Failing Schools Get New Leadership for Turnaround

Published January 1, 1997

As President Clinton prepares to take the helm of the nation in Washington, D.C. for another four years, a retired three-star army general has taken control over the “deplorable” public schools in that city. A report issued by a financial control board concluded that the school system in the nation’s capital “fails to teach its pupils even the basics of education.”

While the President’s budget proposal includes initiatives to help build new schools and train one million volunteer reading tutors for young children, many large cities across the U.S. are in need of more dramatic change. Educators and local school boards are losing control to mayors and education czars charged with solving the financial and educational problems of the public schools.

In the District of Columbia, retired Army Lt. General Julius W. Becton Jr. was named chief executive officer and superintendent in December, replacing Superintendent Franklin L. Smith. The change came after a financial control board appointed by Congress in 1995 to solve the system’s fiscal woes issued a scathing report. The report found that mismanagement by the school board and superintendents was responsible for lagging test scores, increasing violence, and a rising dropout rate.

The control board voted unanimously to fire the school superintendent and replace the school board with an appointed board of trustees authorized to carry out reforms. The D.C. public school system has the highest cost per student in the nation and one of the lowest student performance records. Last year, Congress considered but failed to pass a voucher proposal for the systems’s 80,000 students.

Becton is no stranger to turnaround situations. In 1989, he was put in charge of cleaning up the near-bankrupt and crime-ridden Prairie View A&M University in Texas. After four years of Becton’s no-nonsense discipline, according to Texas A&M Chancellor William Mobley, “Enrollment’s up; student retention is up; morale is healthy; the physical plant is in the best shape it’s ever been in.” Chicago

In Chicago, mayoral control and business-like leadership are fueling a turnaround of that city’s public school system, once labelled the nation’s worst by President Reagan’s Education Secretary William Bennett. Following the failure of a reform plan that had attempted to devolve power to local school councils, the Republican-controlled state legislature in 1995 placed Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, a Democrat, in control of the 413,000-student system. Daley appointed his budget director, Paul Vallas, as chief executive officer.

In his first year, Vallas won praise for bringing the district’s finances under control, eliminating a projected $1.3 billion deficit, and privatizing school maintenance. He generated public support for his reforms by publicizing waste and corruption he discovered in the system. The former newspaper reporter he hired as his top internal investigator has pursued more than 1,500 cases of employee theft, misconduct, and financial irregularities. A former facilities chief was sent to prison for extorting $330,000 from three contractors.

Vallas is now focusing on the more difficult task of effecting a turnaround in educational achievement. He’s made it clear he won’t tolerate poor performance there, either. He has changed the curriculum, established a policy of “no social promotion” for eighth-graders, made principals more accountable, put schools on probation, and laid off administrative staff. Hartford

Connecticut Governor John G. Rowland took a different approach when called upon to take over Hartford’s 25,000-student district, which local officials say faces a state of emergency. Instead of taking over the system, Rowland called upon state and local officials to cooperate in solving the district’s problems.

In early November, State Edu-cation Commissioner Theodore S. Sergi released an action plan recommending improved accountability and a city-wide public school choice program. Like President Clinton, he also called for volunteers to help children learn to read better. Baltimore

While the Illinois state legislature opted to give more authority over Chicago’s schools to the city’s mayor, Maryland governor Parris N. Glenden-ing is proposing to share authority with Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. Together, they hope to effect a turnaround in that city’s schools. Only 14 percent of Baltimore’s 110,000 students meet state performance standards and only 40 percent graduate.

Currently, Schmoke has sole authority to appoint the Baltimore school board. Under the proposal, he and the governor jointly would select the board from a pool of applicants nominated by the state school board.

Hartford and Baltimore both recently cancelled contracts with a school management firm, Education Alternatives Inc. (see related article on page 12). It was Schmoke’s direct authority over the Baltimore schools that allowed him to experiment with privatization. “If school systems need the flexibility to try new ideas, mayoral authority is a good way to try it,” writes Charles Mahtesian in a recent issue of Governing. New York, Cleveland

In New York, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani wants that authority. He is trying to get more control over school finances, which account for a quarter of his city’s $40 billion budget. In Cleveland, citizens are asking Mayor Michael R. White to accept that authority. That city’s public school system, with 75,000 students, was cited for management chaos in 1995 when a federal judge gave the State of Ohio temporary jurisdiction over the schools.

Instead of turning around the system by changing authority at the top, other approaches seek to change authority at the bottom, by giving parents more choice. Examples of such approaches are vouchers for secular schools in Milwaukee (see related article on page 1), vouchers for parochial schools in Cleveland (see related article on page 5), and tuition privatization in Houston (see related article on page 15).

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].