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Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice: Whatever Happened to Mayoral Control of Urban Public Schools?

On the ever-changing agenda of reformers seeking to improve outcomes of U.S. schooling, how schools have been governed ranked in the middle and seldom rose to the top. Locally elected school boards, established in the early 19th century, became a democratic way for lay people, that is, taxpayers and parents, to make district policy and appoint superintendents who would efficiently manage fiscal affairs, teachers, and administrators. From time to time, reform efforts to abolish local school boards for their inefficiencies, bad decisions, and occasional corruption occurred in the early 20th century, after World War II and, most recently in the 1990s and early years of the 21st century (see here and here).

While the number of school boards governing districts in the U.S. has decreased significantly from 100,000 a century ago, in 2024, there are 13,000-plus districts among which there are about one thousand in California, 300 in Kansas, and one in Hawaii). Locally elected school boards continue to make district policies and hire superintendents to run their schools.

Except for a few big city districts where severe criticism of elected school boards over lack of improved student test scores and graduation rates have come into play. Beginning in the early 1990s, a reform movement to have urban mayors run districts either by abolishing elected school boards or appointing majorities of its members has flourished. Where such governance changes occurred, mayors  folded the district superintendent into their cabinets thus making the city’s top official responsible for improving schools much as he or she governs the police, transportation, and sanitation departments. The reform push for mayoral control of big city schools has been largely motivated by making one person accountable to the electorate for improving students’ academic performance.

Where and When Did the Idea Originate?

Historically, mayors in a few cities have controlled schools since the 1950s (e.g., Baltimore City, Maryland; Jackson Mississippi). Beginning in 1991, Boston’s mayor appointed the school board and superintendent. Other cities followed: Chicago (1995), Cleveland (1998), Philadelphia (2001), New York (2002), and Washington, D.C. (2007). Between 1999 and 2005, Detroit’s mayor appointed most school board members until a city referendum returned authority to voters to elect their board. Also mayors in some medium size cities such as Providence (RI) copied their larger cousins.

What Problems Did Mayoral Control Intend To Solve?

In the aftermath of A Nation at Risk report (1983) and rising economic concern over the future workforce lacking essential skills, reformers’ attention, including corporate leaders, shifted to big city districts where there were largely minority enrollments with high dropout and low high school graduation rates combined to small percentages of graduates attending college.

Mayoral control advocates believed that shifting governance from unresponsive elected school boards to mayorally appointed school boards and superintendents would make mayors fully accountable for the successes and failures of public schools. If voters disliked school outcomes, they could dump the mayor and get someone else.

Being accountable meant that heretofore unsolved problems of low academic achievement, low attendance rates, and high school graduates unprepared to enter the workforce could be improved through innovation and applying business practices drawn from successful corporate firms (see here and here).

If the primary problem with urban districts was school board passivity in confronting low academic performance of students, then the solution was to change governance from elected boards of education to mayoral control of school boards and superintendents.

What Does Mayoral Control Look Like?

It varies by city. In Boston where Mayor Tom Menino appointed Tom Payzant in 1995, Payzant served over a decade (Menino was re-elected four times providing a buffer for his superintendent). The Superintendent was part of the city administration. Payzant retired in 2006 to great applause for improving Boston’s schools. In the 18 years since Payzant retired, there have been seven superintendents. No noticeable applause for any of his successors.

In Detroit, it was a disaster. The state legislature permitted Mayor Dennis Archer to take over the schools. Years of political partisanship and racial conflict ensued and the district showed little improvement. In 2006, city voters restored an elected school board. In 2011, of 21 cities assessed by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), Detroit schools were the “worst.”

Variations continue. In Chicago (where Arne Duncan was appointed by the mayor and served eight years before becoming U.S. Secretary of Education in 2009), school performance received mixed reviews. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley who had appointed Duncan to lead the district said in a 2006 press conference, “Together, in 12 years we have taken the Chicago Public School system from the worst in the nation to the national model for urban school reform.” Not so, according to others. In 2023, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot appointed Pedro Martinez Chief Executive Officer of Chicago Public Schools, a title authorized by the state in the Chicago School Reform Act of 1995. Since 1995, there have been 10 district superintendents.

In New York City where Mayor Michael Bloomberg appointed Joel Klein as Chancellor in 2002, significant changes occurred with closure of low-performing schools, sharp increases in newly established charter schools, expansion of school choice and steady improvements in rates of high school graduation, falling numbers of students dropping out of school, and rising test scores. Klein served until 2010. Since Klein left, six Chancellors have served under the mayor. In 2022, Mayor Eric Adams appointed David Banks, a former teacher and principal in the system, as Chancellor.

Does Mayoral Control Work?

The above record of variation in mayoral control across different cities suggests that the answer to the question of whether this change in governance “works” is, at best, mixed. While some researchers have claimed that governance changes such as mayors appointing school boards and superintendents is correlated with academic improvement (see here and here), the jury is still out on the question. And the question depends greatly on how “work” is defined and who does the defining.

What Has happened to Mayoral Control?

The short answer is that mayoral control of urban districts continues to exist. Criticism, however, persists. Critics point to the shredding of locally elected boards and the loss of parents  express their points of view, participating in the governance of schools, and, most importantly, the lack of clear student improvement. These criticisms trail efforts to spread mayoral control to other large school districts in the U.S (see here and here).


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Larry Cuban

Larry Cuban is a former high school social studies teacher (14 years), district superintendent (7 years) and university professor (20 years). He has published op-...