Opposition is building to state Rep. Eric Pettigrew’s proposal to place some control over the Seattle School Board in the hands of the mayor. An ad hoc group of critics this week sent out a press release with an outraged and detailed critique of a bill Pettigrew introduced last week.
That bill would have the mayor appointing two of the seven members who make up the school board. It’s a “modest” proposal, as Pettrigrew points out today in conversation with Seattle Weekly. The mayors of some cities appoint the entire school board.
Nevertheless, it’s a bill that moves in that direction, and as such was bound to raise controversy. “The proposal is an affront to democracy,” School Boardmember Sue Peters says in the release. Currently, all board members are elected.
“The only reason to remove elected school board members is to forcibly impose policies that everyone knows the public does not want,” adds Robert Cruickshank, a onetime communications advisory to former Mayor Mike McGinn and now president of the Northwest Progressive Institute. The release, which also quotes activist teacher Jesse Hagopian and various parents, goes on to suggests that some of those policies might be support for charter schools and a continued emphasis on testing.
That may or may not be the case. Quite apart from specific policy agendas, there’s been an idea circulating in big cities around the country that mayoral control—or even state control—will solve public education’s ills. In the last two decades, roughly 20 school districts have come under some mayoral oversight, according to a 2014 report on the subject by the National School Boards Association’s Center for Public Education. It’s ironic, the report goes on to note, since a century ago, the country moved away from mayoral control of school districts due to corruption and cronyism.
Now, the tide is turning again due to frustration with stagnant problems. Pettigrew mentions the persistent achievement gap between whites and students of color, which the south Seattle Democrat says is particularly prevalent in his district. “Let’s just see what happens,” he says, if we try something different.
Oddly, though, Pettigrew says he’s not familiar or particularly interested in how this idea has played out in other cities. The results are mixed. “Researchers are divided on the question of whether or not it has produced higher student achievement,” concludes the Center for Public Education report, entitled “Toward collaboration, not a coup.” “Almost all agree on one negative consequence, however. These researchers observed that when mayors take charge of public schools, the role of parents and the community, especially among minority groups, can be marginalized.”
As for the achievement gap, mayoral control hasn’t helped the matter in Chicago, according to a 2011 University of Chicago study. In fact, the report, “Trends in Chicago’s Schools Across Three Eras of Reform,” says that the gap has “steadily increased.”
Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s closure of 50 schools in minority neighborhoods hasn’t sat well with many people either, which is why his challengers in an upcoming election, as well as hundreds of parents, are calling for a return to an elected board. A similar movement exists in Philadelphia, where the state controls the schools.
It’s worth noting that Seattle’s school district, for all its problems, is in far, far better shape than its counterparts in Chicago or Philadelphia. And it’s not clear that the public here supports more mayoral control. That at least was McGinn’s conclusion, the former mayor tells SW. Early in his tenure, McGinn considered the idea of taking on more responsibility for the schools. “It was such a hot button issue,” he says. He decided that it wasn’t right to act unless the public called for him to do so.
Pettigrew, apparently, reached a different conclusion. And it’s not his only controversial idea when it comes to schools. He says he and Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos are working on a new proposal stemming from their feeling that the Seattle School District is too big to manage effectively. Their solution: splitting it in two.
Now, that’s an idea that truly seems to come out of the blue, and it raises a million questions. What would the boundaries be? Would it create better-off and worse-off districts? Would they share resources?
And, perhaps most importantly, how would the public feel about that?