Column: Consider mayoral control of schools in Detroit

Brandon Brice

Fixing public education in Detroit depends on accountability. In school districts like Detroit, the board of education makes decisions on who gets hired, fired and who the next superintendent will be.

The concept of mayoral control would ultimately change that conversation about who should be accountable for the Detroit Public Schools Community District and where the buck stops.

Some cities like New York and Chicago govern their schools by giving more control to the mayor. These cities have considered the idea that elected leaders of powerful budgets should be held accountable for schools. Yes, we already know Detroit is not quite the same size nor population as New York or Chicago. But the size of a city doesn’t matter. What really matters is holding someone accountable for public education in Detroit.

Detroit has some experience with mayoral control. In the late 1990s, then-Gov. John Engler oversaw legislation that took power from the district’s elected school board, instead creating a seven-member school reform board with six members appointed by former Mayor Dennis Archer. The board then chose a chief executive to run the district. That model ended in 2005, when Detroiters voted to return to an elected school board.

It’s worth reconsidering. Many of the problems of Detroit’s schools are the city’s problems — poverty, crime and unemployment. Not to mention DPSCD’s generous, union-negotiated benefits. Local critics of education reform have often argued against the concept of mayoral control, not recognizing that the term just means that the mayor of a city has more power than he or she did before, which could be a benefit.

That power could be in various forms. Some mayoral administrations have given their mayor the power to appoint the superintendent. Other administrations share authority with the governor’s appointments, demonstrating a degree of influence in public education. The basic point is there’s no right answer to how mayoral control is defined, as long as someone is held accountable.

If Detroit adopted mayoral control again, the school district would gain access to more resources and have a direct connection to the mayor’s office. Using mayoral governance — in which a city’s mayor replaces an elected school board with a person that he or she appoints — as a strategy to raise urban school performance has proven to be a successful model for accountability.

A primary feature of mayoral control is that it holds the office of the mayor accountable for school performance and outcomes. This integrates school district accountability on an academic, fiscal and managerial level.

School board members are generally elected by a very low majority of voters based on turnout, whereas mayoral races are often decided by more than half of the electorate. The end result is that under mayoral control, Detroit’s public education has a better chance of getting citywide attention.

Mayoral control could work for Detroit, if the mayor is prepared to turn around low-performing schools. City residents should consider the real benefits that a different strategy could have in fixing Detroit’s public schools.

Brandon Brice is a nonprofit consultant, working with minority startups in Detroit.