Public Policy Forum Blog

Mayoral control isn't magic, but it might be muscle

In 2007, when the New York General Assembly was considering whether to renew the legislation authorizing mayoral control of the New York City public schools, a Commission on School Governance was appointed to study the policy's benefits, drawbacks, and outcomes and to recommend whether renewal was appropriate.

The Commission heard testimony from many stakeholders and collected research from policy analysts and education experts. They met for nearly 11 months and issued a 20-page report of their findings. In the end, they recommended the renewal of mayoral control.

During the first six years of mayoral control, from 2002 to 2007, test scores in New York City schools improved. But the Commission looked over all the evidence, and noting that scores in many other New York districts also improved over that time, decided that test score improvements on state tests could not be attributed solely to mayoral control. In fact, when scores on national tests were considered, they found no clear evidence of a relationship between governance structure and student outcomes.

But they did recommend a continuation of the mayoral control policy, and cited four primary reasons:

1. A single, elected mayor is more accountable than an elected governing body.
2. Mayoral control had resulted in dramatic increases in state and local funding for the schools.
3. Mayoral control had changed the collective bargaining dynamic, "better balancing incentives for fostering school improvement" with controlling costs.
4. Mayoral control creates a governance structure "that allows a mayor or chancellor to exercise leadership when the public demands it."

It is the last point that seems to have tipped the scales for the Commission:

Does governance matter? Of course it does. The amount of change that occurs over a given period of time is a relevant factor to consider when evaluating a governance structure, especially when one purpose of the governance plan under consideration was to foster change. In the past six years, the New York City school system has undergone more change than it has in any similar period in its history. This change must at least in part be attributed to mayoral control.

In other words, mayors can show leadership, which can lead to changes, which in turn can lead to improvement in student outcomes. Wouldn't it be nice to know exactly what those changes were and how they brought about higher achievement?

Recent research sheds some light on these questions. UCLA professor William Ouchi has found that mayoral control in New York resulted in decentralization of decision-making, allowing principals to control their budgeting, staffing, and curricular decisions. The principals used this new power to reduce the numbers of non-teaching staff in their schools, lowering what is called the teacher-student load, or the total number of students for whom a teacher is responsible. They found that high school principals reduced the load to an average of 87.7 students per teacher, much less than the contractual maximum of 170 students per teacher. Teachers with fewer students reported being able to recognize students' weaknesses sooner and intervene more quickly and more intensively. Graduation rates during this time increased from 65.8 percent to 74.5 percent.

If and when the Wisconsin state legislature takes up the issue of mayoral control for MPS, parents, voters, and taxpayers should urge them to take heed of the findings in New York. We must ask whether mayoral control is being sought simply for the sake of change, or is it being designed in a way that will increase accountability, bring more resources into classrooms, put more issues on the bargaining table, and provide leadership to implement school-level reforms that have been proven to result in higher student performance?

As we've said before when it comes to governance reform, "the devil is in the details."

Anneliese Dickman