February 4, 2009
Most supporters of mayoral control list similar reasons for why they prefer the governance structure: it consolidates accountability in a single person; it reduces corruption that can proliferate in a decentralized system. But there’s also a less prominent argument: that mayoral control could facilitate a new breed of full-service schools that tackle both poverty and low academic achievement.
Teachers union president Randi Weingarten made this argument last year when she said mayors could create “community schools” by linking city agencies in innovative ways. But I hadn’t heard it again until today, when I spoke with Katherine Eckstein, a public policy expert who works at the Children’s Aid Society, one of the city’s oldest social services agencies.
“When kids are hungry or depressed, or have no place to go, or have chronic medical problems, they have no way to take advantage of opportunities put before them,” she told me. Eckstein, the public policy director for the organization’s National Technical Assistance Center for Community Schools, said many services exist that can help students deal with such issues, but they are not always effectively delivered.
“I see this as the promise of mayoral control — harnessing the power of city agencies,” she said, adding that the Children’s Aid Society plans to promote this idea as the debate over mayoral control’s future picks up.
The Children’s Aid Society already helps run community schools in 40 cities, including Chicago, where former schools CEO Arne Duncan brought the strategy to about 150 schools. Now that Duncan is the U.S. Secretary of Education, Eckstein said she anticipates continued support for the approach, which she said is not just educationally sound but economically efficient.
When school systems try to attack entrenched problems like New York City’s low high school graduation rate, they risk simply piling new programs on top of older ones without making a difference, Eckstein told me. The community schools approach, she said, is “the best use of existing and new resources” because they make sure that students’ varied needs are met.