Time to alter Mayoral control of public schools in D.C.

Yesterday’s Washington Post included a long article by Emma Brown, Valerie Strauss, and Perry Stein regarding the recent controversies swirling around District of Columbia Public Schools.  It included this discussion regarding Mayoral control of DCPS:

“Critics of the District’s reform experiment argue that the scandals are a signal that mayoral control contributed to the problem because there is no independent check on the impulse to make the schools — and thus the elected boss — look good. They argue that it’s time for public debate on whether mayoral control should be scrapped or modified.

But advocates for the current system argue that mayoral control has allowed for agile decision-making and an unusual level of continuity of leadership in the school system.

Bowser said that the scandals have revealed weaknesses best fixed with tinkering — not a return to an elected school board like the one that oversaw city schools in their bad old days.

‘We have had two systems. This one works better,’ Bowser said in an interview. ‘Trust me.'”

I guess it was the final statement by Ms. Bowser that crystallized my thinking on this subject.  Yes, Mayoral control is superior to the school system answering to the whims of an elected school board.  However, in simplifying the reporting structure and creating the position of Chancellor that reports to the Mayor, we have not completely removed politics from the equation.  Since the city’s chief executive is chosen by the voters, then politics will always be part of the picture.  To believe otherwise is naive and unrealistic.

D.C. adopted Mayoral control after New York City took the same path.  But I would argue that the results there are also mixed.  There were tremendous improvements and tough decisions made under Michael Bloomberg.  However that progress has been slowed, and in some cases reversed, now that Bill de Blasio is in charge.  With this arrangement there is much too much power in the hands of one individual.

Therefore, we must divorce the long-term best interests of the traditional public schools from someone whose job is dependent on votes.  The one way to accomplish this goal is to look at the DC Public Charter School Board as an example.  Here is a body whose members are nominated by the Mayor, and confirmed by the D.C. Council, that has managed through the years to adhere to one goal in mind: to improve the quality of the schools it oversees.  Because its members are elected to a four-year term that can be renewed, its composition extends beyond the control of any one Mayor.  Since these volunteers are not elected, it frees them to do the right thing without having to worry about losing their jobs.  The Chancellor, who the Mayor would continue to select, would report to this new entity.  

We don’t have to throw out Mayoral control of the public schools to fix the current problem-filled situation.  We only need to remove politics from the task of teaching our children.




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