Drastic steps for school boards proving beneficial across U.S.

Mark Twain wrote: “In the first place, God made idiots. That was for practice. Then he made school boards.” Fortunately, the Almighty didn’t decree that we need to be saddled with school boards forever.

Cities such as Boston, Chicago and New York have stripped school boards of their powers to adversely affect education. In Los Angeles, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is poised to lead a takeover of public schools, perhaps as early as next week.

Four years ago, the New York state Legislature gave Mayor Michael Bloomberg nearly unlimited control of that city’s schools, the largest district in the nation. Bloomberg created an advisory panel to replace the school board and appointed a new superintendent.

Bloomberg reorganized New York’s school districts, ended social promotion in many grades, decreased the cost of school construction bids and thereby redirected resources to the classrooms, opened new small schools, negotiated a 15 percent pay increase for teachers in 2005, and helped schools achieve the largest one-year gains in both English and mathematics since standards-based testing began.

In Chicago, the nation’s third-largest school system, Illinois lawmakers gave Mayor Richard M. Daley control over the school board in 1995. Daley was able to eliminate “red ink in the schools’ $4 billion annual budget,” build new campuses and pacify “a contentious teachers union,” according to a recent Los Angeles Times story.

The turnaround in Boston, the oldestschool district in the country, is even more dramatic. Boston has become a model mayoral-run urban school district. That city was cited by the National School Boards Association in 2005 for math improvements unmatched by any school system in the country. For the fifth year in a row, Boston has been selected as a finalist in the 2006 Broad Prize for Urban Education, an annual $1 million award created to honor urban school districts.

According to an April analysis of state and mayoral takeovers of school districts by Steve Drummond, National Public Radio’s education editor, the mayors in Boston, Chicago and other cities have fixed financial messes, handled infrastructure issues and have had “some success” with regard to student achievement.

In Los Angeles, Villaraigosa plans to introduce legislation that would create a “council of mayors” to oversee the 27 jurisdictions served by the Los Angeles Unified School District. Villaraigosa would control more than 80 percent of the council’s votes and, like Mayors Bloomberg, Daley and Menino, would accept responsibility for school reform success or failure.

Currently, San Francisco’s Board of Education determines public policy for all public schools, and it is not doing a very good job. While the board fiddles with nonessential issues such as whether Junior ROTC should be expelled from The City’s high schools, the school district is losing approximately 1,000 students per year. Some of those students enroll in private schools and many leave for suburbia.

The board proved itself inept at maintaining cordial relations with outgoing Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, despite the fact that Ackerman recovered millions of dollars in mishandled monies from prior administrations and was a driving force in helping to raise students’ test scores. Parents resent that their children often cannot attend their neighborhood schools and several board members are openly antagonistic to charter school options.

Although San Franciscans are traditionally loath to pattern themselves after anything from Tinseltown, we should keep an eye on developments down south and an open mind about placing accountability for schools in the hands of our mayors.

Patrick Mattimore teaches psychology at a college preparatory school in San Francisco and formerly taught in Bay Area public high schools for more than ten years.

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