The Mayor's Chance:
Mayor Barrett, Take This School System. Please.
By Charles J. Sykes
In the first place, God made idiots. That was for practice. Then he made school boards.—Mark Twain
The “goody bags” may have been the tipping point.
In August, a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigation highlighted massive waste and failure in the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS): after spending more than a $100 million on neighborhood schools, the paper reported, many of the new buildings were unused and the classrooms empty. “With a few exceptions” the paper reported, “student achievement has shown little improvement—and in some cases it has fallen dramatically—at 22 schools that were among the largest beneficiaries of the district's school construction program.”
But it was the bags that caught the public’s attention.
A week after the series on the failed building project, columnist Dan Bice reported that Milwaukee School Board member Charlene Hardin, accompanied by a high school data-processing secretary, had junketed at taxpayer expense to Philadelphia in mid-July, ostensibly to attend a conference on school safety. But organizers of the conference said that Hardin never showed up for any of the conference itself.
“I didn’t see her (Hardin) at all,” said the group’s executive director, “It would have been hard for me to miss her. I was the guy who ran the conference.”
According to Joe Ricci, a Philadelphia school administrator who helped plan the event, Hardin showed up on the final day of the conference. At first, he told Bice, Hardin complained loudly that the staff had run out of conference goody bags, which contained the usual conference swag, including zoo passes and discount coupons.
“Then she proceeded to go into the vendors’ area,” Ricci said, “get some plastic bags from them, help herself to a ton of food and cookies and candy and all that stuff from the snack tray, and proceeded to walk out the door again, making another big stink about the thing, and left.” Ricci estimated that the two Milwaukeeans were at the safety conference for a total of about five minutes.
“She never checked in . . . or showed up at any conference functions at all, her or her assistant.”
And just like that Charlene Hardin became the public face of the dysfunctional MPS board and exhibit A for critics who asked: is it time to get rid of the school board?
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett continues to downplay his interest in a mayoral takeover, saying “I’m not interested in a power grab.” But his call for a privately-funded assessment of the district marked a new activism on the mayor’s part, reflecting the growing national movement toward putting mayors in charge of their city’s schools.
In the last decade and a half at least a dozen of the nation’s largest school districts have been handed over to mayoral control, most notably in Boston, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. Philadelphia’s schools are run by a board jointly appointed by the mayor and the governor.
Supporters of mayoral control point to improvements in accountability and performance since the takeovers. In Chicago, for example, the mayor took control of the city’s schools in 1995: since then, reading and math scores have risen dramatically. Boston’s schools are frequently cited as a model of urban education after reforms implemented by Mayor Thomas Menino and his hand-picked superintendent, Thomas Payzant.
So is mayoral control the answer? Do mayors so a better job than school boards? The answer seems to be: It depends on the mayor. Strong mayors with a clear mandate for reform can turn around even the most dysfunctional systems. Weak mayors or mayors beholden to entrenched special interests, not so much.
Well, It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time
While Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, calls school boards “an aberration, an anachronism, an educational sinkhole,” they were initially regarded as a promising reform. The model of independently elected school boards, according to James Cibulka, president of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, was “designed by political Progressives early in the twentieth century to give professional educators authority and insulate them from political abuses.” The idea was to separate them from the corrupt politics of City Hall and make them more accountable, professional, and (theoretically) efficient.
But, as Frederick Hess notes, the removal of politics from school governance “has also removed coherence and accountability.”
In practice, the boards generally operate below the political radar, making it hard for voters to hold board members accountable. (Quick, name any three members of your local school board.)
This in turn, has allowed motivated, well-organized special interests, most notably the teachers’ union to seize control of many of the boards. Chronic turnover also means that the boards often lack any semblance of continuity, in turn making the superintendent’s office a revolving door as board majorities lurch from one popular educational fad to another. Compounding their ineffectiveness, some boards have become notorious for their penchant to micromanage, with some lay members becoming “alternate superintendents. . . ,” further eroding the lines of accountability and coherence of the governing structure. Finally, the boards were often isolated from the rest of the community’s leadership—not merely just City Hall, but the rest of the civic leadership. As Hess notes, “Two decades ago, the Institute for Educational Leadership fretted that school boards has ceased to attract members with political influence and lacked strong links to local leaders or city government.”
Six years ago in these pages I described the Milwaukee school board’s contributions to the district’s chronic dysfunction. The board had just named the current superintendent, William Andrekopoulos, to his job, and I was not sanguine about his prospects. He was, I wrote at the time, merely the latest in a long line of superintendents whose best laid plans were on a collision course with the shifting board majority.
The lack of optimism that greeted Andrekopoulos contrasted sharply with the high hopes that accompanied the accession of his predecessor Spence Korte, who was swept into office on a wave of reform in 1999. The spring elections that year marked a stunning setback for candidates backed by the teachers’ union, all of whom lost to candidates who supported school choice. Propelled by the voter rebellion, the new board moved quickly to install Korte, the popular principal of Hi-Mount Elementary School. There was no pretense of a national search; Korte was known as an innovator not afraid to buck the system.
The victory of the reformers and the selection of Korte generated optimism for the future of the city's schools that verged on euphoria. “You cannot come away from a conversation with Korte,” the Journal Sentinel editorialized at the time, “without thinking that behind his external serenity is a rock-hard commitment to excellence.” The paper contrasted the new reform superintendent with his predecessor, the “low-key, hardly breathing Alan Brown.”
Brown, a former superintendent from Waukegan, Illinois, had been handpicked by the union-controlled board apparently for his blandly compliant mediocrity. He did not disappoint. He lasted less than two years and left virtually no record of accomplishment. His buyout cost taxpayers $400,000, but generated little controversy, an indication of how little his departure was lamented and how much good feeling surrounded Korte’s appointment.
Emboldened by a strong 7-2 majority on the board Korte promised sweeping changes and a shakeup in the central administration.
Three years later, Korte quit frustrated, disillusioned, ground down.
Despite the ballyhooed reform agenda, only 55% of fourth graders in the city’s schools tested as proficient readers, far below the state average. The high school graduation rate still hovered at only about 50 percent.
Korte admitted he had no leverage to “get this kind of work done” and “I’m certain the board does not wish to grant me that kind of leverage.” He cited a lack of consensus on the board “about the direction of the school district, which makes it really difficult for an administration to drive it.”
Despite a promising beginning, Korte had seen his political support on the school board erode in his first two years. In 2001, two of Korte’s backers were defeated by two bitter critics of his administration, Peter Blewett and Jennifer Morales. Blewett is now the board’s president. As he resigned, Korte said that he and the board had grown “distinctly further apart” over the last three years.
As disappointing as Korte’s failure was, it was hardly unusual. The average superintendent of a big city school system has a professional lifespan of only two and a half years. Andrekopoulos is the eighth superintendent to warm the seat since 1986. Although greeted with varying degrees of optimism when they took office, the superintendents make up a roll-call of diminishing expectations: Robert Peterkin; Hawthorne Faison (interim), Howard Fuller, Robert Jasna, Barbara Horton (interim), Alan Brown and, finally, Korte.
Most of them followed a predictable parabola of hope and frustration. Peterkin used his superintendency to burnish his resume and departed for points east before achieving any of the major goals he had laid out. Howard Fuller mobilized the widest base of political support, winning the backing of inner city reformers and the city’s business community. But even the most charismatic and effective schools’ chief resigned when a spring election weakened his support on the board.
School board elections in Milwaukee tend to be low voter turnout affairs, held in off-years. While that tends to magnify the clout of the teachers’ union, the unpredictability of the turnout adds a permanent element of instability, compounded by the near-anonymity of the candidates. Despite some renewed attention to longstanding complaints about the board’s tendency to micromanage after Fuller’s resignation, there were no serious efforts to reform the system. Korte inherited the same political instability that crippled Howard Fuller, and passed it on intact to Andrekopoulos.
Meanwhile other cities were dismantling their school boards and turning over authority and responsibility to mayors. The trend toward greater mayoral control of urban education reflected the widespread disillusionment with school boards, who were notorious for political turf-guarding and treating their systems as patronage entitlements. The movement picked up momentum in the late 1980s, when a growing number of mayors recognized that their cities could not prosper without fixing the schools. Their willingness to take control and responsibility was a sharp reversal from their predecessors’ conventional wisdom that schools were simply too messy to risk spending political capital.
Unlike superintendents caught in the professional merry-go-round of fickle school boards, the mayors had the political clout to build coalitions and mobilize support for far-reaching initiatives. Where the turnover of superintendents made continuity impossible, mayoral control provided a measure of stability. The mayors were able to mobilize stronger business involvement while lessening the clout of other interest groups who had resisted change in the past. Mayoral control also made it easier for the schools to coordinate their programs with other government agencies.
By the early 1990s, Boston had become thoroughly disgusted with the waste, failure, and opportunism of the city’s 13-member school committee. The Boston Globe called the situation a “disaster,” while a city report noted: "Boston is unique. The buck does not appear to stop anywhere.” In the early 1990s, the city council replaced the elected committee with a board appointed by the mayor. After a few years of squabbling, the new board named Thomas Payzant, a federal Department of Education official, as its new superintendent. His success turned heads in city halls across the country.
In 1995, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley won control of the city’s notoriously failing public schools. His administration expanded summer schools ended social promotions and built or renovated dozens of schools. Although the system is hardly a national model, tests and graduation rates have shown improvements. Arne Duncan named by Daley as CEO of the city’s school system said:
I think the reason for the crisis in American education is that no one was accountable.
Mayors could throw rocks and criticize but they couldn’t do anything about it. If you have a mayor who says he’s in charge of the schools, he’s the one on the line, and he has to get results or he’ll be voted out.
The most recent—and dramatic—mayoral takeover occurred in 2002 when the New York legislature turned over control of the city’s schools to Mayor Michael Bloomberg. With the new power, said Robert Berne, senior vice president for academic and health affairs at New York University, “Education will become for Mr. Bloomberg what crime was for Giuliani, a litmus test of his success.”
Even so, the trend toward mayoral control is still very much a work in progress. Researchers Kenneth Wong and Francis Shen warn: “No general consensus is emerging about the overall effectiveness of mayoral takeover.” Notes Hess, “For all the optimism that Boston and New York City have engendered, there is remarkably little evidence that mayors or appointed boards are more effective at governing schools than elected boards.”
A Failure of Leadership
In part that reflects the limits of simply shifting governance. Unless the governance change is accompanied by a genuine commitment to reform, the shift is unlikely to effect what goes on in the classrooms or otherwise raise academic performance.
There is, after all, no guarantee that mayors will be immune to the same political pressures and instincts that have plagued elected boards. Some appointed boards, notes Hess, can “go native.” In Los Angeles, for example, Mayor Villaraigosa tried to turn over unprecedented control of the schools to the teachers’ union. Although the plan was later struck down by the courts, Hess argues, “it may be naïve to imagine that mayors will necessarily or consistently face down unions or other powerful interests. . . .”
Transforming any sprawling, underachieving organization is an enormous challenge under even the best of conditions; it may well be impossible with fragmented or indecisive leadership. Mayoral control, however, can do no more than offer a heightened opportunity for effective leadership—with the proviso that any benefits may well diminish with time as mayors turn over, attentions shift elsewhere, or interested parties reconcile themselves to the new structure.
But Hess remains cautiously supportive of the option:
Urban school districts, however, are so hidebound, so prone to distractions, and so lacking in organizational coherence and patience that handing the reins to an engaged and accountable mayor may be the better option for igniting a tough-minded reform agenda.
What the Goody Bags Told Us
Charlene Hardin has been on the board since first being elected in 1997. She has been reelected several times since then. Columnist Patrick McIlheran recounted her resume for the job. He noted:
In 1992, as a Milwaukee Public Schools secretary, she simply stopped coming to work after medical leave. She blew off superiors’ attempts to talk to her about it. She said she was still sick. Two years later, she got canned by a nonprofit for whom she was supposed to oversee community organizing. She instead pursued her own unauthorized projects, superiors told the Journal Sentinel.
Back in the ’90s, Hardin got sued over some business deals, with one ripped-off home improvement client telling the Journal Sentinel, “That woman is a snake” after winning a judgment against her. In 1998, the state said she hadn’t filed her taxes in years. Then there’s this summer’s revelation of her links to pushing a failed building partnership with a local church.
She is currently the board’s longest serving member.
In MPS, test scores are still dismal; the racial achievement gaps remain scandalous; violence in increasingly toxic. But this is what voters, taxpayers, and community leaders saw this summer: school board members who were more interested in getting their own personal goody bags that they were in dealing with the district’s myriad problems.
Mark Twain once jibed that God made idiots as practice for making school boards, but Milwaukee can’t blame God for putting Charlene Hardin on the board.
That’s on us . . . and dramatizes the failure of the status quo.
Milwaukee’s incumbent school board has made it clear that it will fight any attempt to change the governance structure. Board President Blewett has publicly argued that mayoral control would erode the independence of an elected school board and “disenfranchise parents.”
Demonstrating a hitherto unappreciated sense of irony, Blewett said: “The one thing that we know about mayoral appointed boards is that there’s no accountability. We have a board that’s put more transparency into things.”
But the current board is neither accountable nor transparent. Nor is it responsive. Last fall, when as many as 1000 taxpayers turned out to plead with the board not to enact a double digit tax hike, board members waited until the middle of the night and then passed a budget without a single cent of spending cuts. (The board did reduce the tax hike somewhat by shifting some payments.)
Mayor Barrett clearly sees an opportunity. Last year, he took a chance by bringing in an outsider to be the city’s chief of police, and has enjoyed credit for the city’s remarkable turn around on violent crime.
Now the mayor has to decide whether he wants to do the same for the schools. It’s his move.
Charles J. Sykes is the editor of Wisconsin Interest and a Senior Fellow of the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute. He also hosts a talk-radio show on AM 620 WTMJ in Milwaukee.