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Promote Governance Structures that Put Students’ Interests First

Strategy 3.1: Promote governance structures that prioritize accountability and put students' interests first.

StudentsFirst will support the implementation of governance structures that promise to align decision-making with student interests and hold schools accountable to high academic performance.

We know we have to shake things up if we are going to achieve real change in our public education system in America. It is impolitic to say it, but current rules surrounding urban school board elections often ensure that the elected members will work to implement adult agendas. These adult agendas thrive in the system of parochial politics that allocates scarce resources and favors: which schools to fix first, which athletic programs get new equipment, or which employees get promotions. Meanwhile, students languish in failing schools. Public employee unions invest in friendly school board candidates and expect handsome returns. The problem is exacerbated by consistently low voter turnout and interest, as three-quarters of voters do not have children in school and many low-income parents, whose children are most harmed by the current system, are less likely than many other groups to vote.

New governance models have emerged to allow real reform to take place. In several districts, the mayor has been given control of the schools to the great benefit of students. "Mayoral control" helps reformers because responsibility and therefore accountability is clearly vested in a single public official. Further, a mayor's interests are generally more aligned with the overall community because mayors must earn votes from an entire city rather than a tiny district and because higher-profile mayoral elections typically experience higher turnout. Mayors are also more visible than school board members, making it easier to hold them accountable for the performance of the city's schools. Cities that have adopted mayoral control have experienced strong progress. New York City, Boston, and Washington, D.C., all provide examples of where we have seen significant gains in student achievement after the mayor took control of the school district.

State-level turnaround innovations offer another promising example of improved governance. Louisiana has the most developed model, but other states are now considering managing turnaround efforts in individual districts. In 2003, Louisiana passed legislation that created a new statewide authority, the "Recovery School District." When most schools ceased operations after Hurricane Katrina, the Recovery School District began recruiting charter schools to fill the capacity void. Now more than 60 percent of the K–12 schools are public charter schools, and New Orleans may become the nation's first "all-charter" city. The state legislature has continued to authorize the Recovery District because of the dramatic results in student achievement. In 2005, 66 percent of Orleans Parish schools were failing. By 2010, the portion of failing schools had dropped to 26 percent — certainly not good enough, but significantly better than before.

StudentsFirst supports state or mayoral control where a failing district needs courageous leadership to execute reforms, as in the examples above, and StudentsFirst believes other innovative governance models could emerge to let communities act urgently in the best interests of students.