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Dictators are bold, all right…

December 9, 2010

Yesterday, Van Schoales of Education Reform Now published a piece in EdNews Colorado imploring local candidates for mayor to consider “bold” ideas like mayoral control of DPS.

Mayoral control is particularly challenging for Denver because of the Colorado constitution but it seems worth more of a public discussion given the increasing dysfunction of the Denver school board, which is likely to get worse, and the ever-increasing need for more quality public education in Denver…

One possible step for the next Denver mayor to consider, short of controlling DPS, might be to charter schools in collaboration with the Charter School Institute, a local university, or doing it independently.  Obviously this would take legislative action but it is worth considering given the dire state of education in Denver.

Now, I agree that there are problems on Denver’s school board. Some school board members seem not to understand their role vis-à-vis the school district, and rather than listening to all of their constituents, considering all of the facts at hand before making momentous decisions, or performing any meaningful oversight of district activities, they’ve decided it’s their job to help district officials push their specific “reform” agenda.

But the solution to this is more democracy, not less. I applaud efforts to increase school board member accountability through the electoral process, as well as other signs that the people most affected by their decisions are beginning to mobilize. If too few people vote in school board elections or pay attention to what they do, then we need to engage and energize the electorate– not silence them further!

Anyway, I see two main problems with mayoral control. First, there’s no strong evidence (repeated assertions, yes, but little evidence) that it has been successful. In some of the highest-profile experiments, it’s actually been quite problematic. For instance, in New York City, the much-hyped test score increases used to justify Bloomberg and Klein’s contentious approach to leadership were mostly the result of steadily declining standards for what constituted proficiency. Once the bar was raised again, proficiency rates plummeted. The city’s performance on the NAEP hasn’t changed at all– and none of that even considers broader questions about students’ growth as critical thinkers or citizens, or the impact of constant school turmoil on the social and emotional health of the students, teachers, and parents subjected to this punitive style of “reform.” Similar statements can also be made about Chicago, where test score increases coincided with lowered standards and turnarounds merely shuffled kids around different schools instead of meaningfully improving their prospects or the schools themselves. (Others who’d like to pile on examples for other cities, please be my guest. Where my DC folks at?)

The second problem is much larger. Even if there were an unequivocally strong track record of successful school turnarounds under mayoral control, legally eliminating checks and balances is a dangerous thing to do. Just as mayoral control might make it easier to make positive changes in the system, mayoral control would also make it easier to make negative changes in the system. Are we truly silly enough to believe that each and every politician who comes to office is virtuous enough to deserve such absolute control over schools? Do we seriously believe that any single person and their small group of advisors are so perfect, and so knowledgeable of every single issue that affects their constituents, that they should be empowered to make sweeping unilateral decisions? We know politicians can be swayed by powerful, well-financed people and organizations whose interests don’t align with the public good. (Financial deregulation and Wall Street fraud, anyone?) Why make it even harder for everyday citizens to overcome that influence?

Yes, it might be bold to radically increase executive power, but that doesn’t make it a good idea. No individual or group is perfect. We need to constantly engage with each other, and disagree, and be willing to see where we might be wrong or right in order to generate good, sustainable plans for progress.

Here’s my message to those considering mayoral control in Denver or anywhere else: If your ideas cannot bear the weight of fair, open, and vigorous discussion amongst all stakeholders, they have no business becoming policy.

And if you cannot listen, consider, question, reason, and collaborate with the people charged with carrying out important policies, you have no business being in charge of anything.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. John Young permalink
    December 9, 2010 1:03 pm

    Bold isn’t good and right? Be still my beating heart….. Whatever will Arne Duncan do?


  2. markfriedman1 permalink
    December 13, 2010 7:23 am

    I started a comment but now I just gotta write an article in response/support of what you wrote here.


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