Thursday, June 16, 2005 | This is part two in a two-part series. Read part one.

Supporting the proposed legislation to give urban mayors the authority to appoint school board members are California’s two U.S. senators, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein. In letters written to California legislators Senate Majority Leader Gloria Romero, Senate President Pro Tempore Don Perata and Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, both Boxer and Feinstein say the situation in California’s urban school districts is a crisis.

Calling Chicago’s progress impressive, Feinstein wrote, “The [Chicago] mayor’s management team closed a $1.8 billion deficit by imposing fiscal discipline; made homework mandatory; ended social promotion of underperforming students; improved school safety; expanded summer school, after-school and early childhood education programs; and invested $3.6 billion in capital improvements. Student scores on standardized tests have risen consistently since 1995 and passed the national norms in some areas by 2002.”

Feinstein noted that cities with mayor-appointed school boards have also reaped “the economic and social impact of a more educated citizenry.”

In her letter, Boxer wrote that “our state’s city school districts graduate fewer than two-thirds of our students. Among California’s minority students, the numbers are even worse … In some of our urban school districts, less than two percent of our graduates are eligible for admission to California’s university systems … The cities of New York, Boston, Cleveland, Chicago and others have shown that mayoral empowerment can play a critical role in improved student performance, improved infrastructure, more community involvement and the increased resources so necessary to better student performance.”

Although both California senators are Democrats, a group traditionally aligned with labor, this measure runs counter to teachers’ unions. California Teachers Association speakers testifying at the hearing in Sacramento last Thursday “were not initially supportive of the idea,” EdVoice’s Christopher Cabaldon confirmed.

The issue recently came to the forefront in Los Angeles’ mayoral race, when winner Antonio Villaraigosa said the city’s mayor should take control of the 720,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District and its 800 schools in the same way Chicago and New York did because the public school system is not working.

Although the 41,000-member United Teachers Los Angeles endorsed Villaraigosa and called him “a true friend of education,” the union is opposed to mayoral control of the schools.

Terry Pesta, head of San Diego Unified School District’s teachers’ union, said the CTA is opposed to the idea because “we think school boards should be elected by the voters.”

The California School Boards Association agrees. Said CSBA executive director Scott Plotkin in a statement on the issue, “Locally elected school boards are fundamental to effective education programs, student achievement and academic success. Unlike mayors of state agencies, school boards are charged with one overarching responsibility – to provide their local community with the best possible education system for its schoolchildren. Board members know firsthand that education issues require leadership separately elected from that of a city government and separately accountable to the local community. It is critical that all school board members oppose this bill.”

Supporters of the measure counter that elected school boards in large urban cities have not done their job and have failed to provide academic success for the majority of their students.

The future of urban school districts

Howell says there are over one million students in districts across the country that are now run by mayors – a trend that will continue, says outgoing SDUSD superintendent Alan Bersin, as teachers’ unions, which significantly influence and control who is elected to school boards, resist the call for reform.

The inability “to balance union power effectively” has “contributed to our unacceptable status quo” and is why “the power curve in large urban systems is leaning toward mayoral control,” Bersin wrote in a commentary in the April 20, 2005 issue of Education Week.

Bersin, who joins Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s team on July 1 to become the state’s next Secretary for Education, reiterated this theme at a Washington, D.C. conference on May 16 when, according to Education Week, he said that the increased clout of teachers’ unions “has translated into school boards ‘dominated by employee interest groups,’ with the students the losers. That … has upped the popularity of mayoral control of districts such as Boston, Cleveland and New York.”

SDUSD trustee John de Beck disagreed. “It’s in the best interest of unions to make school districts succeed,” he said. “I don’t want to model school districts after General Motors.”

“Mayors are being held accountable [for their city’s school districts], but they have no authority,” countered Gary Larson, vice president of communications for the California Charter Schools Association. “Many believe school board candidates are more answerable to interest groups rather than the overall population.”

San Diego County Board of Education president Robert Watkins said mayor-appointed school boards are “a good option.” With school board members who report to the mayor, Watkins said a mayor can remove the antagonism of divisive boards that often get distracted by other issues and end up putting trivial concerns ahead of the real business of school districts, which is the education of students. He said Bersin tried to move an agenda forward in San Diego, but it became politicized by the school board and “tore into the fabric of what’s important for schools.”

Education leaders across the country caution against viewing mayoral takeovers of school districts as a panacea for ailing urban schools. They say it’s an option that has merit, for big-city mayors who understand that an improved school system is key to urban success. But it takes a strong, highly motivated mayor willing to invest considerable political clout and commit completely to seeing their city’s schools progress, according to Kenneth Wong, a Vanderbilt University professor, researcher and expert on mayoral takeovers. A mayor without solid authority and total commitment is unlikely to succeed, he claims.

“People are thrashing around looking for magic bullets,” de Beck said. “The real solution is to concentrate on hiring the best quality teachers and trained principals, and set them loose in the classroom.”

But Cabaldon, who believes there is a “powerful link” between schools and public services, said, “There’s support for the concept, and the time is right.”

The time is decidedly not right for San Diego presently – and won’t be until stability and trust can replace uncertainty and turmoil at City Hall. But if a fragmented school board and stagnant student achievement are qualifications for mayoral control, then San Diego is sure to be considered a likely candidate for this new trend in urban school reform in the near future. Voters might want to keep this in mind as they head to the polls next month to choose the city’s next mayor.

Please contact Marsha Sutton directly at

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