Big-City Mayoral Races Focus on Education

Published May 1, 2001

Last year, nearly every candidate for national and state-level chief executive posts emphasized their plans for public education. As Julie Bell of the National Conference of State Legislatures explained, “Every governor wants to be the education governor, and every president wants to be the education president.”

Now, candidates for the chief executive posts in the nation’s two largest cities are vying for the position of education mayor.

Regardless of whether they have authority over the public schools, candidates in upcoming mayoral races in New York City and Los Angeles are emphasizing what they will do to improve their city’s public education system. More traditional mayoral priorities–reducing crime, speeding up street repairs, and improving garbage pickup, for example–have taken a back seat to education.

But before raising the hopes of voters in New York City and Los Angeles too much, mayoral hopefuls may want to look at what’s happening in the nation’s third largest city, Chicago.

Illinois state legislators handed control of the Chicago Public Schools to Mayor Richard M. Daley in 1995. After bathing in the glow of initial achievement gains, the mayor is beginning to sound frustrated with the slow pace of academic improvement in the city’s schools. In addition, research studies are raising questions about how much progress has actually been made.

New York City

At a March 24 forum on education funding, four Democrat contenders and an as-yet-unannounced GOP contender seeking to replace Mayor Rudolph Giuliani pledged to get better results from New York City’s public schools–even though Schools Chancellor Harold O. Levy is responsible for the city’s schools and does not report to the mayor.

All five contenders advocated getting more money or resources for the schools, according to a New York Post report on the forum. Any Big Apple voter looking for a school choice advocate among the candidates would have been disappointed, however, since all stated their opposition to publicly funded school vouchers.

Democrat Fernando Ferrer, currently Bronx Borough President, proposed a 30 percent pay increase for teachers, pointing to Albany for the funds and arguing the mayor should lobby state lawmakers to get the city’s fair share of education funding. Public Advocate Mark Green, also a Democrat, proposed spending $250 million on new classrooms by taking that amount out of the budget for jail beds.

Democrat Alan Hevesi, the City Comptroller, considered school repair and remodeling a priority, proposing an income tax surcharge–only as a last resort–to provide funding. The fourth Democrat, Council Speaker Peter Vallone, also viewed school repairs as a priority, but he proposed taking the funds from city property taxes.

Unannounced Republican candidate Herman Badillo, currently chairman of the City University of New York, proposed working with the private sector to rebuild schools.

Los Angeles

Three thousand miles west, in California, all six of the major candidates for the position of mayor of Los Angeles are promoting their plans for improving that city’s schools.

As Los Angeles Daily News reporter Harrison Sheppard recounted recently, each candidate is pushing education as a high priority . . . despite the fact it’s “an issue over which the mayor has barely more legal authority than the average citizen.”

“If you want to deal with schools, run for school board,” political consultant Rick Taylor told Sheppard, suggesting the push was “a bit of a fraud” on the voters. “If you want to be mayor, be mayor and lead the city,” Taylor added.

But all candidates say the mayor can use his position as a bully pulpit to bring about changes in the Los Angeles Unified School District, as Mayor Richard Riordan has done, helping get new school board members elected and helping introduce new programs. Among the new programs promoted by the six candidates are these:

  • Break up the LAUSD into 20 to 40 districts (businessman Steve Soboroff);
  • Don’t break up the LAUSD, but decentralize it further, from the existing 11 minidistricts to 17 (former Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa);
  • Create a partnership with the LAUSD (City Attorney James Hahn).

Voting in the non-partisan race on April 10 put Villaraigosa in the lead, with 30 percent of the vote, followed by Hahn, with 25 percent, and then Soboroff. Villaraigosa and Hahn now face a June runoff.

“This is a large-enough problem that everybody needs to work on it,” commented school board member Caprice Young.


In the nation’s third-largest city, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley faces neither term limits nor a re-election battle this year, having been returned for a fourth term of office two years ago with 73 percent of the vote.

Daley has been in control of the city’s 413,000-student public school system since 1995, when the Republican-controlled state legislature handed him the reins. Daley appointed Gery Chico as Board of Education President and his budget director Paul Vallas as Chief Executive Officer to run the schools like a business.

Vallas quickly brought the district’s finances under control, eliminating a projected $1.3 billion deficit, privatizing school maintenance, and winning public support for reform by publicizing the waste and corruption he discovered in the system.

Since then, Vallas’ main focus has been the much more difficult task of effecting a turnaround in student achievement, Again, he won praise for his no-nonsense approach, eliminating social promotion, establishing after-school and summer school programs to aid failing students, raising standards, and putting schools on probation. His efforts were rewarded by several years of rising reading scores.

But student reading scores are beginning to level off, and recent studies have raised questions about the present reform strategy.

Even Daley himself, who generally has only high praise for his school reform team, in February expressed frustration with the system’s limited test score gains. He called on school officials to think “outside the box” to reach higher levels of achievement in reading and high school algebra.

Then, in early April, the mayor convened a symposium–“Mayor Daley’s Reading Roundtable”–to bring the expertise of national experts to bear on the city’s reading problem.

Daley’s call for new approaches may have been an early response to two recent reports from the Consortium on Chicago School Research, which has raised questions about how much progress the city’s much-vaunted reforms really have achieved.

A report released in early March confirmed that reading and math scores had increased among the city’s 95,000 high school students, yet only one-third of the students could read at grade level, and 41 percent drop out by their senior year. The study concluded reform hadn’t boosted prospects for better learning in the city’s high schools, half of which still had problems with weak teachers.

In a second, yet-to-be-released paper, Consortium researchers tracked groups of 13-year-olds through high school, finding that about 43 percent of students drop out before they reach age 19. In 1985, the Chicago Public Schools had reported that same dropout figure.

Not only did researchers find no evidence the dropout rate is improving, but additional partial data suggest the dropout rate will eventually reach 47 percent of the 13-year-olds currently being tracked.

“We still see the same dropout rate,” Tony Bryk, co-director of the Consortium, told Crain’s Chicago Business. “I certainly wouldn’t want to use Chicago as a model for making national policy.”