Why Mayoral Control Works: Evidence from New York City

By 04/11/2011

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A blow for mayoral control was struck last week.  Contrary to Diane Ravtich’s complaints about mayoral control, voiced again on a New York TV station, Michael Bloomberg’s rapid-fire decision to replace Cathie Black with Dennis Walcott demonstrates the great advantage mayoral control has over the standard school board.

The key decision both school boards and mayors must make is the selection of the administrative head of the school system.  They depend heavily on that person to guide them through the complexities of operating a complex, modern bureaucracy.  Both boards and mayors have too many other obligations to attend to even the important details involved in running schools.

When mayors make mistakes, as Bloomberg did, they have strong incentives to correct those errors quickly.  Their popularity can be seriously endangered, as Bloomberg soon found out.  But school boards, both when hiring and terminating chief education officers, have to form a consensus, or at least put together a majority, before they can act.  That takes time, and too often ineffective superintendents remain in office until the end of their contract.

That, of course, is the reason the writers of the Constitution created a presidency, instead of letting a committee of Congress continue to exercise executive powers, as had been the case under the Articles of Confederation.  Alexander Hamilton gives the explanation in the Federalist papers: “A feeble executive implies a feeble execution of the government. A feeble execution is but another phrase for a bad execution; and a government ill executed, whatever it may be in theory, must be, in practice, a bad government.”  No one has made a better case against school boards.

In New York City, Black was clearly finding it difficult to wrap her mind around the budgetary, administrative and political challenges of managing the country’s largest education system, and within three months of taking office, those closest to the Chancellor’s door were well aware that the tight ship managed by Joel Klein for so many years was floundering near a rocky shore.

It is hard to imagine a school board finding a way to reverse its decision within a three-month period.  But for Bloomberg, the price was too high. If he was to keep his own mayoralty on track—and leave open the possibility of a presidential bid—he had to master the problem at Tweed Hall now, immediately, without delay.

So he chose a consummate insider to replace Black, a man who knew the political ropes but still identified with the mayor’s agenda.  Smart move.

– Paul E. Peterson

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