Education Secretary Arne Duncan. (Photo: Chris Walker / Chicago Tribune)
Education Secretary Arne Duncan's pledge to put more big-city mayors in charge of their school districts would exclude democratic forms of school governance and let big businesses decide the fate of public schools.
Before an audience of big-city mayors and school superintendents in late March, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan offered an early - and troubling - indication of his vision for the future of public K-12 education in the United States. Duncan told audience members at the Mayors' National Forum on Education in Washington, DC, that more mayors need to take control of low-performing, urban school districts, and that he was prepared to do whatever it takes to shift leadership of urban districts from school boards to City Halls. "I'll come to your cities. I'll meet with your editorial boards. I'll talk with your business communities," Duncan said. "I will be there."(1)
Right now, seven major cities have complete mayoral control over their public school systems, including Washington, DC; New York, and Chicago, where Duncan spent eight years as the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools system working under Mayor Richard Daley. These districts under mayoral control, Duncan explained, are more stable and benefit from stronger leadership. "Part of the reason urban education has struggled historically is you haven't had that leadership from the top," Duncan said. "Where you've seen real progress in the sense of innovation, guess what the common denominator is? Mayoral control."
For those familiar with Duncan's controversial legacy in Chicago, one that emphasized the privatization and militarization (2) of that city's mayor-led public schools, Duncan's vow to give more big-city mayors control over their city's schools is a worrying harbinger of reforms to come. His vocal support of mayoral control in underperforming urban school districts looks an awful lot like an attempt to replicate the Chicago education model of shuttering public schools, replacing them with privatized or militarized schools, shutting out teachers' unions and taking power away from community members and citizens - all on the recommendation of the city's corporate elite - on a national scale.
This is hardly the kind of "change" needed to boost student achievement, encourage more young people to become teachers and turn around this country's underperforming schools. Instead of empowering local school boards in urban districts to better govern their schools, promoting mayoral control of schools would likely consolidate power in the hands of a single leader - and a politician at that, someone beholden to wealthy supporters and special interests, always with an eye on reelection. By giving more big-city mayors control over their school districts, Duncan is essentially handing that control to the corporate elite of these big cities to craft educational reforms with their own interests in mind.
Look no further than Chicago's divisive Renaissance 2010 reform model for evidence of why increased mayoral control is a poor idea. The centerpiece education reform for both Mayor Daley and former Chicago Public Schools CEO Duncan, Renaissance 2010 is a sweeping program that seeks to close underperforming schools or schools with low enrollment and replace them with multiple new, smaller, "entrepreneurial" schools. Many of these new Renaissance 2010 schools are "contract" or charter schools operated by independent nonprofit organizations which can - and mostly do - eliminate the teachers' union. What's more, these nonprofit organizations can, in turn, outsource management of their new schools to for-profit education management organizations, privatizing what used to be a public school.
Under Daley and Duncan's Renaissance 2010, elected local school councils, made up of democratically elected community leaders and parents, have lost much of their influence. Many Renaissance 2010 schools can opt out of having local school councils, choking off a community's ability to govern its schools. Largely replacing these councils is the Renaissance Schools Fund, a body comprised of unelected business leaders, the school system's CEO, and the Chicago Board of Education president. Once described as a "secret cabinet,"(3) this group of Chicago's corporate elite selects and evaluates new Renaissance 2010 schools and decides how much or how little funding they receive. With new schools competing against each other for limited resources doled out by the Renaissance Schools Fund, it ensures that while some schools in this us-versus-them system will succeed and receive funding, others will be left behind in crumbling facilities with fewer resources and fewer talented teachers.
Though Mayor Daley first announced(4) the Renaissance 2010 plan in a major press conference in 2004, it was by no means his idea. As DePaul University Professor Kenneth Saltman writes, the Commercial Club of Chicago, a long-standing organization of the city's most powerful corporations, had given the plan to Daley, who, at the unveiling event for Renaissance 2010 hosted by the Commercial Club, essentially repeated back what he had been given. "Business power in the city," Saltman writes, "spoke through the mayor."(5)
Thus, by saying he wants to give more mayors control over their schools, Duncan could very well open the door for big businesses to assume de facto control over schools. It happened on his watch in Chicago, where the corporate elite simply used the mayor and his authority over the school system as an avenue to privatize and militarize Chicago's schools under the guise of Renaissance 2010, a program that so far has seen, at best, very mixed results.
In New York City, schools chancellor Joel Klein, an appointee of Mayor Michael Bloomberg who controls the city's school district, has been criticized by politicians and citizens alike for his inaccessibility and lack of accountability. At a hearing of the New York State Assembly's Education Committee on February 6, an assemblywoman said the hearing was the first time in four years the committee had been able to question Klein. William Thompson Jr., the New York City comptroller, was more pointed in his remarks to Klein. "Failure to involve parents in the education policy process has reinforced a widespread perception that the department is arrogant and out of touch." Thompson said. "With its top-down approach, the current administration has sought to avoid debate and public scrutiny, while fundamental decisions regarding reform have been made by executives with no education background."(6)
And it's not only big businesses and wealthy individuals that see mayoral control over schools as an opportunity to push an agenda of privatization and increased competition among schools, either. The Broad Foundations, which supports school districts using charter management organizations and performance-based compensation models, sees a common thread running through the districts in which it invests. "We have found that the conditions to dramatically improve K-12 education are often ripe under mayoral or state control," the foundations' 2008 annual report said.(7)
There's no question that wide-ranging changes are needed in our schools. American students continue to fall behind their international peers in assessments like the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, which provides data on the math and science achievement of fourth and eighth graders in the US and abroad.(8) But is giving mayors more control over underperforming urban school districts the answer? A step in the right direction even? Put simply, it's hard to see how sweeping aside more democratic forms of school governance and transferring that power to unaccountable corporate leaders and school chancellors and politicians, all of whom appear to favor privatizing public schools, eliminating teachers' unions and treating young people like customers, will improve our public school systems and empower our students and teachers.
(2) Andy Kroll, "The Duncan Doctrine: The Military-Corporate Legacy of the New Secretary of Education," TomDispatch.com (January 18, 2009). http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175022/andy_kroll_will_public_education_be_militarized_
(3) Pauline Lipman, "From Accountability to Privatization and African American Exclusion: Chicago's 'Renaissance 2010'," Educational Policy (April 24, 2007). http://epx.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/21/3/471
(4) "Mayor Daley Announces Renaissance 2010 Neighborhood Schools Program," City of Chicago (June 24, 2004). http://egov.cityofchicago.org:80/city/webportal/portalContentItemAction.do?blockName=Mayors+Office%2fJune%2fI+Want+To&deptMainCategoryOID=-536882034&channelId=0&programId=0&entityName=Mayors+Office&topChannelName=Dept&contentOID=536909820&Failed_Reason=Invalid+timestamp,+engine+has+been+restarted&contenTypeName=COC_EDITORIAL&com.broadvision.session.new=Yes&Failed_Page=%2fwebportal%2fportalContentItemAction.do&context=dept
(6) Jennifer Medina, "Klein Defends Mayoral Control of Public Schools," The New York Times (February 6, 2009). http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/07/education/07klein.html?emc=rss&partner=rss
(7) "The Broad Foundations 2008 annual report," (2008). http://www.broadfoundation.org/asset/101-124-2008tbfsannualreportfinal.pdf