The country’s third-largest school district slowly began last week to reopen its doors, and, as Ms. Lightfoot flatly told the New York Times, “We would never have opened without mayoral control. It’s quite clear.” The return of pre-K, special-education clusters and students in kindergarten through eighth grade came after agreement was reached with the Chicago Teachers Union on health and safety standards. Getting teachers on board was no easy task; negotiations were so bitter that the union at one point threatened to strike. But Chicago’s experience — like that of other cities with mayoral control, including D.C. and New York City — stands in contrast to the paralysis in cities such as San Francisco and Seattle, where school boards are easily swayed by union demands.
San Francisco city officials were so frustrated with the school board’s inertia that they filed suit against their own school district to try to force it to come up with a plan. Stressing the educational and social harm done to children each day they are out of the classroom, San Francisco Mayor London Breed (D) pointedly wanted to know why the school board spent time and money on far less urgent issues, such as renaming schools that included those honoring Abraham Lincoln and Paul Revere.
“What’s easy, the path of least resistance, the political expediency, would have been to do nothing and just let the unions dictate what the state of play was going to be in education,” Ms. Lightfoot said. The mayor’s ability to be directly involved in talks with the union — to push back, to marshal all the forces of city government and also to be held accountable for the results — proved essential. Beginning in Boston in 1992, mayoral takeover of school systems has allowed struggling urban districts to institute reforms that take teachers into account while placing priority on student needs. Since the D.C. mayor took responsibility for schools in 2007, student achievement has steadily improved. Sadly, though, that hasn’t quieted the critics who persist in efforts to undermine mayoral control.
Asked by reporters about her comments to the New York Times, Ms. Lightfoot would not directly answer whether she is abandoning the idea of a return to an elected school board. Steep challenges lie ahead for schools as they try to make up for the lost learning time of the pandemic. That’s more reason than ever for cities with mayoral control to retain it and show other cities the way.