Toward Collaboration Not a Coup: A research review of mayoral involvement in urban schools


A century ago, urban mayors held governance authority over nearly all city operations, including public schools. It didn’t go well. The corruption and cronyism that characterized big city government in those days spilled over into the management of public education, which even then commanded a lion’s share of the city budget. In response, reformers began calling for a new form of school governance that would be transparent, accountable to the community and separate from the machinations of city politics. And thus, urban school boards were created (Kirst, 2002; Land, 2002; Henig, 2009; Muscovitch et al, 2010).  

School boards remain by far the dominant governance structure for public schools in the U.S. today. But in a strange reversal of history, mayors have begun to re-assert their influence over public schools. Since the early 1990s, an estimated 20 urban districts have been subjected to some formal oversight by the mayor, diminishing — or in some cases, eliminating — the authority of the school board (Wong & Shen, 2013). Among the arguments made for doing so are, ironically, to “make school systems less political” (Harvard Educational Review, 2006). 

What the Research Says About Mayoral Involvement in Urban Schools

The Center for Public Education (CPE) has reviewed existing research on what happens when mayors get involved in public school governance. The results are varied, and in many ways inconclusive, as follows: 

 +  +/-  - 
Mayoral involvement seems
to have some benefit in
terms of providing better
integrated services for
children and more funds
available for instruction
(Wong & Shen, 2007, 2013;
Moscovitch et al, 2010;
Furdell, 2010).
Researchers are divided on
the question of whether or
not it has produced higher
student achievement. Wong
and Shen show higher
reading and math scores in
mayoral takeover cities
although other researchers
say the data is insufficient to
establish mayors as the
cause (Moscovitch et al.,
2010; Bulkley, 2013).
Most researchers agree on
one negative consequence —
when mayors take charge of
public schools, the role of
parents and the community,
especially among minority
groups, can be marginalized
and can further compromise
democratic control of
schools (Harvard, 2006;
Moscovitch et al., 2010;
Hess, 2003, 2011).


In general, most researchers — although not all — were reluctant to make a definitive statement about the efficacy of putting mayors in charge of public schools (Land, 2002; Harvard, 2006; Moscovitch et al., 2010; Fruchter & McAlister, 2008; Chambers, 2006; Allen et al., 2009). Most found scant evidence that circumventing elected school boards helps solve the problems in urban districts. In fact, it may disenfranchise the very communities who depend most on strong public schools for their youth.  

We believe better communication and coordination between the mayor’s office and the elected school board is the better way to strengthen public education in urban districts. A solid collaboration built on trust will allow both entities to provide what each can do best.  

A necessary disclosure
The Center for Public Education (CPE) is an initiative of the National School Boards Association (NSBA), which officially “opposes any political jurisdiction to remove, diminish, or interfere with the authority of local governing boards and districts” (NSBA Beliefs and Policies, 2006). 

So, while objectivity is a hallmark of CPE’s overall mission, on this particular topic we have a clear bias in favor of board governance. However, readers should also note that NSBA and its member state associations represent the interests of all districts and their school boards, whether elected by the public or appointed by mayors.  

Strengthening Partnerships Between Cities and Schools

NSBA’s position
In 2006, the Delegate Assembly of NSBA approved a policy and belief statement about mayor and state involvement that “opposes any political jurisdiction to remove, diminish, or interfere with the authority of local governing boards and districts.” The statement further says that instead of takeovers, civic leaders and policymakers should: 
  • Ensure neighborhoods are safe and free from crime and students have safe access to and from school;
  • Assist in providing students with access to healthcare and other support services, including the expansion of community and parent outreach centers to help parents access services;
  • Support teacher recruitment effort by addressing obstacles, such as housing costs that can be deterrents to providing a quality teaching force, and
  • Work effectively with school districts to develop joint use projects to make the best use of public space.

To further strengthen this partnership, we also recommend the following:

  • Formal and informal processes for coordination between the mayor’s office, school boards and superintendent. It’s important to maintain time and opportunity to discuss strategies, public outreach and possible ways other city agencies can support schools and students. Don’t wait for a crisis to get together when emotions can get in the way of productive discussions.
  • Clearly defined areas of responsibility for each partner. 
    In an effective partnership, each party brings unique attributes to the table. While mayors and school leaders share responsibility for the children of the city, they should approach the task from the purview of their agencies and assure that their efforts are mutually reinforcing.
  • More robust school board elections. Local media should step up their coverage of school board races and candidates to generate voter interest. Civic organizations should further launch voter campaigns to encourage higher participation. Extra effort should be put into outreach to minority and low-income families to assure their voices will be heard.
In addition to supporting better collaboration between mayors and school boards, we further recommend:
  • Professional development for school leadership teams.Among the characteristics of effective school boards is that they engage in professional development with the superintendent and key staff. Indeed, 23 states require school boards to undergo training. The most effective professional development enables leadership teams to “build shared knowledge, values and commitments for their improvement efforts” (CPE, 2011).

The answer to raising student achievement in urban districts won’t be found through less democracy. Rather, cities and their citizens should put their energy into making sure that school governance by school boards works, that it is transparent, responsive to the community and their diverse needs, and accountable for results. 


This report was written by Patte Barth, director of NSBA’s Center for Public Education. Christine Duchouquette, Naomi Dillon and Jim Hull also contributed to the research review. 

Published: June 2014
Copyright 2014 The Center for Public Education