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A Rising Tide of Local Control (Again)

Katie Pak
Tuesday, January 2, 2018

On November 16, 2017, the largely state-controlled school board in Philadelphia voted to disband itself after 16 years. When I moved to Philadelphia two years ago, I started attending these school board meetings and witnessed the fervor with which the public advocated for this dissolution. The Philadelphia community finally got their wish when three members of the five-member body voted to abolish the board, paving the way for the mayor to establish a nine-member, locally appointed board.

The school board, labeled the School Reform Commission (SRC), was established by Pennsylvania state legislators in 2001 to take over the School District of Philadelphia (SDP). The governor of Pennsylvania appointed three members of the SRC, while the mayor of Philadelphia appointed two. From 2001 to 2017, the SRC passed a number of unpopular policies driven by state budget cuts and the rising rhetoric of privatization, including, but not limited to, eliminating nurses and counselors from schools, closing 23 schools in 2013 alone, and turning over schools to charter management organizations with little accountability. These policy decisions undoubtedly placed undue burdens on SDP administrators, school-based staff, students, and parents, as everyone struggled to find a way to cope with the limited educational resources they had left.

Now, the Mayor Jim Kenney is assembling a panel of public leaders who will nominate individuals to serve on the new Board of Education that will replace the SRC on July 1, 2018. The nominations will be approved by the City Council, which is an element of local control that has never occurred in the Philadelphia public education arena. Kenney has pledged to coordinate city resources around the SDP educational vision in order to offset the impending deficit of $700 million by 2020. He also promises a recommitment to accountability, in which he urges the public to hold him singularly responsible if educational opportunity does not improve under his tenure as mayor.

This shift in governance in Philadelphia echoes similar shifts to more locally controlled forms of public schooling across the United States. It also raises questions about the potential consequences of local control—does localized autonomy positively influence school quality? Do students learn more when their school boards are under mayoral control, rather than under the aerial control of state policymakers? What have we learned from literature on school board governance that we can apply to our current context?

Does localized autonomy positively influence school quality? Do students learn more when their school boards are under mayoral control?

Proponents of mayoral control claim that this system is more likely to promote efficiency because school-level decisions are placed in the hands of those who also make decisions about local taxes and revenues, child welfare, city safety, public health, recreation, job training, and economic development—all of which are related to the realm of education (Henig & Rich, 2004). However, mayoral control itself may not effect much change, as local policymakers can still “face much inertia in setting up an integrated governance structure for the school district” (Wong & Shen, 2005, p. 83). While this city-district collaboration may face structural barriers in fulfilling its intendent purpose, the school board can still be high impact when they select strong superintendents who can serve the district as transformational leaders, and when the school board maintains positive relationships with the district, with other local agencies, and with the public (Land, 2012).  

While the contentious tenor of SRC meetings suggests combative relationships with the Philadelphia public over these past several years, and it is unclear how well the SRC collaborated with the city’s various departments, it is evident that they respect the superintendent as a positive choice for the District. However, Philadelphia has not been part of C-SAIL’s study up to this point, and we have therefore not spoken to any Philadelphia district or school board officials to get a sense of how this relationship may impact the implementation of college- and career- readiness (CCR) standards, the central policy focus of our Center. Philadelphia will be an important part of C-SAIL research starting this year and for at least the next three years.

In C-SAIL research thus far, at least one Kentucky, Ohio, and Texas district in our study, on the other hand, have testified to the supportive nature of their school boards, and how their support has facilitated the districtwide implementation of the CCR standards. Below, I highlight the perspective of one of these district leaders, who describes the mutually beneficial relationship the district holds with the board:  

Our school board is so supportive. Honestly, I was in four other districts before I came here and there were things that our school board supports and funds that you wouldn’t even think to ask in other districts.

This district official provided two examples of the initiatives that the board funds: The board (1) created a new position, a student behavior specialist, to place in schools who over-identify African-American students because the state took away their funding, and (2) funds the costs of running a special academy for gifted students. One board member even personally paid for all the equipment for a lab at one of the district’s high schools. Additionally, the board members go above and beyond to sit on committees at the state level and stay updated on state initiatives. Staying informed on new policies issued by the state legislature releases school district administrators from having to continuously educate their local school board on the macro-political context. Finally, school board members seem to trust and support district administrators who request approval for new district programs and policies. The speculation is that:

[Board members] know that we don’t come to them with trivial requests… They know that we’re going to have done our research, we’re going to have looked at both ends of if we enter into this grant, if we enter into this agreement, this partnership… they know we’ve already done all that. And, and of course we have to submit all those things too before it makes the board agenda. And they, they know we’re going to do that part.

Systemic CCR reform is best facilitated when there is aligned vision and coordination across city and school district bodies, and indeed, the high-quality relationship between the board and the district may be indicative of this coherence. This district is not particularly affluent either. Fifty-two percent of the student population lives below the poverty line, closely resembling the national average of 51% as of 2013. Affluence does not have to be a precondition for a positive political climate: even in the case of this district, the board uplifts rather than constrains the district’s educational activities.  

While the new Philadelphia Board of Education will not be a locally elected board in the truest democratic sense, I believe that a mayor controlled school board in Philadelphia will be more in touch with, and act upon, the students’ best interests than the previous board. It will hopefully have good relations with the city’s agencies, as the mayor intends to align the work of the city with the work of the school district. It will hopefully have good relations with the public, as members will have to be approved through a citywide referendum. The test of effectiveness, according to Land (2012), will be whether it will maintain good relations with the superintendent and the district—and vice versa—for progress to be made.


Henig, J. R., & Rich, W. C. (Eds.). (2004). Mayors in the middle: Politics, race, and mayoral control of urban schools. Princeton University Press.

Land, D. (2002). Local school boards under review: Their role and effectiveness in relation to students’ academic achievement. Review of Educational Research72(2), 229-278.

Wong, K. K., & Shen, F. X. (2003, October). When Mayors Lead Urban Schools: Toward developing a framework to assess the effects of the mayoral takeover of urban districts. In School Board Politics Conference, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University (Vol. 166).