Community Support for Mayoral Control of Urban School Districts: A Critical Reexamination


Education and Urban Society








Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has encouraged more mayors to take charge of their urban schools districts. Central to debates over mayoral control is the use of a citywide referendum to legitimize mayoral control. Referenda have been used in Boston (1996), Cleveland (1998), and Detroit (2004). Voters in Boston and Cleveland supported mayoral control, while in Detroit voters chose to return to an elected school board. The results of these votes have been used to argue that mayoral control ensures democratic accountability. This article, however, challenges the view that citywide referenda alone are an effective means of ensuring accountability for mayoral control. Through new empirical analysis of the referenda results in Boston and Cleveland, the article shows that rather than establish genuine democratic legitimacy, the referenda in fact mask strong class-based, and in Boston race-based opposition to the reform strategy. Although the available data do not allow for generalization to other municipalities, the implication of this article’s analysis remains clear: Legislatures considering mayoral control would do well to think carefully before adopting a referendum as the only or primary solution to the mayoral control accountability dilemma. A referendum in and of itself is not a satisfactory safeguard to ensure the participation of urban minorities and poor residents in urban education reform discussions. The article proceeds in several parts. The Literature Review section presents a review of the relevant literatures on mayoral control and issues of urban political representation. The Data and Analytic Framework section discusses the specific hypotheses to be tested, and the data and methodology utilized. The Results section presents the results of the analysis. The Discussion section synthesizes these findings and discusses their implications for the future of urban education policy under the Obama administration.

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