Every election, it’s a key question for candidate and voter alike: do you support mayoral control of the schools?
Many people have strong feelings on this. But just as many families will not know what it means. Students who graduated earlier this year were in preschool in 2007, the year governance of the DC school system transitioned to mayoral control.
What is mayoral control of the schools, and is it better than the alternatives? Here’s a primer on what it means, how it works – and where
What Is Mayoral Control
Education is usually a state responsibility. In most states, there is a department of education that oversees all education. An elected board of education (SBOE) usually hires the State Superintendent, sets state standards for assessment and curriculum and for licensing schools
The state board has authority over local school boards, each of which oversees a local school district, setting policy and administrating schools. Usually, district boards are elected and determine local policies, hire the district leader, adopt curriculum for the district, deal with teacher unions and set hiring policies.
In DC, the Mayor has direct control over all of this. The mayor appoints all of the education officials: the head of DC’s state department of education, the Deputy Mayor for Education (DME), who “‘develops and implements the mayor’s education vision” from preschool through college; the Superintendent in the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), which is responsible for compliance with federal law and administering federal grants and for standardized testing; and the Chancellor of the school’s local by-right districts, DC Public Schools (DCPS). The mayor also appoints members of the DC Public Charter School Board (DCPCSB), which authorizes new charter schools and provides oversight.
The only elected component are the nine representatives on the DC State Board of Education (SBOE). That Board acts in an advisory position to OSSE on educational matters, like approving graduation and academic standards. But SBOE is not empowered to suggest policy, only to approve or disapprove.
You should also know these two things. First, DCPS is only one Local Education Agency (LEA), or educational institution running a local public school. Conversely, charters have a single LEA running one or more schools. In the 2021-22 school year there were 69 total.
And second, although the two are often convoluted into DC school reform, charter schools pre-existed mayoral control by 11 years. Charter school licensing was legalized by the DC School Reform Act of 1996.
Why It Happened
The switch to mayoral control happened under the leadership of Mayor Adrian Fenty. When he took office in January 2007, Fenty’s first act was to introduce legislation to give him control of the schools. DC Council passed the Public Education Reform Amendment Act (PERAA) in April 2007. (Fenty could not be reached for comment)
At the time, proponents of Mayoral control said it was necessary because the District’s schools had been failing for years, even decades. Books and other equipment were not at schools on opening day; teachers went unpaid; bathrooms were in disrepair. Student achievement was abysmal: in the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress, DC was ranked last, with only 8% of eighth graders proficient in math and 12% in reading. A 2006 city study found that 43% of Washington students graduated from high school in five years –versus a national average of 68%.
“We have a crisis on our hands,” said Fenty in a January 2007 press release. “Over the past two decades, study after study has spelled out the same problems and made nearly the same recommendations. My proposal changes one critical piece of the puzzle–increased accountability and action. I am asking today for that responsibility to be placed squarely on my shoulders.”
That change was needed had long been acknowledged. From 1996 to 2000, DC’s schools operated under the authority of the control board, which had been appointed by the president to prevent the city from going into bankruptcy. The elected school board, which had previously set school budgets and provided oversight, was relegated to a strictly advisory role.
A 2000 referendum created a new Board of Education with an elected president, four elected members representing two wards each and four members appointed by the Mayor and confirmed by the City Council. But many thought the arrangement was too political and controlling, impeding progress.
In 2007, only two council members voted against PERAA, both at-Large representatives: Republican Carol Schwartz and Democrat
Phil Mendelson. Now Council Chairman, Mendelson said at the time that he was more opposed to change than to vesting control in the Mayor’s office.
“At the time, the research was clear that the organizational structure of schools, such as mayoral control as opposed to an independent school board, did not actually make a difference in terms of the quality of education in the classroom,” Mendelson said in an email. “I don’t believe that research has changed. So I didn’t think the change would make a difference and I thought it would be counter-productive.”
Fifteen years later, there is a lot of disagreement about whether the move to mayoral control was right for the District – or, as Mendelson suggests, whether the change mattered at all.
Assessing Mayoral Control
Since mayoral control was implemented, there have been a number of apparent improvements to the school system and student performance that advocates are eager to highlight. Test scores have jumped noticeably overall in the past two decades. Enrollment, which had dropped in the latter half of the 20th century, reaching a nadir in the 1980s, has increased steadily. And investment in schools, particularly in the form of per-pupil funding, has increased dramatically to the point that by that metric, the DC school system is the best-funded system in the United States.
Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn said the District is proud of the improvement in schools since Mayoral Control was implemented. “Students are learning much more in better neighborhood buildings supported by stronger services,” Kihn said in a statement. “Under our system of mayoral accountability with council oversight, our public schools have been transformed for the better.”
But some critics are quick to point out that within each of these perceived successes are not-so-well-hidden indicators that suggest that DC’s schools have not succeeded to the degree that boosters suggest.
For instance, public school enrollment at both DCPS and charter schools has been increasing annually. According to data from OSSE, between this school year and the one starting in 2007, city-wide enrollment increased by 25,203 students, or 35 percent.
But critics argue that growth is not uniform; charter schools have far outpaced DCPS. According to OSSE, in 2008-9, DCPS enrollment in 134 schools was 46,200; the same year there were 59 Charter LEAs with 25,568 students. In 2021-22, there were 49,388 kids enrolled in 118 DCPS schools versus 45,143 in 128 charter LEAs.
DME projects that DCPS will lose 1,000 students next year, 697 of them from schools
in Wards 7 and 8–DC’s Blackest and lowest income communities.
Like growth in enrollment, achievement as measured by standardized testing is improving overall–but growth is in specific pockets of the District. OSSE points to a 2021 Mathematica study that associates DC reforms with larger than expected improvements in grade 4 math and reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).
But NAEP data also indicates that the local achievement gap has been widening in the District. Since 2007, the reading average scale differs by 12.6 between Black and white students and by 16.6 between low- and high-income students. While segments of the District’s students have stagnated, others have taken off: white students who are not considered low-income are the second-highest performing group in the country.
According to the Education Data Initiative, DC spends the most per student of any state–$22,832 per pupil in kindergarten to grade 12, well above the national average of $13,185. In 2007, the per-student spending in DCPS was $14,405.
That’s a big change from prior years. When the school board managed the budget, funding was a contentious issue, according to veteran education analyst and activist Dr. Mary Levy. The board accused the council of not providing sufficient funds to run the schools; DC Council said that the board simply mismanaged them. “I think if we returned to a board, we’d return to the finger-pointing game,” Levy said.
But there are concerns with transparency in terms of how the money is spent. In 2014, DC added an “at-risk” weight to the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula (UPSFF). By law, at-risk funds are supposed to be used to supplement school funding, rather than to replace basic funding.
Numerous analyses have shown that is not the case for DCPS. For instance, Levy found that 40 percent of at-risk funding in FY23 will cover special education and basic programming, especially true of schools east of Rock Creek Park.
The major selling point for mayoral control is that it holds the mayor responsible for school performance. This, theoretically, ensures education is prominent in city politics and streamlines governance. But it also confuses parents, most of whom simply want to know where to go in order to address concerns or get things done.
“We don’t know who these people are, what their roles are,” one parent told a focus group organized by DC SBOE, “and who we should reach out to when we have an issue.”
And that need for accountability and communication is still very much necessary, as some critics say many of the same problems that plagued the system prior to mayoral control still exist.
Former Ward 6 Representative to the SBOE Joe Weedon said while there have been positives, “I would say mayoral control hasn’t lived up to the promise. We continue to have many of the same problems.” He cites delays in background checks in 2022 meant teachers hired in summer were still not in classrooms by December. The teacher’s union was without a contact for three years.
Further, governance structures haven’t evolved with the school system. In 2007, about 25 percent of the city’s students attended a public charter school; in 2022, that proportion is half the city’s public school students.
But charter schools are subject to less oversight under PERAA than they had before 2007, when they were answerable both to the old Board of Education and the DCPCSB. DCPCSB grants and revokes charters; Weedon said there needs to be a strategic plan that includes both systems.
DCPSCB is subject to some mayoral and DC Council oversight. But the exclusive control individual charter LEAs have means they are not under the direct control of the mayor or the DC Council.
That leads to less, not more accountability under mayoral control, Wolf, the education researcher, argues. She points out that in other cities with a degree of mayoral control, such as Chicago and New York, there is also a Department of Education responsible for test-based accountability, assessments and state standards–and that’s controlled by a separate body, usually at the state level.
In DC, the mayor appoints the state department head, the deputy mayor– as well as the state superintendent. “So you have the office that’s supposed to provide the data quality checks and accountability, it’s also controlled by the elected official,” Wolf said. “And that causes a lot of problems and conflicts of interest.”
The argument is, if voters are unhappy with education they could vote for someone else.
But, Wolff adds, the mayor is not only concerned with education but also with affordable housing and economic development and leaf collection and myriad other issues that determine voters’ behavior.
“The mayor winning the election again does not mean that people are happy with education –because it’s not about just education, it’s the whole package,” she said. “So, in that sense, I think people have less power.”
Is it the Right Question?
Most critics of the current system say that governance is not the key to the success of a school system. What they’d like to see, they say, is a cohesive plan to address the District’s educational needs and a way to hold the system accountable for the plan.
Ward 7 State Board of Education Representative Eboni Rose Thompson said that asking if someone supports mayoral control or not is too limiting a question. Most people don’t understand the system well enough to answer it, she said. Rather than asking about leadership, questions about school governance should start at the stakeholders –the families and teachers in the schools.
“We have to ask ourselves, what problems do we want to solve now? And what governance structure do we need to create to move forward?” she said.
The SBOE has been asking those questions. Thompson chairs the SBOE Governance Committee, which has been researching the District system, comparing it to other localities and determining public opinion of the structure.
“The debate does not have to be limited to a choice between what DC had, and what it has now,” Thompson said. Given the changes in the District overall, from population changes to the role of charter schools, she said different structures should be considered.
SBOE has commissioned stakeholder surveys and focus groups and heard from experts in the field as they prepare to make recommendations on governance to DC Council by January 2023.
So perhaps mayoral control isn’t the question, or the final stage of school governance evolution, but merely a step. From that perspective, better understanding the system and the needs of schools and systems is that much more important.
Learn more about the SBOE Governance Committee at https://sboe.dc.gov/page/board-governance.