by William C. Cala, Ed.D
(William Cala is the former interim superintendent of the RochesterCitySchool District and former superintendent of Fairport schools.)
Looking at the statistics of urban schools across the country is enough to make anyone consider radical tactics. In nearly all of these schools graduation rates hover around 50 percent and rates for African-Americans and Latinos are as low as 30 percent. New York State is no different and Rochester has the dubious honor of leading the pack in negative statistics for children. The Children's Agenda's annual report is a must read for anyone who cares about Rochester's kids. And it's not all about graduation rates; it's about health and living conditions that are causative factors of poor school performance. One statistic alone, the teenage pregnancy rate, should make us think twice about where we are putting our reform efforts. Rochester has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the developed world, putting it in the same statistical arena as a third-world country. That has produced kindergarten classes that are made up of nearly 25 percent of the children coming from teenage mothers.
In "Class and Schools" by Richard Rothstein, a clear case is made demonstrating the catastrophic effects of poverty on urban school performance. From community safety to poor health due to living conditions and lack of access to adequate health care to joblessness to a lack of a family structure, children across the country are ill-equipped physically, emotionally and socially to succeed in school. Rochester is the 11th poorest city for children in the country. I have had numerous conversations with pediatricians over the past 20 years, and they have relayed horror stories about the damage that poverty has done to children before they enter the school-yard gate (i.e. the average urban kindergartener has 1/3 of the vocabulary of a suburban counterpart).
Given this scenario, a logical question to ask is, "How will mayoral control of the schools help urban children and the factors leading to the lack of success of children in urban schools?
Is it about academics?
We have heard about the "success" of mayoral control in cities such as New York, Chicago, Washington, DC, and Cleveland. Since New York has been used as an exemplar for mayoral control here in Rochester, it seems only fitting to look at what Mayor Bloomberg has done since taking over the New York City schools. Historian Diane Ravitch recently provided some eye-opening statistics about this ersatz "success."
The National Assessment of Educational Progress� is a federally funded and administered test that is considered by scholars to be the best and only valid measure of student performance in the nation having a 40-year track record of solid performance.
Ravitch points out that of the urban districts that have been tested since 2002, the highest performing districts were Charlotte, North Carolina, and Austin, Texas. The lowest performing districts were Washington, DC, Chicago, and Cleveland. Charlotte and Austin are not controlled by mayors and the lowest performing districts are all controlled by mayors (Cleveland and Chicago have been controlled by the mayor for over a decade).
The city with the most sustained gains is Atlanta, Georgia (not controlled by a mayor).
New York City has been controlled by the mayor since 2002. To date there have been no gains on NAEP in fourth-grade reading, eighth-grade reading, or eighth-grade mathematics. Additionally, there have been no gains for African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, whites or lower-income students. Is this closing the achievement gap? Is this progress? Hardly.
Let's talk about those pesky graduation rates. One of the keystones of Mayor Bloomberg's campaign this past fall was the improvement of the graduation rates in New York City. He has claimed a rate as high as 70 percent. Here are the facts: New York State Education Department statistics clearly determine that the graduation rate in New York City is 52 percent. Mayor Bloomberg has conveniently invented his own mathematical formula to determine the NYC graduation rate. What he and his chancellor of education, Joel Klein have done is create "Discharge Codes." Discharge Codes are ways of designating students who have disappeared from the city schools as "other than dropouts." In fact, they have invented so many Discharge Codes that they are unable to determine what actually happened to the student. This is a convenient manipulation to obfuscate the graduation rate. So egregious is this activity that Advocates for Children did a study this past year citing tens of thousands of children being listed as "discharged" (not dropped out) yet the New York City administration was unable to demonstrate where these children went. Over the past six years, most of the discharges are students of color. The graduation rate for African-American males is 29 percent.
The New York City Department of Education is currently under investigation for this practice. (By the way, the Houston Independent School District has its brand of Discharge Codes called "Leaver Codes." They have over 20 Leaver Codes. They too were called out for seriously manipulating the graduation rate. The "Houston Miracle" turned out to be The Houston Mirage. Unfortunately, the No Child Left Behind Act that governs education nationally was built on the Houston system, which has since been thoroughly discredited).
Is it about money?
If controlling the Rochester school district is about saving money (The City of Rochester is required by law to contribute no less than $119 million to the RCSD coffers), then perhaps we should again look to the beacon that has often been mentioned as Rochester's model, New York City. In 2002 Mayor Bloomberg took over the schools. The budget at that time was $12.5 billion. In 2009 the budget is $21 billion. Given the lack of student performance in NYC, how does Bloomberg justify a 68 percent increase? If we look to other cities controlled by mayors and were to evaluate those mayors based on student performance and cost savings, the public debate could logically center around a voter recall of those mayors.
In 2005 Wong and Shen, in a study called "When Mayors Lead Urban Schools: Assessing the Effects of Mayoral Takeover," examined finances and staffing in the nation's 100 largest urban school districts. They reported that mayoral takeovers did not produce the promised improvement in financial stability and concluded that "no general consensus is emerging about the overall effectiveness of mayoral takeover."
One has to minimally ask the question whether mayoral control is about breaking unions and creating a lower paid workforce with fewer benefits. Author Danny Weil's December 2009 post should cause serious reflection:
"This is the point, and why mayoral control and Eli Broad, Gates, The Fisher family and the Walton family (and a host of other such charitable capitalists) along with Green Dot schools and other EMO's who seek to privatize all of education are so giddy. Creating a sub-prime school system that breaks the backs of the teacher's union is the goal of the new managerial elite who seek only to turn over public schools to private operators and entrepreneurs. This way they can reduce teachers to at-will employees, de-skill them with the "best practices," force them to work longer hours for less pay and less benefits and of course eliminate collective bargaining; that will then give the new managerial elite and their corporate masters, control over the entire educational enterprise - from curriculum development to the hiring and firing of teachers."
If Rochester's City Hall is unhappy with the mandated $119 million it must contribute to Rochester school district, the mayor and council members should look at the track record for mayoral control across the country. If they were to reduce costs under a system controlled by the mayor, they would be the first to do so. While the disdain for the $119 mandate is understandable, how does the city's contribution compare to the share that Monroe County suburban taxpayers contribute to their schools? $119 million is less than 18 percent of the total Rochester school district budget. By comparison, suburban communities contribute well over 50 percent of their total budgets. The local argument is that Rochester's share to RCSD is higher than that of Syracuse and Buffalo. True enough, but it's high time to start looking to models of success rather than using other urban failures as a benchmark.
Is it about crime?
Do dropouts cause crimes or do crimes cause dropouts?
Would there be less crime if the graduation rate were higher or would the graduation rate be higher if there were intact families, less crime, safer neighborhoods, better health care, and most importantly, jobs? While it is easy and convenient to narrow the focus to one culprit (education), the answers are much more complex and require the political will to tackle all of the above issues including educational reform. (See "Class and Schools" by Richard Rothstein for additional information on this topic.)
It is a great sound bite to look at crime statistics and announce that the perpetrators are dropouts. This statistic is a "no-brainer." Of course the vast majority of crimes are committed by dropouts, but in fact in most cases, that which led up to dropping out is the initial crime. Unless we search for the root causes of problems, our efforts are misplaced, ineffective and wasteful. While in the City of Rochester, I made it my business to do a forensic study when children committed serious crimes. Without exception, the home lives of child criminals were stunning.
For example, one adolescent drop-out shot and killed another boy. His life looked like this: His father sold cocaine out of the home. He was arrested and imprisoned twice while in elementary school. His mother was repeatedly beaten by the father. The Department of Social Services was often involved in attempts to resolve domestic abuse. The boy in question was sexually abused by the father and ran away twice. All of this occurring in early elementary school! The boy eventually dropped out. Living off of the streets was less painful.
I wish this were the exception to the rule. In varying degrees, this scenario repeats itself on a daily basis. Surely we should do everything within our means to adequately educate our children and keep them in school rather than having them drop out. However, the elephant in the room cannot be ignored or denied. Our efforts must address the external forces that lead to near certain school failure. At the national, state, and local level, I am afraid that resources are not addressing the root causes. We do not need more money going to urban school districts for programs that do not address root causes.
Mayoral control will not fix this.
In addition to being ineffective, mayoral control is wrong
Clearly, mayoral control doesn't work, but beyond its failure to produce, it is quite simply, wrong.
City residents are already disenfranchised by laws governing big cities in New York State. While suburban citizens are empowered with the right to vote on their district budgets, city residents are not entitled to do so. Mayoral control effectively removes Rochesterians from any meaningful input into the education of its children. I believe that this particular issue outweighs any consideration relative to academic outcomes and political perceptions of economic feasibility. Eliminating yet one more avenue to parent and citizen participation in government is an outright assault on democracy.
I am not alone in this belief. A 1997 case study of mayoral control in Chicago found some evidence that appointed officials were "less accountable to particular constituencies and... therefore, better able to put system-wide concerns above constituency demands."
Mayoral control involves establishing boards appointed by the mayor. Frederick M. Hess has conducted the largest study of mayoral control in the nation. He states that:
"Scholars raise several important concerns about appointed boards. Appointed boards tend to be less transparent than elected boards, and minority voices are more likely to be silenced or marginalized. There is also a risk that politically savvy mayors and their appointed boards may eventually settle into comfortable accommodations with special interest groups. Mayors themselves can also be a problem if they politicize school boards in self-serving ways or neglect education in favor of other issues."
I recall one particular action by Bloomberg and his appointed board early on in the mayoral takeover of the New York City schools. The mayor's appointed board was presented with a plan to retain any third grader who did not pass a standardized test. Up until that point, the mayor empowered the board to make educational decisions. Two of the mayor's appointees could not in conscience vote for a plan that defied all research on child development. The mayor fired them and replaced them with nominees who would support the plan.
A comprehensive national study of mayoral control was presented to the general assembly of Johnson City, Missouri, in October of 2009. Citing numerous research studies on the topic across the nation they concluded that:
1) There is a lack of democracy with appointed mayoral school boards and a concern about education becoming too involved in politics.
2) The larger role mayors play, the more costly their elections become, opening the door for big business involvement in elections (Meier 2005).
3) There is a greater risk of limiting minority participation through mayoral control (Wong 2006).
4) There is debate over whether mayors or other non-educator administrators can offer the expertise necessary to transform a school (Wong & Shen 2003).
5) Mayoral control does not address root problems such as reducing top-heavy administration or the multiple layers of bureaucracy overseeing the school system (Council of Great City Schools 2007).
6) There is no evidence that there have been improvements to the budget process.
7) Financial stability remains unresolved with mayoral control (Henig & Rich, 2005: Wong & Shen, 2005).
8) Minority students are disproportionately underrepresented (educational opportunities) with appointed school boards. Elected school board members are more likely to represent the makeup of the community, and these elected officials make it their business to advocate for them (Leal et al.,2004). (N.B. the formation of the department of African-American Studies in 2007 in Rochester. This department became a reality due to the advocacy of elected minority School Board members.)
Imagine for a moment the following scenario: The New York State Legislature by 2003 had not passed an "on-time" budget in 20 years. Since 2003 it has been named as the most dysfunctional legislature in the country. And recently, a coup was attempted by the Senate to reverse the majority party by winning over two indicted members of its body. That should be sufficient background to justify the statement: The New York State Legislature doesn't work.
Using the logic of advocates of mayoral control, what should happen is that the governor should seek a change in the New York State constitution to eliminate election of legislators. Subsequently, the governor would take complete control, and citizens of New York would no longer be able to vote for their local representatives to state government. From a very cynical point of view, the thought of removing scores of down-state legislators is quite appealing, yet our democracy is much too sacred to be throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Does a smaller-scale assault on democracy (mayoral control of schools) make the rationale any more valid?
Would a parallel scenario ever be conceived in the suburbs? Imagine the outrage if an equal coup were attempted by a town supervisor to take over a school district or eliminate elections of town board members. Not only would it never happen, such thoughts would never see the light of day. I cannot help but believe that democracy is threatened more readily in urban centers where the vast majority of its citizens are entrenched in poverty and do not have the capacity to have their voices heard. Is it any wonder why voting among the poor is so low? Losing one more opportunity to have a voice (voting in School Board elections) will bring about a deeper cascade into hopelessness and a lack of faith in our democracy.
If not mayoral control, what?
I have no doubt that Bob Duffy truly cares about education in the City of Rochester. I am convinced that he is willing to expend political capital to accomplish the goal of educating all of the city's kids. If not mayoral control, what path should he and local legislators seek instead of greasing the chute for a mayoral takeover?
1) Start a campaign to seek better School Board candidates. After the state elections this past November, editorials sprung up supporting efforts to seek out better candidates to run for the Senate and Assembly. No less of an effort should take place for the RCSD. No one called for a gubernatorial takeover of the legislature!
2) Eliminate salaries for School Board members. This has a lot to do with getting better candidates. School Board members do not get paid in the suburbs and shouldn't be paid in the city, either. Perhaps we will see candidates whose only agenda is children.
3) Eliminate party affiliation in order to be placed on the ballot. Let's face it: if you are not an endorsed Democrat, you are highly unlikely to become a RCSD school board member.
4) Institute term limits. Given the nature of the political machine and the low voter turnout due to a sense of hopelessness by the citizenry, ineffective School Board members are difficult to vote out of office. Perhaps term limits will renew a sense of promise and encouragement.
5) While huge urban districts are notoriously clumsy and overly bureaucratic, the fact of the matter is that poverty is the real issue, an issue that often seems beyond solution, leading to the endless (and fruitless) attacks on urban schools.
The real solutions that will solve the graduation puzzle have very little to do with what is being proposed by the mayor, the governor, or the national secretary of education. The real solutions are with children ages 0 to 5 and their families. There is absolutely no debate about the importance of quality pre-school education, child care, and after-school programs. There is overwhelming evidence that addressing the social, emotional, physical, and financial ailments in homes with young children produces significant increases in graduation rates (more than any power reorganization, school-only program, testing regime, or pay-for-performance scheme).
Three of the four most effective programs in the country that produce the greatest increase in graduation rates are programs involving children younger than age 5. And right here in Rochester we have the Nurse Family Partnership, which is a highly researched and greatly effective program that receives inadequate financial support.
6) And speaking of the Nurse Family Partnership, community leaders should be looking at all of the recommendations of the Children's Agenda. They are researched based and proven to work.
7) Now to go into really dangerous waters: as stated previously, poverty is the real issue as it relates to performance in poor urban settings - poverty and the concentration of poverty in cities. Our cities (specifically Rochester) are exemplars of economic apartheid (Rochester is poorer and more segregated than it was in 1954 when Brown vs. Board of Education outlawed segregated schools).
All of the recommendations above assume the maintenance of RCSD as one urban district under someone's control, be it the mayor or an elected school board. A better solution, however, eliminates the Rochester City School District and sectors off Monroe County into slices of a pie. Each slice or sector would incorporate suburban districts and a small portion of RCSD students. Each educational sector would be managed by the current suburban board with additional board representation from the ranks of the city.
Research tells us that if schools consist of more than 40 percent children and families of poverty (high concentration of poverty), they will not succeed. This recommendation pays attention to the research on what works by providing a middle-class education for the urban poor. Other significant advantages include a massive savings by eliminating one of the most costly bureaucracies in the state, maintenance of local control, and supporting democracy by not eliminating the voice of the voter.
Mayoral control has been a hands-down failure in this country. The mayor has stated, "Documented improvements... are a proven fact in such cities as New York City, Boston, and Washington, DC." The only improvements documented are created by the spin machines of each of the mayors of these cities and the others that I have previously mentioned. Parents and citizens in cities controlled by mayors are up in arms because they have lost their voices and lost their schools, and there is no better performance in schools created by mayors as measured by any valid scrutiny (see http://www.pureparents.org/ and http://www.timeoutfromtesting.org/ , two of scores of parent groups in Chicago and New York).
Citizens of mayoral controlled communities have experienced massive school closings and reopening with private charters that have done no better, and in most cases, worse than their public predecessors. As Danny Weil stated, this is more about breaking the backs of teachers and their unions and putting schools in the hands of investors who don't care about kids, but whose only concern is making money. Perhaps that is why hedge-fund investors are wild about taking over New York State realty (http://www.examiner.com/x-28545-NY-High-Schools-Examiner~y2009m12d9-Hedge-Funds-invest-in-Charter-Schools). Teachers are not the enemy. Poverty is the enemy.
But much more important than whether or not mayoral control is measured as an academic or financial success is the disenfranchisement of the urban poor. Taking away the right to vote is not an option in a democracy. Taking away the minority voices of the urban poor is an egregious assault on civil rights. The mayor, the governor, and the legislators who are lining up behind this ill-thought-out plan should re-think their positions and seek to tackle the root causes of poor performance in the city. If they expect city kids to graduate, it is imperative that poverty and its trappings are vigorously addressed. Paving the way legislatively for mayoral control of the Rochester City Schools would be one more flagrant act of hubris by the New York State legislature.
There are more viable paths available to achieve better results for urban kids than mayoral control. All take commitment and substantial political will and capital. And yes, they all will bring substantial and necessary "incremental" improvement. Remember that the only truly successful paths to graduation are built in pre-school programs that incrementally build to the pride and joy of graduation. The mayor and the superintendent have stated that we do not have time for incremental improvement. I would argue that we do not have time "not" to improve incrementally. We cannot afford the failed policies that emulate Chicago, New York, and Washington, DC. The public debate of this issue must take place immediately. Before any bill is drafted, all sectors of the public should weigh in.
It is not just our city's future that is at stake. Democracy is at stake.