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Mayoral Control and School Districts

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

If he succeeds, Mayor Villaraigosa would not be the first big city mayor to take over the local schools. NPR's Claudio Sanchez looks at the two biggest takeovers to date in New York City and Chicago.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ reporting:

In 1995, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley jumped into the bog of urban school reform, although you could argue he was pushed. The Illinois legislature handed the school system over to Daley because it was such a mess. The dropout rate was well over 50 percent; math and reading scores were the lowest in the state. Here's how Daley described the crisis in a 1997 speech.

(Excerpt from 1997 speech)

Mayor RICHARD M. DALEY (Chicago, Illinois): Financial disorder was rampant. The system was plagued by failing schools and nine strikes between 1972 and 1995. The situation was made worse by unaccountable school administration. In short, no one was directly responsible for the state of our schools.

SANCHEZ: Daley replaced the school board then picked Paul Vallas, his budget director, to oversee the takeover. Vallas wanted to shake things up. He could not touch things like teacher tenure, but for the first time, principals didn't have to hire teachers they didn't want. Struggling students were no longer promoted automatically. None of this was cheap, but once Vallas had gotten a handle on the district's finances, there was more money for things like after-school tutoring and pre-school. The key to all this, though, was to get the teachers' union on board with a generous four-year contract. Michael Usdan is a senior fellow at the Institute for Educational Leadership.

Mr. MICHAEL USDAN (Institute for Educational Leadership): A degree of stability was generated that they had not had for years. And I think one of the great advantages of mayoral control is that the mayor can provide a very, very valuable political buffer.

SANCHEZ: Another case in point, New York City under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Like Daley in Chicago, Bloomberg transformed the public school structure and philosophy from a highly decentralized system to one in which the mayor has absolute power. Bloomberg took over in 2002 with the state's blessings. Not long after in a speech in Harlem, Bloomberg said his plan represented the dawn of a new movement and holding the city's 1.1 million students accountable would be key.

Mayor MICHAEL BLOOMBERG (New York City, New York): But when entire schools are failing, accountability cannot stop with them. We are all responsible.

SANCHEZ: Bloomberg, like Daley, also made peace with the union, giving teachers a hefty raise. Then he appointed Joe Klein, a lawyer with no educational experience, as his school chancellor. Klein's marching orders were to cut $100 million from the school budget, reorganize the bureaucracy and zero in on reading and writing. `If the plan failed,' Bloomberg said, `he alone would take the blame.' Today, for the first time in 15 years, over half of New York City's elementary and middle school students are performing at or above grade level with a record number of fourth-graders meeting the state's reading and writing standards.

In both cities, the overall results have been encouraging but mixed. As experts point out, deep-seated problems in big city schools require more than quick fixes, but there's a new breed of mayors who believe that if they do nothing about their schools, they'll be blamed anyway. So they might as well give it a shot. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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