Indianapolis and the Importance of Mayoral Control of Schools

Nov 29, 2011 by

by RiShawn Biddle –

As the worst school district in the Midwest outside of Detroit, Indianapolis Public Schools has exemplified everything that is wrong with traditional school districts. Last August, Indiana Supt. Tony Bennett seized six of the district’s worst-performing schools and handed them off to a group of charter school operators charged with overhauling them. This included Emmerich Manual High School, a subject of past Dropout Nation reports, which has been an abject failure for most of the past four decades. Meanwhile the seven-year regime of the district’s superintendent, Eugene White, already marked by rampant nepotism and incompetence, garnered even more negative attention last month when he proclaimed that the district was failing because it educated special ed kids he called “blind, crippled, crazy”; the district’s do-nothing school board merely let him off the hook by letting him apologize for his callous remarks. (His remarks and his failures were featured in this month’s Dropout Nation Podcast on transforming school leadership.)

So it isn’t shocking that Indiana state officials and school reform organizations such as former Indianapolis mayor Bart Peterson’s Mind Trust are looking to put the district’s status as an independent entity into education history’s proverbial glue factory. Under proposals being bandied around the Hoosier State’s legislative halls and along the Indianapolis’ Monument Circle, IPS would be placed in the hands of the Circle City’s mayor, Greg Ballard, either allowing him to appoint members of the school board, or make the district a city agency whose superintendent would be a mayoral appointee.

Either way, by next year, Indiana may end up bringing back the conversation about handing over traditional districts to mayors and other municipal and county chief executives, who can then lead much-needed reforms. And that is a good thing. It is important to continue ditching the outdated concept of independent school districts that lack accountable, central leadership.

Thanks largely to last year’s defeat of Adrian Fenty for a second term as Washington, D.C. mayor, the idea of mayors taking control of big urban school districts has quieted down. Even though Fenty’s defeat had far more to do with his arrogant demeanor and general incompetence as mayor in areas out side of education, the prospects of using considerable political capital on overhauling traditional districts– especially amid quality of life concerns — has made mayoral control less interesting an idea. While mayors are still active in pushing for reform, and some mayors (notably San Antonio’s Julian Castro) may still be willing to take over of traditional districts, mayoral control hasn’t been the major topic of discussion that it was last year.

Meanwhile education traditionalists such as Diane Ravitch have argued that mayoral control hasn’t been a success at all. Ravitch, in her usual disingenuous and intellectually dishonest manor, attempted to paint New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s efforts as being little more than “smoke”; while Nation writer Dana Goldstein attempted the same feat with far too many more words in her own recent tome against reform. Affiliates of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers are also geared up to make sure that mayoral control doesn’t happen elsewhere, arguing that mayoral control is somehow undemocratic (even though mayors are elected by the same voters and, generally, in far greater numbers). They also attempt to argue that mayor-led reforms are failures.

Yet, oddly enough, mayoral control has largely succeeded in spurring much-needed reforms. Under Bloomberg and his chancellors — including Joel Klein — the percentage of fourth-graders reading Below Basic, as measured on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, declined from 53 percent in 2003 to 38 percent in 2009, while the percentage of students reading at Proficient and Advanced levels increased from 19 percent to 29 percent within the same period. The average fourth-grader in 2009 was reading at a grade level ahead of a peer six years earlier. The percentage of eighth-graders scoring Below Basic in math declined from 46 percent in 2003 to 40 percent in 2004, while the percentage of students scoring at Proficient and Advanced levels increased from 21 percent to 26 percent in that period. The average eighth-grader scores half a grade level higher in math in 2009 than a similar student six years earlier; the average black male fourth-grader reads at a grade level higher in 2009 than in 2003. Meanwhile, the Big Apple’s graduation rates increased from an abysmal 37 percent at the time Bloomberg took over the district in 2002 to a slightly less-horrifying 50 percent.

The story of improvement under mayoral control isn’t atypical. In D.C., the percentage of fourth-graders who were functionally illiterate declined from 61 percent in 2007 to 56 percent in 2011, while the percentage of kids reading at Proficient and Advanced levels increased from 14 percent to 19 percent over that time. The percentage of fourth-graders in the district performing Below Basic in math declined from 51 percent in 2007 to 40 percent in 2011, while the percentage of fourth-graders performing at Proficient and Advanced levels increased from 14 percent to 22 percent in that same period.

Then there’s Boston, which came under the control of the mayor’s office two decades ago. Between 2003 and 2009, the percentage of fourth-graders reading Below Basic declined from 52 percent to 39 percent, while the percentage of kids reading at Proficient and Advanced levels increased from 15 percent to 24 percent. The average Boston fourth-grader reads at a grade-and-a-half level higher in 2009 than a similar student six years earlier; the reading score for the average black male fourth-grader was a grade point higher in 2009 than six years earlier.

via Indianapolis and the Importance of Mayoral Control of Schools | Dropout Nation: Coverage of the Reform of American Public Education Edited by RiShawn Biddle.

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