Public Policy Forum Blog

PPF Pearls: School reform and the new mayor in town

When the Forum took a look at school district governance reform in a February 2009 report, we found the success of mayoral control of school districts has as much to do with the personality of the mayor as with his/her education policies. That finding is about to be put to the test in two cities where mayors with strong education records soon will be leaving office.

The education reform world was abuzz with the loss in the Democratic primary of D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty to D.C. Council Chair Vincent Gray, wondering what it would mean for education reform in that city. Mayor Fenty's vision of reform resulted in his appointment of Michelle Rhee as Chancellor of D.C. Public Schools. Ms. Rhee has been a polarizing figure to educators across the country due to her ardent and aggressive approach to school leadership. During her 3.5 years as chancellor, the district has reached agreement on merit pay for teachers, reversed an enrollment decline, and seen an improvement in test scores and graduation rates.

The suspicion that Ms. Rhee, having campaigned for Mayor Fenty, would resign following Fenty’s loss was confirmed last week with the announcement of her successor, interim chancellor Kaya Henderson. Gray has indicated he would refrain from reversing Ms. Rhee’s reforms, saying the district “cannot and will not return to the days of incrementalism." Nevertheless, it remains to be seen whether the reform momentum will continue.

Meanwhile, a similar story is unfolding in Chicago, where Mayor Richard Daley has announced that he will step down as mayor after 22 years in office. That announcement resulted in less drama in education policy circles, perhaps because the school system has survived the loss of the mayor's first hand-picked School CEO, Paul Vallas, as well as his second, Arne Duncan, who left the city two years ago to become U.S. Secretary of Education. Ron Huberman, the current CEO of Chicago Public Schools, has hinted that his continued tenure is uncertain, with his departure possibly preceding that of Mayor Daley.

While Chicago schools have weathered CEO changes, the city has not experienced a mayoral change since the system first became mayoral-led. Chicago has a long history with Mayor Daley, who served as the common thread to the reforms of prior CEOs. With his departure, continuation of his reforms hinges on the priorities of the incoming administration. Education can be expected to be a key issue in the next Chicago mayoral election.

But the political changes are not the only uncertainty facing these districts right now. Mayor Daley and Chancellor Rhee were both very successful in attracting significant corporate resources to their districts. Daley's Renaissance 2010 initiative has been supported by the Commercial Club of Chicago, a group of several Chicago business leaders, and several other local and national foundations, raising $50 million over the last five years to close and replace up to 100 underperforming schools.

Rhee has attracted private donations that totaled $64.5 million from entities like the Walton Foundation to help fund a new pay-for-performance model of teacher compensation. Contributing foundations have reserved the ability to withdraw this funding should Rhee leave the district. Now that Rhee has resigned, it is uncertain whether or not the money will leave D.C. as well.

As transitions play out in Washington and Chicago, the rest of the nation will be watching. Will the new mayors have the political capital needed to follow through with significant reforms? Will the new district leaders be able to push equally bold policy when backed by young administrations?

Vanessa Allen