Mayoral Control: The conversation continues

Posted by & filed under CGR Staff, Rochester Business Journal.

Kent GardnerSchool Board President Malik Evans and CGR are portrayed as being on different sides of this “mayoral control” discussion. Yet we agree that community opinion matters. The response of CGR was to conduct a poll with our partner, Metrix Matrix. At a forum televised by WXXI last Thursday, Mr. Evans suggested a referendum. But it amounts to the same thing—what the community thinks about this issue is important.

We’ve had two helpful forums on the topic. After the City Administration postponed several planned public meetings, the Rochester Business Journal’s forum was the first. School Board Commissioner Van White and Rochester Teachers Association President Adam Urbanski spoke against the proposal. In addition to remarks from Mayor Duffy, panelists Margaret Raymond from Stanford, Kenneth Wong from Brown, and Dennis Walcott, NYC’s Deputy Mayor for Education, spoke in support.

Against that backdrop, I was impressed with the measured comments of Professor Joseph Viteritti of CUNY’s Hunter College during the WXXI/City Newspaper/WDKX last week. He began his remarks by noting that he suggested mayoral control of the New York City schools in 1991. Yet with this history as context, he observes that the evidence for or against mayoral control is mixed, even in New York City. Professor Viteritti stopped over at CGR the next morning for a more relaxed discussion of what makes for a successful urban school reform initiative.

First, the statistical evidence. We’ve about a dozen urban districts’ experience to study. Statistics is powered by the law of averages. Suppose 90% of a group of bunion-sufferers ate Hostess Twinkies as children. Whether you become a fan of the “Ban the Twinkie!” Facebook group depends on whether the group numbers ten or ten thousand. In this instance, we’ve too few comparable districts to form a robust conclusion. While I respect Professor Wong’s efforts, he oversells his findings.

Professor Viteritti, as head of a commission formed to explore Mike Bloomberg’s request to extend mayoral control in NYC, compiled a set of case studies instead. While a case study lacks the persuasive power of a large statistical trial, there are lessons to be learned.

He reports that NYC is not the only, nor even the best example, of the potential of mayoral control.  New York’s reform efforts under Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein have been colored by their forceful personalities, personalities that Viteritti suggests have not always helped their cause. Moreover, a massive increase in funding, prompted in part by a lawsuit, has clouded the picture and enabled Bloomberg and Klein to buy support from the teachers. Cities like Boston (success) or Detroit (disaster) provide more food for thought.

Boston won the Broad Prize for Urban Education in 2006, a prize awarded to the best of the 100 largest city school districts in the nation. Boston outperformed Massachusetts districts with similar demographics, raised scores on national tests faster than other urban districts nationally, and closed the achievement gap by race/ethnicity and income. It’s success is attributed to curricular improvements tied to assessment, teacher training and support, and rigorous performance goals. Boston also invested in data, making it possible to monitor performance in real time and provide timely intervention.

Viteritti singles out another important characteristic of Boston’s success: Consistent, collaborative leadership.  Since Boston moved to a “mayoral control” model in 1992, the system has been supervised by one mayor, Thomas Menino. And for the ten years preceding receipt of the Broad Prize, Boston had a single school superintendent, Tom Payzant. Nor does Viteritti discount the role of the unions. In Boston, like Rochester, the unions hold too much power to be left out of the discussion. Among other changes, Payzant negotiated more freedom for principals to choose teachers. For many years we have known that principals are the cornerstone of reform—successful reforms empower principals, while holding them accountable for results.

How might Viteritti’s insights apply to Rochester? He argues that mayoral control can create conditions for change that can be built upon by capable and steady leaders. Accountable leaders empowered to make good decisions are a key ingredient to any successful organization.

Mayoral control’s opponents suggest that the goal is to make the mayor a dictator (an image reinforced by Bloomberg’s “my way or the highway” personality). Yet we might also worry about an unproductive diffusion of power under the status quo, as power is now splintered among the federal, state and city governments, each of the district’s employees unions, parents, the voters, each of the seven members of the Board of Education, the Superintendent, administrators and individual teachers. With power so diffused, it is easy to block change, no matter how well-conceived. As an example, both teachers and administrators—protected by a collective bargaining agreement, tenure and seniority rights—have the power to engage in passive resistance, defeating by neglect new initiatives from New York State, an empowered mayor, the superintendent, division chiefs, or principals.

Finding a sensible (and politically viable) balance of power between the Mayor, City Council and some kind of advisory board is probably what’s holding up release of mayoral control legislation. No legislation will eliminate collective bargaining agreements, the laws and regulations of NYS, or federal laws and regulations. Multiple power centers will persist, reinforcing Viteritti’s point from Boston: City and District leadership, however configured, must engage in meaningful dialogue with all centers of power, from the federal government all the way to parents.

As this significant change in governance is considered, all forms of dialogue should be pursued. Informal conversations, forums and debates, polling and discussion, an advisory referendum—all should be on the table. And the conversation needs to about more than just governance—let’s use this opportunity to explore what will improve outcomes for Rochester’s students.

Kent Gardner, Ph.D. President & Chief Economist
Published in the Rochester (NY) Business Journal April 9, 2010