Friday, April 28, 2006

Mayors, politics and schools

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has proposed a drastic take over of the Los Angeles city schools. This effort follows in the wake of similar take overs in Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and to a lesser extent Sacramento.
The motivation of these efforts is positive; they want to improve public education in areas that are failing. Clearly the schools are failing for central city and poor kids. This take over by mayors appears to be an assault on elected school boards and bloated school administrations since clearly the Mayor and his aids are not going to teach classes. I am not aware of evidence that school boards are the problem although school bureaucracies certainly are part of the problem.
In New York and Chicago, the mayors claim some positive movement toward school improvement. My reading of the data at present is that results are mixed, some schools improved, many did not.
This direction appears to be more interested in making headlines, making the case that the Mayor is doing something, rather than improving schools. I would be pleased to learn otherwise.
However, before we go down this path, lets ask the question from the other direction.
If schools are failing, what is the role of Mayors at present?
Without taking over schools, Mayors could do a great deal.
Urban schools would be improved – at times dramatically- if gangs and violence were removed. City administrations could provide police, probation, and youth counselors and gang intervention teams to dramatically reduce crime and violence around the schools.
Urban schools would be improved by providing decent buildings, grounds, and facilities. Certainly city administrations could provide improved buildings and maintenance and lease these back to the schools. Mayors could provide after school facilities for both academic support and a safe place for recreation in violent neighborhoods. These are things the mayors could do now, and are not doing.
Jean Anyon has argued persuasively in Radical Possibilities (2005) that urban economic development and good jobs are needed to improve the neighborhoods; along with school reform.,
Perhaps the biggest issue is the Mayor could use some of his political capital to improve school funding. California schools rank about 43rd.out of the 50 states in per pupil expenditures ( and about 43 in reading and math scores). If we were to raise funding levels tgo make California 10th. in the nation, that would create an educational revolution.
`Schools are funded by the state from local property taxes and other sources. The legislature and the governor decide each year to continue the current Appalachian level of funding of California schools. And, Antonio Villaraigosa was once Speaker of the Assembly. He led the process. Real school reform would require that the legislature and the Governor do their job; adequately fund the schools. Mayors of large cities could well move votes on the budget.
I wonder why the Mayor- a former legislative leader, chooses to take over the schools rather than do his own job well?
You see, the proposal to have Mayors take over schools is based upon a view that the problem of urban schools is a problem within the school walls. The proposal assumes that schools can be radically improved while the surrounding society is divided and impoverished. I know of no evidence to support this view.
I think that we should demand that legislators do their jobs- fund the schools, and that Mayors do their jobs – provide a decent, safe environment, and at the same time demand that teachers improve the schools.
If you know of some instances when politicians improved the schools, please let me know. I do know that it was a marginal fix here in Sacramento.
I welcome other ideas on this topic. Please use the response button below.
Duane Campbell
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