weakened, but still elected, school board, and the mayor would appoint the superintendent and oversee budgets. This would pit the superintendent against the board, setting up a potential power struggle.

In Detroit, concerned parents immediately worried that the demand for a mayoral takeover didn't come from the families who would be directly affected. It came largely from the business community.

"Oftentimes," says Freman Hendrix, "kids and parents get lost in public school agendas. Nobody gives a shit about the kids. That ends up being the secondary concern. The priority is the vendors, the contractors, the politicians, the school teachers, and the unions. It's the people making money."

A study by the Michigan Educational Report, published by the nonpartisan research and policy group, Mackinac Center for Public Policy, identified that two of the primary problems spurring the takeover were: 1) rapidly declining enrollment and graduation rates, and 2) plummeting test scores. The December 15, 2005 report stated: "the test score gap between Detroit and the rest of the state has diminished, but remains large, and sought-after improvements in financial management have failed to materialize."

Even with two separate national studies to assess accurate graduation rate estimations (by the Manhattan and Urban Institutes), flawed and outright missing data made it impossible to determine the effectiveness of the takeover with any certainty.

Detroit Public Schools, prior to the takeover, reported an on-time graduation rate of 30 percent. The following year, they reported an astounding 88 percent. The Detroit Free Press reported that irregularities in district numbers were largely to blame for this giant leap. One cause of the rate increase was due to the fact that students who fail to graduate to the next grade are not included in the graduation rate calculation.

When the takeover began, student enrollment was at 179,103. By early 2005, it had dropped to an estimated 140,000, and is expected to decline another 10,000 in the current school year. According to the Michigan Education Report, reading scores went up from 36.3 percent to 57.4 percent during the takeover. Math scores, however, plummeted.

"In the first year of the takeover," says Tom Shull, senior editor for the Mackinac Center, "they did manage to get done the majority of the quick fixes. They did things like fix roofs that were leaking. It was the operational stuff that had been neglected."

According to a financial report released by MGT of America, Inc., a consulting firm, the district's fiscal discipline has deteriorated since 1999.

Quixotically, though, the district did get easier to manage. "It was easier to look through the books," says Shull. "It was easier to audit, easier to track the bond money, which was a big issue. We had a billion-dollar bond issue that essentially sat unspent for a number of years until the takeover."

Largely absent, however, was a definitive process that the appointed board would use to relieve the district of its problems. According to the Michigan Education Report, "even many of the bill's backers admitted that it was a speculative endeavor."

And one that apparently didn't yield many results. Finally, in a city with an elevated sense of voter empowerment born of the civil rights era, the people were pissed. On November 8, 2005, Detroit voters chose to quit the experiment on mayoral control and returned power to an elected school board, which resumed control in January.

"In the end, it became a voting rights issue," says David Adamany, who served as interim CEO before Dr. Burnley was appointed. "The voting rights issue usurped anything else in a largely African-American city." The residents of Detroit ultimately felt as though the takeover was something done to them, not for them. "The more people have a say in terms of what they think ought to happen, they'll be more cooperative and feel a part of things. Even though I involved a lot of people in Detroit, they felt it wasn't something for them."

Published: 04/13/2006