Does Mayoral Control Provide a Governance Structure that is well suited for our Schools?


In terms school reform, accountability is not possible if a school district lacks the proper control model or governance structure for local control.  Once the most appropriate control structure is in place, only then can a school district achieve the level of accountability necessary to improve student and school achievement.  Educational quality and accountability, therefore, depend on a school system employing the control model that best suits its needs and priorities.  

But what control model makes accountability possible?  Mayoral control is one governance structure that is often promoted as a model of democratic accountability particularly for large urban school districts.  Perhaps its most democratic aspect is that it concentrates all responsibility for a school district’s performance in one person, the mayor.  When the mayor has control over the municipality’s school system, then the voters have one focal person whom they can hold directly accountable for their local school district’s performance.  

Proponents of mayoral control contend that such a control model provides for greater accountability than does having an elected board of education run a school district.  Because there is often a much greater voter turnout for mayoral elections as compared to board of education elections, they are touted as more reflective of the will of people.  Still, it is not clear whether having an independently elected school board of education or even an elected school superintendent rather than having only an elected mayor in charge of the school system combined with holding elections in November rather than in April or May would result in comparable voter turnout.  

According to the typical mayoral control model, the mayor appoints the board of education as well as the superintendent of schools.  But in order for the mayor to have such power, often he/she must be granted the authority by the state government as well as the municipal legislature.  Even Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, (Kroll, 2009) advocates such changes.  Secretary Duncan (Kroll, 2009) favors the mayoral control model because he asserts that such a model establishes clear lines for accountability whereas pathways to accountability may be much less clear with a board of education governance structure.  

The typical mayoral control model concentrates the authority to govern the municipality’s schools within the office of the mayor placing the mayor rather than the board of education at the top of the governance structure.  Advocates believe this facilitates efficiencies and accountability.  Viteritti (2009) echoes this position by arguing that mayoral control enables changes to the school system to occur sooner and more efficiently.  

Alternatively, opponents of mayoral control argue that an elected board of education control model, within which the board appoints the superintendent of schools, is more democratic and provides for greater accountability.  One of their main arguments is that the elected board of education control model grew as a good government response to the corruption, waste, and political patronage that were common place in school systems run by mayors especially in the early to mid twentieth century.  

Proponents of mayoral control argue that it is their model that often enables large and particularly urban school districts to solve educational problems because the mayoral control model provides the governance and control structure that makes accountability more likely.  Their primary rationale for supporting this model is that it makes one focal person, the mayor, responsible for holding all schools accountable to high standards.  When the mayoral control model is applied they contend that there is no divided authority in the governance of schools because the mayor has all the decision making power necessary to affect change and establish reform.  This model generates greater accountability especially in urban school districts because there is a clear and direct chain of command emanating from the mayor over all aspects of the city’s schools.  

Mayoral control advocates cite that mayors rather than board of education members are more likely to have the experience and the political network necessary to lead a large municipal-wide enterprise.  Because mayors are elected in citywide elections, they also may be more likely to have a broader understanding of the full range issues affecting all of the municipality’s schools than would board of education members elected by ward or some other political subdivision of the municipality.  

In summarizing their findings concerning mayoral control, Harris and Rotherham (2007, p. 2) state that mayors “are the only officials accountable for the health of entire cities. They have experience delivering and monitoring a wide range of services to their constituents, and are able to mobilize their cities’ resources to create high quality educational options for youth.  And, because voters hold them accountable for the quality of life in their city, mayors might as well truly be engaged with improving education.” 

Strong Mayor – Weak Mayor

There are different forms of governance structures involving the mayor including the strong mayor and weak mayor forms.  Which form mayoral control and authority take influences how the mayor can impact the school system.  In this context, Cuban and Usdan (2003) argue that whether or not term limits apply to the mayor affects the extent to which mayoral control can be effective.  

The strong mayor or strong mayor – weak council form of government resembles the federal model in which the mayor serves as the chief executive while the council is the legislature.  This form gives the mayor broad authority over all administrative and financial aspects of municipal government including developing, proposing, and administering the municipality’s budget as well as appointing, supervising, and replacing all departmental staff.  Edelstein (2006) reports that this governance structure facilitates mayoral control of the school system as a function of the powers granted the mayor under this form of government.  

The mayor operating under a strong mayor form of government typically appoints the municipal board of education and the superintendent.  Proponents believe that this provides for much greater accountability because there is one person who can be held accountable for the quality of education citywide.  Opponents disagree according to their belief that such a structure will lead to less accountability because voters can no longer vote for individual board of education members while the mayor’s four year term does not provide enough recourse.  

Alternatively, the weak mayor or council – manager form of government more closely resembles that of a corporate governance structure.  Under this governance structure, the council is the legislative body while the city manager operates with many of the executive powers granted the mayor when under the strong mayor form which makes the mayor “weak” in the sense that his/her role is largely ceremonial. 

According to the weak mayor or council – manager form of government, the city manager wields authority over the administrative and financial aspects of government including developing, proposing, and administering the municipality’s budget as well as appointing, supervising, and replacing all departmental staff while the council appoints the city manager and approves the municipal budget.  Because the city manager serves largely in the role of chief executive and the mayor’s authority is correspondingly limited, the mayor’s ability to impact the school system is similarly limited under this form of government. 

Mayoral Control Rationale

Increasingly, many large urban school districts are looking to change their control structure and adopt the mayoral control model.  Tired of the status quo, these districts seem to expect that the mayoral control model will address the two major shortcomings of their school systems.  That is, they want their schools to benefit from having a mayor who is elected citywide and who, in turn, can be held directly responsible for the performance of their school system.  

Large urban districts that adopt the mayoral control model do so with an expectation that their democratically elected mayor will hold their students and schools accountable for their performance.  In this way, it is believed the mayor will provide the leadership and accountability necessary to overcome what is often perceived as a fragmented, dysfunctional, and less than fully accountable elected board of education governance model when it is replaced with the mayoral control model.  

But many major urban school districts desperate for improved student and school performance look to adopt the mayoral control model to improve their district’s academic achievement and educational quality through its democratic accountability.  But what if the change from an elected board of education with possibly a weak mayor or council – manager form to a governance structure of mayoral control involving perhaps the strong mayor form of mayoral governance should fail?   

The benefits that taxpayers derive from their local school district quality and property taxes are capitalized in their property values.  Because taxpayers strive to protect and improve their property values, they constantly evaluate the quality of their school district so as to maximize their property values.  If their school district’s quality should deteriorate or is expected to decline, then these typical Tieboutian (Tiebout, 1956) taxpayers will “vote with their feet.”    

By voting with their feet taxpayers choose the local school district that best meets their needs and one that will contribute to their property values.  But taxpayers vote not only with their feet but also on school district operating budgets, capital projects, and board of education members.  Through the exercise of these votes, taxpayers expect to control the quality of education provided by their local schools as well as the level of property taxes levied.  

The collective decisions of taxpayers lead to a Pareto efficient allocation of local public education.  In this context, Baker, Green, and Richards (2008, p. 21) state that the “Tiebout model represents the most basic form of school choice.”  If an urban school district’s quality deteriorates or is expected to decline, therefore, the tax base supporting the local schools will decline correspondingly.  This further supports the need for school districts especially urban ones to adopt the school governance model that is best suited to its needs such as an elected board of education. 

The Mayoral Control Experience

While more of America’s larger and especially urban school districts are considering adopting the mayoral control model, more than a dozen already have some form of mayoral control including Boston in 1992, Chicago in 1995, Cleveland in 1998, Philadelphia in 2001, and New York City in 2002.  A few other school districts are considering mayoral control if even for a second time such as Detroit in which it was established in 1999.  But according to Levy (2004, p. 3) “it is difficult to link changes in governance to improvements in student achievement.”  

To date, it seems as if the impact of mayoral control model on school and student achievement has been mixed.  Levy (2004, p. 3) points out that Boston, Chicago, and Cleveland, “with the longest history of mayoral control, have improved test scores in both elementary and secondary schools, though their racial achievement gaps remain” while “Detroit’s scores have gone down.”  Levy (2004, p. 3) continues by stating that “the lowest 20% of schools have improved, and have done so more rapidly that their school systems as a whole.”   

Darling-Hammond (2009) reports some different results for the impact of mayoral control model on school and student achievement.  Boston (Darling-Hammond, 2009, p. 3) had the “largest gains in student proficiency rates between 2003 and 2007 in fourth and eighth grade math and fourth grade reading.” However, “Boston was tied with San Diego for gains in fourth grade math and with Houston for gains in eighth grade math” while San Diego and Houston did not have mayoral control of their schools.  Chicago which had many failing schools and a highly decentralized school system until Mayer Daley took over in 1995, recorded only “modest gains under mayoral control” according to Darling-Hammond (2009, p. 3) while “Austin, one of the highest achieving urban districts in all subjects during all of those years,” did so without a mayoral control governance structure.  

New York City

But proponents contend that the mayoral control model is a governance structure that has led to turnarounds in student performance and accountability particularly in previously failing urban school systems.  New York City is a prime example, they contend.  Testifying in favor of mayoral control for New York City’s public schools, Thomas A. Dunne, Fordham’s vice president for government relations and urban affairs, stated (Howe, 2009, p. 1) “It was not long ago that our schools were a dismal failure and no one wanted to be held accountable.  New York City public officials abdicated their responsibility and created 32 local school boards.  No one person or authority took responsibility for our schools.  There was political infighting, confusion, some school boards became patronage mills and as a result the children suffered.  Education was no longer a priority.”  

Joseph M. McShane, president of Fordham, summarized (Howe, 2009, p. 2) the benefits of mayoral control by testifying, “A key ingredient in improving school performance is accountability.”  The mayoral control model provides one leader whom can held accountable for student and school performance.  

Stern (2007) summarizes the factors that led to New York City’s second adoption of the mayoral control model and the replacement of its elected board of education governance model.  “The old Board of Education offered a case study of the paralysis that sets in when fragmented political authority tries to direct a dysfunctional bureaucracy.  New Yorkers arrived at a consensus that there was not much hope of lifting student achievement substantially under such a regime.  The newly elected Bloomberg made an offer that they couldn’t refuse:  Give me the authority to improve the schools, and then hold me accountable for the results” (Stern, 2007, p. 1).  

New York City’s second adoption of the mayoral control model in 2002 resulted largely from the public’s reaction to the problems associated with the decentralization of the citywide school district into 32 independent school districts in 1969.  Each local board of education governed its own district and was elected locally.  While each local board of education was fully empowered to operate its district, there was no accountability for school and student achievement.  

Segal (2005, p. 132) describes how New York City adopted the mayoral control model, “putting Mayor Michael Bloomberg at the helm of the school system.  The idea was to introduce long-needed accountability into what had been one of the most unaccountable bureaucracies in the state.”  Segal (2005, p. 132) continues “Bloomberg has repeatedly said he would stake his success on his ability to improve education, implicitly inviting New Yorkers to vote him out of office if he fails.”  

New Jersey

New Jersey’s largest public school district, Newark, not only is one of the three districts taken over and operated by the state including Jersey City and Paterson but also has one of the highest per pupil spending rates in the state.  As an Abbott District, Newark’s public schools also are funded almost entirely by the state of New Jersey.  Despite such lavish spending and state funding, Newark’s schools’ and students’ performances as measured by standardized tests lag far behind the state averages in all subject areas.  

Segal (2005, p. 29) goes further in reporting that “in New Jersey, corruption and gross mismanagement clearly correlate with poor student performance.  The three school districts that the New Jersey state education department took over – Jersey City, Paterson, and Newark – had the highest rates of systemic corruption and among the lowest test scores and highest dropout rates in the state.”  Perhaps either despite or because of these dire conditions, Newark Mayor Booker is advocating that the city change to a mayoral control model as the governance structure for its school system. 

Oakland United School District

The Oakland United School District demonstrates what problems can occur within a weak mayor form of government in which the mayor shares power over the school system with an elected board of education.  In the Oakland United School District, the mayor appoints some members of the board of education while other members are elected directly to those positions.  In 2000, “Oakland voters (Wong and Shen, 2007, p. 742) approved a change in the city’s charter, allowing Mayor Brown to appoint three new school board members to an expanded ten member board.”  

The Oakland United School District’s “mixed” board of education did not function effectively (Wong and Shen, 2007, p. 742).  The board’s worsening financial position eventually led to its bankruptcy and being taken over by the state of California in 2003.  In 2009, however, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction restored full control and authority over the Oakland United School District to a fully elected rather than “mixed” board of education effectively removing the mayor from having influence over the school system.  


But the mayoral control model is not necessarily a panacea as the failure of the Detroit school system attests.  Detroit’s public schools and students consistently have been among the worst performing in the nation.  Kirst and Bulkley (2001) believe that Detroit’s weak mayor governance structure may have contributed to the citywide school system’s problems.  Indeed, James (2002, cited in Wong and Shen, 2007, p. 743) reports these findings “Detroit’s experience with mayoral control between 1999 and 2004 was politically contentious with teachers unions and the National Association of Colored People on the opposing side and the business and the urban league on the supporting side.”  

Indeed, continuous objections to widespread corruption, waste, financial mismanagement, and patronage in Detroit’s school systems caused Detroit to reconsider mayoral control.  Moreover, the reliance on the patronage system to make personnel decisions compounded its adverse impact on schools.  In 2004, (Wong and Shen, 2007, p. 743) voters disaffected with the continuing poor performance of their school system, rejected Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s attempt to gain their approval of “Proposition E, which would have enabled him to appoint a strong chief executive as well as the entire board.”  As a result, Detroit changed from mayoral control to an elected citywide board of education control model.  

While test scores and enrollment continue to decline, Detroit has closed more than 145 schools since 2004 (Saulny, 2010).  To help overcome the problems plaguing the district including a projected budget deficit of approximately $320 million, Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm appointed Robert Bobb as the district’s emergency manager in 2009 (Saulny, 2010).    Nonetheless, Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, (Kroll, 2009) advocates Detroit’s returning to the mayoral control model to provide for more continuity, stability, and accountability in the school system. 


Tired of widespread corruption, waste, financial mismanagement, and patronage mills in its school system as well as poor student and school performance, Chicago adopted the mayoral control model in 1995.  Although Chicago’s mayors have historically enjoyed significant influence over the city school system including some appointive authority (Carl, 2009), the passage of the Chicago School Reform Act officially empowered the mayor to appoint the entire board of education and the superintendent of schools.  

In passing the Chicago School Reform Act, Chicago’s residents sought to link electoral accountability and the city’s educational performance accountability by holding a singular elected official, the mayor, accountable for improving its student and school achievement.   Establishing complete mayoral control in 1995 was actually more of a return to a strong mayor governance structure over the city’s schools because (Carl, 2009) the mayor’s appointive authority over the board of education had been largely transferred to a citywide commission in 1988.  

Kirst and Bulkley (2001) studied the history of mayoral control in Chicago.  They concluded that the improvement in the Chicago’s school system since 1995 may be linked to the city’s adoption of a strong mayor governance structure.  But the track record of Chicago’s school system before full mayoral control was established in 1995 shows that it did not generally lead to gains in school and student achievement.  Mayors regularly used their influence over Chicago’s school system to achieve their personal and political agendas prior to the passage of the Chicago School Reform Act.  

Carl (2009, p. 305) concludes that Chicago’s mayors regularly used their office to build “coalitions that met their own political interests; with one possible exception, these political interests did not necessarily coincide with higher quality urban schools.  All of the mayors embraced educational positions that were as much about marshalling votes and winning the support of corporate Chicago as they were about improving the schools.”  

Still, despite a history of mixed results, advocates of the mayoral control model regularly cite the problems associated with having elected boards of education govern large urban school districts.  These proponents assert that having the mayor appoint the entire board of education and the superintendent of schools is perhaps the best way for a large urban district to improve school and student achievement.  

Yet, Hess (2008) seems to disagree with the mayoral control model in his analysis of the performance history of Chicago’s school system which has been largely under some degree of mayoral control.  Hess (2008) takes issue with a board of education that is appointed either in full or in large part by the mayor.  

Chicago Summary

According to Hess (2008), there is a risk for any major urban school district including Chicago’s when its board of education is composed of all mayoral appointments that it could lose the transparency necessary for accountability.  “Appointed officials, buffered from political and constituent considerations, are more likely to leave significant distributional or value-laden issues unaddressed” continues Hess (2003, cited in Hess, 2008, p. 233).  As a result of this avoidance of complex challenges, an appointed board of education may not necessarily represent the wide range of educational views and priorities of the city’s various constituent groups.  

In his review of Chicago as well as other major urban school districts, Hess (2008, p. 234) concludes that “mayors can get caught up politicizing school boards in self-serving ways or that, rather than embracing municipal attention to schooling, making education part of a mayor’s portfolio might leave it vulnerable to shifts in mayoral focus.”  The inherent risk with the mayoral control model, therefore, may be that education ceases being a major stand alone municipal enterprise with its own duly elected set of officials and stakeholders and becomes perhaps just another city function competing for scarce financial and human resources.  

Wong and Shen (2007) assess the impact of mayoral control model on Chicago’s school and student achievement more favorably.  Wong and Shen (2007) argue that since its adoption in 1995, the mayoral control model has improved accountability by integrating authority throughout the school system and reversed the trend to fragmentation as well as decentralization.  

Also, Wong and Shen (2007) cite how Chicago’s school system was able to correct its flawed financial management under the of mayoral control model.  Wong and Shen (2007, p. 740) conclude that under the guidance of the mayor, the administration of Chicago’s school system “improved its capital funding, balanced the budget, and secured labor stability through a four year contract with the teachers’ union.” 

Wong and Shen (2007) go further in describing the benefits gained by the Chicago school system by having mayoral control.  Wong and Shen (2007, p. 740) report that “The school board launched its first capital improvement plan in decades to address the deterioration of the schools’ physical plant.  The administration also improved management efficiency by waging a public battle against waste and corruption, downsizing the central office, and contracting out several operations.”   


Student and school performance had deteriorated to such an extent that by 1992, Boston became the first large urban school district to adopt the mayoral control model.  The elected board of education was replaced with one appointed by the mayor (Levy, 2004).    

Mayoral control is largely credited with turning around Boston’s school system which had suffered through years of corruption, financial mismanagement, and patronage (Hess, 2008).  Proponents contend that by finally having one person, the mayor, to hold accountable for the school system rather than a fragmented elected board of education, Boston was able to turnaround a school system with failing student and school performance.  

The Boston school system seemed to benefit from the accountability afforded by the mayoral control model.  Portz (Portz, 2003, cited in Hess, 2008, p. 222) assessed the impact of this governance structure, “A more consensual, elite dialogue has replaced the contentious debate, racial divisions, and constituent services.  In contrast to long meetings and divided votes, the typical meeting of the appointed committee is both shorter and less contentious.”  In addition to providing for greatly increased stability in the school system leadership, mayoral control seemed to provide Boston with the accountability necessary for greatly improved school and student performance.  Hess (2008, p. 222) supports this conclusion by listing several accomplishments including but not limited to how Boston: 

  • “Outperformed other Massachusetts districts with similar low-income populations in elementary, middle, and high school.”  
  • “Demonstrated greater improvement by African-American students than did similar Massachusetts districts.” 
  • “Increased fourth and eighth grade reading and math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) at a faster rate than the average of other large American cities, as well as faster than the national average.” 

In Boston, the change to mayoral control seemed to provide the kind of leadership necessary for school system-wide accountability.  In turn, the increased accountability improved the way the school system operated and performed. 

Los Angeles

The Los Angeles school district is the nation’s second largest school district.  It includes the school systems of 26 other cities besides Los Angeles, over 1,100 schools, and slightly less than one million students.  Because it is composed of the school systems of 26 other proximate cities, Los Angeles is often referred to as a large unified school district or the L.A.U.S.D.  The L.A.U.S.D. exemplifies a large urban school district with a mixed governance structure that is plagued by a fragmented power sharing arrangement among 26 mayors rather than centralized control under the command of one mayor or locally elected board of education.  As such the L.A.U.S.D. suffers from the penalties or diseconomies of scale that afflict large urban districts.  It also lacks the benefits of having one just one person or group, one mayor or board of education, which the voters can hold accountable for the school system’s performance.  

The Los Angeles school district seems to be a district, therefore, that could readily benefit from disaggregating into several smaller local districts of no more than 3,500 students and unifying control under a locally elected board of education within each of these smaller districts.  Each of these districts would be empowered to allocate its financial and human resources according to local needs and priorities.  Implementing this arrangement would empower each local district to levy their own local property taxes to fund their schools according to local needs and priorities.  This also would require the repeal of California’s Proposition 13 that banned local districts from levying their own local property taxes.  

Once a newly disaggregated school district becomes free of the excessive bureaucratic burdens imposed by its former fragmented unmanageably large school district, unified under the control of a locally elected board of education, free of its state’s governmental strings attached to funding, and regains the ability to levy their own property taxes, each small local district would be much better equipped to generate the necessary public support for the public funding of its local public schools.  The disaggregation process, therefore, not only could be applied successfully to school districts nationwide with enrollments exceeding 3,500 but also would greatly improve accountability and enable the disaggregated school districts to realize the benefits of economies of scale. 


Because mayoral control provides for the mayor to be held accountable for the city’s school and student achievement, quality education can become more of a priority.  Still, either mayoral control or an elected board of education can provide the governance structure that makes the accountability necessary for improved school system performance possible.  The direct lines of authority under mayoral control or a superintendent under the control of an elected board of education can make for more effective decision making.  

But the mayoral control model is neither a panacea nor a cure for all that ails a large urban school district.  The chronic failure of the Detroit school system demonstrates how not to operate a school district even with mayoral control.  Also, there is no compelling evidence that mayoral control leads to improved performance for all students and schools within a district (Kremer, 2010).  

Objections to a history of widespread corruption, waste, financial mismanagement, and patronage in urban school systems has caused more than a dozen large cities to change or to begin the change process from an elected citywide board of education control model to a mayoral control model since 1995.  Moreover, the reliance on a patronage system to make personnel decisions compounded the typical elected citywide board of education’s adverse impact on schools.  As a result of patronage, the hiring and allocating of school personnel tended to be based less on merit and more on political considerations which caused many well qualified educators and administrators to be excluded from the schools.  

In order for the mayoral control model to succeed, therefore, a large urban school district needs to have the right kind of leader who is dedicated to not only improving education and increasing accountability but also to eliminating corruption and imbedded patronage systems.  While there may be no perfect control model for large urban school districts, mayoral control can provide perhaps an appropriate platform for achieving accountability for improved school and student achievement.  

Large urban school districts seem to benefit from the clear lines of authority and centralized decision making process that accompany mayoral control.  While cities should pay close attention to avoiding penalties or diseconomies of scale due to their size, it is possible that mayoral control can overcome many of the problems associated with a dysfunctional large urban district.  

Hess (2008, p. 239) summarizes “replacing an elected board with one named by a strong, active, and accountable mayor is a promising way to jump-start coherent and sustained school improvement” especially for large urban school districts.  New York City, Boston, and Chicago exemplify large urban school district mayoral control success stories.   Hess (2008, p. 240) concludes that “In the case of dysfunctional urban districts, mayoral control seems to offer clear advantage in terms of coherence, political leadership, and accountability.”  


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Portz, J. (2003). “Boston: Agenda Setting and School Reform in a Mayor-centric System.” In Henig, J. R. & Wilbur, C. R. (Editors), Mayors in the Middle:  Politics, Race, and Mayoral Control of Urban Schools. Princeton, New Jersey:  Princeton University Press, Cited in Hess, F. M. (2008). Looking for Leadership:  Assessing the Case for Mayoral Control of Urban School Systems, (p. 222). American Journal of Education, 114, 219-245.   

Saulny, S. (2010, March 18). Detroit Plan Would Close 45 Schools, The New York Times, March 18, 2010. p. A 19.    

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Viteritti, J. (2009). (Editor). When Mayors Take Charge:  School Governance in the City. Washington, D.C.:  Brookings Institution Press. 

Wong, K. K. & Shen, F. X. (2007). Mayoral Leadership Matters:  Lessons Learned from Mayoral Control of Large Urban School Systems, Peabody Journal of Education, 82 (4), 737-768.

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