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Duncan Wades Into The School Control Debate

Speaking to The Associated Press yesterday, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan advocated for mayoral control of big-city school systems, which places the vast majority of power over education policy and logistics in mayors' offices. Currently, seven cities have mayoral control, including Chicago, Duncan's old stomping ground. He said he "will have failed" if, when his tenure is up, more urban districts aren't in mayors' hands. Duncan said he's willing to go personally from district to district pushing the cause. His rationale was two-pronged: Turnover of urban superintendents is too high--on average, one lasts only three years--and voters should be able to hold an elected official with control over a city's full resources accountable for student achievement.

Mayoral control is a hot issue that's roped in parents, school boards, teachers, principals, and community groups in several metropolitan areas--most notably New York City. A 2002 statute that granted Mayor Michael Bloomberg authority over schools is up for reauthorization in June. Under the law, Bloomberg has been able to centralize school jurisdiction, retain the right to hire and fire the superintendent (currently Joel Klein) and appoint a majority of the city's Board of Education members. According to The New York Times, "the takeover has brought sweeping change to a system long viewed as failing its neediest students." Bloomberg and Klein have introduced charter schools and incentive programs, including merit pay, and they've seen state test scores and graduation rates climb. Still, "national tests show eighth graders making no significant progress," the Times recently noted, and a poll last month showed only 40 percent of registered voters approved of Bloomberg's handling of the schools. Many community members also insist that mayoral control has diminished their voices. At a forum I attended last weekend in Manhattan, members of a caucus in the United Federation of Teachers, the city's teachers' union, groaned when either Bloomberg or Klein was mentioned. A slideshow presentation included a cartoon of the two men as mad scientists in a laboratory, where, presumably, they were using the city's schools and their employees as guinea pigs. "In Mayor Bloomberg, we have the literal embodiment of [a] stranglehold," said parent and teacher Michael Fiorello.

With his comments Tuesday, Duncan has both confirmed which side of this debate he's on and announced that he's willing to help lead its charge. And he's chosen the right side: Mayoral control isn't a one-shot cure for what ails urban schools, but it is a foundation upon which reform can grow. It guarantees that education will receive enhanced attention from cities' key decision-makers, and it clarifies who should be held responsible for schools' progress or failure. (As another example, enacting mayoral control in Boston led to an 11-year tenure of a single superintendent and improved state test scores.) Building on this foundation, a good control plan should include checks and balances that allow public input on policies, as well as data-driven methods of assessing what's working and what's not.   

By jumping into the mayoral control debate, Duncan could be risking some political capital. (He's meeting this weekend with the National School Boards Association, which opposes the policy, and sparks could fly.) But, with a new wave of discussions likely to emerge in the coming months--keep an eye on Detroit and Dallas--and President Obama promising dramatic education reform, mayoral control is a far-reaching issue in which Duncan should have a hand. 

Seyward Darby