When St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay announced last month that he was looking to lure established charter school operators to help him essentially form a second school district, it marked the end of his frustrating seven-year effort to fix the city’s woeful traditional public school system. A successful effort to elect four members to its school district in 2003 turned to failure three years later when the local branch of the American Federation of Teachers helped oust two of them. Meanwhile state officials are taking over the district, in which half of its 16 high schools are considered dropout factories — or schools that promote (and eventually graduate) less than 60 percent of its students from 9th-to-12th grade.
In attempting to open new schools, Slay is following a path blazed over the past two decades by fellow mayors in cities such as Milwaukee and New York: actively embracing school reform as part of efforts to revitalize the economic conditions of their communities. Unlike other efforts such as New Urbanism, this approach — championed by school reform wonks and centrist elements of the Democratic Party — could improve the destinies of urban areas and the children who reside in them. Success, however, remains an open question.
By replacing and bypassing ostensibly nonpartisan school boards, the mayors are breaking with a tradition of separating politics from schools that began with progressive reformers of the early 20th century. The most radical effort can be found in Milwaukee, where in 1991, then-mayor John Norquist teamed up with a fellow Democrat in Wisconsin’s state legislature to initiate the nation’s first school voucher program. Some 19,233 poor Milwaukee children are in the program this year, which would make it one of the state’s largest school districts. Others have taken a slightly more conventional, but still active, approach. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, Michael Bloomberg in New York and Adrian Fenty in D.C. have taken full control of the traditional school bureaucracies in their own cities. Mayors in Cleveland and Boston get to appoint entire school boards, a departure from traditionally elected (and often, infamously corrupt) bodies elsewhere.
Then there is Indianapolis, which took a far different approach in 2001 when Mayor Bart Peterson bypassed the city’s 11 traditional districts — including Indianapolis Public Schools, whose systemic failure is nationally renowned — by becoming the first mayor in the nation to gain the power to authorize and oversee charter schools; since then, he has approved 18 of them. St. Louis’ Slay and his counterparts in San Francisco and Detroit want to replicate that model.
Driving these efforts is a realization that declining academic performance is a key reason for the flight to suburbia that has hobbled many cities. Improving the schools or offering new ones, especially so-called arts and science magnet schools, back-to-basics curricula and Montessori-style programs, will keep young, middle-class families and, in turn, spur economic growth. Competition from vouchers and charter schools, so goes the theory, will spur traditional districts to change. For school reformers and many grassroots leaders, mayoral-led reform is a chance to bypass school bureaucracies and their allies, who are unwilling to embark on much-needed fixes.
As education guru Andrew Rotherham and Peterson’s school reform adviser, David Harris, wrote in an op-ed earlier this year: “Because voters hold them accountable for the quality of life in their city, mayors might as well truly be engaged with improving education.”
WHEN IT COMES TO TURNING reform into results, however, the record — both academically and economically — have been mixed. While the graduation rate for Chicago’s public schools rose from 39 percent for the Class of 1995 to 46 percent for the Class of 2004, since Daley’s takeover, 42 of the city’s high schools were still mired in pervasive academic failure (a number that has since dropped to 35, according to Johns Hopkins researcher Robert Balfanz). Charters and vouchers haven’t exactly forced traditional public school districts to improve, nor do students always achieve at a higher level than they would in traditional schools. And it hasn’t stemmed suburban flight: Just 57 percent of the 53,000 children born annually in Chicago enter public school by kindergarten.
The difficulty of battling teachers unions, black political leaders, bureaucrats and even parents allied with them makes the takeover and then, reform, of traditional urban districts tough to do except over decades. The fact that the teachers and administrators who run charters come from the same schools of education that turn out poor-performing traditional school teachers means that, except for innovative programs, the flaws of the former are being replicated.
Most voters, at the moment, don’t associate mayors with schools and don’t appreciate the reform efforts. Indianapolis’s charter school program was for Peterson, his most successful achievement; but his failure on crime and taxes led to his ouster.
Mayors should engage in school reform. It makes perfect sense, both economically and otherwise. But they must be willing to invest time and political capital. They may not be willing to do that.