SYRACUSE, N.Y., May 4, 2010 -- One evening last month, after helping one of her daughters with her English homework, Syracuse community activist Tanika Jones-Cole said she was thinking about the future, and the prospects of sending her 14-year-old daughter, Jadasiah Cole, to a high school with a graduation rate hovering around 50 percent.
"There's a huge number of kids that enter the ninth grade, and there's less than half of them that actually graduate the 12th grade, and I'm scared to death that one of those kids could be one of my own," Jones-Cole said.
Jones-Cole, a mother of two, has heard a lot of talk about education reform in Syracuse, including a proposal for the mayor to take over the school district.
As the lead community organizer for Citizen Action of New York, a grass-roots organization that focuses on issues related to education, Jones-Cole says she isn't sure about mayoral control, but will advocate for anything that will make the schools better.
The city's four-year graduation rate of 45 percent, measured from 2005 to 2009, is well below the state average of 72 percent.
In the first week of her term in January, Mayor Stephanie Miner announced that she was seriously considering mayoral control as one of a number of options to improve the city's public schools. Since the announcement, Miner has not specified what mayoral control would mean for teachers, students and parents.
Urban mayors across the country are also weighing the possibility of doing away with their elected school boards and taking control of their school districts.
During the last year, mayors in Detroit, Milwaukee and Rochester have expressed interest in taking control over public school systems in their areas. New York City, Boston, Washington, D.C., and Chicago are among the districts with some form of mayoral control.
In a statement to ABCNews.com, Miner said she is looking for ways to improve the school district's academic performance and efficiency.
"The City is exploring a number of options to improve our schools and bring more accountability and better results. Mayoral control is just one option and one that has been successful in improving student achievement in cities such as New York City," Miner said. "The bottom line is what we have been doing has not been working, so we need to be creative and not take any options off the table that could provide for greater accountability, better efficiency and increased student achievement."
The announcement has led to discussion about whether mayoral control is the right move for Syracuse schools.
In an editorial in The Post-Standard, former Syracuse Mayor Tom Young said he favored holding the mayor directly accountable for school performance. Syracuse has three schools on the state's list of 57 "persistently lowest achieving" schools, and Young says the mayor should play a more prominent role in managing the school district's resources and tax dollars.
'The Best Option for Our Children'
"I believe the message is clear -- the best model is one where taxpayers clearly know where the buck stops and accountability rests," Young wrote of mayoral control in the editorial. "This is the best option for our children, our neighborhoods and our city's future."
Others maintain that Syracuse's independent elected school board provides the best medium for community representation and balances taxpayer and student interests. In another Post-Standard editorial, Timothy Kremer, executive director of the New York State School Boards Association, argued that mayoral control could allow the mayor to make decisions without a public debate on education issues.
"Elected school boards serve as a conduit for community involvement in the schools," Kremer wrote. "By listening to many voices, elected boards make more informed decisions and gain broader acceptance within the community for those decisions."
Linking School Performance to the Future of Cities
In school systems with mayoral control, mayors typically handpick school boards and appoint superintendents to oversee school performance and institute reforms. Mayors take over schools with goals of improving test scores and graduation rates and bringing more accountability to their city schools.
Proponents of mayoral control say it allows mayors to use their positions of power to bring in more federal and state money to schools. They argue it also ties the mayor's electoral standing with school performance. By taking control, mayors put their reputations on the line: If the schools fail, the mayor will not be reelected.
More mayors are linking improving schools with improving cities, said Kenneth Wong, director of Brown University's urban education policy program.
"We are going to see an expansion in the way mayors are going to get involved with public education," Wong said.
"In order to revive large neighborhoods with high concentrations of poverty, schools and faith-based institutions are often the only institutions left," Wong said. "Mayors see schools as a focal point to revitalize and stabilize these neighborhoods."
But critics argue that mayoral control breeds school systems that overemphasize standardized test scores and shut out community input from parents and teachers.
"School districts can get worse because they focus on raising test scores rather than improving student learning," said David Hursh, who studies mayoral control at the University of Rochester.
Others maintain that mayors should focus on their traditional roles, bringing jobs back to their cities, keeping their streets clean and making sure their neighborhoods are safe.
"Mayors have a lot on their plate," said Anne Bryant, executive director of the National School Boards Association. "They've got to keep their cities safe, economically sound, keep the roads clean ... to add schools to that plate is a huge additional agenda item."
Mixed Results for Mayoral Control of School Districts
Bryant dismisses the notion that mayoral control allows for more accountability. School boards, she said, are the only groups working first and foremost for student interests.
"A mayor has to be held accountable to a variety of responsibilities," Bryant said. "What if he's lousy on schools and great at plowing streets? Citizens will return their mayor if they feel he has done a good job in other areas."
Test scores also show mixed results. While state test scores have improved in some cities with mayoral control, performance on the National Association of Educational Progress, which evaluates student achievement on national, state and local levels, shows less dramatic improvement.
"Everyone's looking for the silver bullet on how you fix schools, and there isn't one," Bryant said.
The Hybrid Mayor
Bryant points to Boston as a school system that successfully balanced mayoral involvement with parent, teacher and community voices. Since 1993, Mayor Thomas Menino has taken an active role in Boston Public Schools by appointing the district's school committee and working closely with the school superintendent and school committee chairperson on education issues.
Menino is credited with adding stability to Boston's school system. The average tenure for school superintendents in 53 of the largest urban public school systems in 2008 was 3.5 years, according to a survey of the Council of the Great City Schools, an organization representing the nation's largest urban public school systems. Menino's first school superintendent, Thomas Payzant, served 11 years before retiring in 2006.
In Boston, a group of community stakeholders provides the mayor with a slate of three candidates to choose from for each open position on the school committee, Bryant said. The nominating process allows the mayor to play a primary role in the school district without alienating the community, she said.
The Boston School District won the $1 million Broad Prize in 2006 for demonstrating the greatest overall performance and improvement in student achievement while reducing achievement gaps among poor and minority students. The Broad Prize is the largest education award in the country given to school districts.
"The best model in these big cities is when the mayor takes his role seriously as a resource and partner to the school district," Bryant said.
"Now if Mayor Menino goes away and another mayor comes in with a different agenda, it might not be so good," she said.
Mayoral Control in Detroit
Mayoral control in Detroit was a different story.
In 1999, Michigan's legislature empowered Mayor Dennis Archer to take over Detroit Public Schools without opening the decision to the public. Mayoral control in Detroit was riddled by community disillusionment, political conflict and unclear goals for the future, Wong said. In 2004, Detroit voters rejected mayoral control and restored the district's elected school board structure.
"Mayors have to be committed," Wong said. "In Detroit, the mayor didn't want to spend the political capital. The state placed the system on the school district and it alienated the city."
Current Detroit Mayor Dave Bing has said he would be willing to assume control over the school district, but only if the community agreed to it. Advocates for mayoral control in Detroit argue that turning around the city starts with its schools -- and holding the mayor accountable for student achievement and learning.
But Ruby Newbold, president of the Detroit Association of Educational Office Employees, said that because of the 1999 mayoral takeover, she has doubts about whether mayoral control could work in Detroit.
"One person in charge with no oversight, we've been through that already," she said. "The mayor has enough on his plate. His priorities should be fixing the city and making sure the jobs come back into the city."
Fixing Syracuse Schools
In Syracuse, the mayor, parent organizations and the school superintendent are all searching for ways to improve city schools. At 33 percent, Syracuse's Fowler High School has one of the lowest four-year graduation rates in the state. That's the school the daughter of community activist Jones-Cole would attend, based on location. But because her K-8 school is also on the state's list of underperforming schools, she is eligible to attend high school elsewhere in Syracuse.
Still, Jones-Cole worries about her daughters' education.
Jones-Cole said she wishes her children had the opportunities afforded to children in other districts, from more modern buildings and sports fields to better science laboratories and up-to-date textbooks.
In terms of getting a quality education, Jones-Cole said, "the truth of the matter is my child will always be behind."