Thursday, April 05, 2007

D.C. Schools Mayoral Takeover

Yesterday, the Washington Post carried the story that the DC city council has given preliminary approval to a plan for Mayor Adrian Fenty to bring the ailing DC Public Schools under mayoral control.
The D.C. Council granted preliminary approval yesterday for a dramatic shift in power for the city's public schools, giving the mayor control over the budget, key administrative functions and the blueprint for modernizing every dilapidated building in the 55,000-student system.

Following the example of other big-city mayors, notably Michael R. Bloomberg (R) of New York, Adrian M. Fenty (D) would assume the reins of the school district, and the school superintendent would report directly to him.
Fenty has hitched is wagon to the one issue in DC that will guarantee high visibility for him, but it does carry political risks. If his control over the schools fails to achieve the desired results, his mayoralty will be short lived and the kids of DC will once again be subject to the mercies of the political process in their education. However, if the takeover works, Fenty will be hailed as a hero and will no doubt cruise to re-election for as long as he chooses.

But there is another problem, one Ryan Boots pointed out:
In one of the biggest departures from the plan that Fenty announced in January, the council would have the authority to rescind the mayor's control over the schools if he did not show "sufficient progress in education" within five years.
That is quite a wrinkle, and as Boots pointed out, there is no definition avaiable for sufficient progress." One would hope that such a definition is forthcoming, but my guess is that such a defintion, if one is presented, will be suffciently vague as to allow for the DC City Council to take any action it wishes, depending largely upon the tenor of public opinion on five years. As Boots noted:
And if the devil is in the details, this is positively sinful. Is the council talking about standardized test scores? If so, how far should they increase? Will they use growth models? Should test scores for some subgroups rise more than for others? And as acknowledged elsewhere in the story, D.C. has some famously decrepit school facilities. Will Fenty be expected to build or renovate a minimum number of schools within those five years? For all the criticism leveled at NCLB, there hasn't been any question of what the law expects, just debate as to whether the law's requirements are realistic. But in the case of D.C., there's no way of knowing right now if clear-cut expectations have been established.
Discussing the matter, Kevin Carey has this to say:
But specifics aside for the moment, I think this is a good idea, for a couple of reasons.

First, mayoral takeover creates a whole new kind of accountability. Critics of school-focused accountability systems like NCLB rightly note that the people writing the laws are never subject to the kind of tough accountability measures they impose on educators. And for various reasons--low voter turnout, fractured responsibility--people seem to get re-elected to urban school boards on a regular basis even when the schools are a dismally run as they have been here.

Mayoral takeover is different. Mayor Fenty is tying his political fortunes to school improvement in a deliberately high-profile way. That means that the smart people whose job it is to get him re-elected in 2010 won't be sleeping well the night before the 2009 test scores are released. Those kinds of incentives and pressures can be a good thing in a lot of ways.

Second, when mayors assume responsibility for the schools, they send an important message, both to the general public and the educators and students within the system: "Our schools are not a lost cause." Urban education and urban students have long been written off as irredeemable, victims of greater forces perhaps, but beyond saving in the end. That kind of attitude can infect the culture of a school system and become self-sustaining. Mayoral takeover send a very different signal: someone with a lot to lose is willing to take a risk on an uncertain but vitally important proposition. That's a good thing too.
I think this is a brilliant, if risky political move on the part of the young (he is 35) mayor. Fenty is nothing if not optimistic in nature, he truly believes his plan will work, and unlike all the naysayers, he is the only one stepping up with a plan. Fenty's plan is ambitious, and he will be judged on his success or failure with this one issue--and Fenty appears to be comfortable with that.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is called leadership.

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