Project Background: How I Became Interested in Mayoral Control in Texas

The Watson Institute: Global Conversations

I first became interested in the concept of mayoral control in late 2011 when researching the campaign contributions to members of the Houston Independent School District (HISD) school board. Lax ethics laws have allowed HISD board members to receive campaign donations from contributors in exchange for service contracts with the school district. Under current guidelines, school board members are responsible for passing and enforcing their own rules—the fox is guarding the henhouse. According to one Houston watchdog organization, firms that sought or received contracts from HISD donated nearly half of all campaign contributions received by the district’s incumbent school board members. Checks written to board members’ campaigns by businesses hired by the district can be exorbitant; one member received a $25,000 campaign donation and, illegally, failed to disclose it. Companies that have given such gifts have received upwards of seven-figure contracts with the district, and some board members have been forced to resign due to public outrage over conflicts of interest. Under such corrupt leadership, Houston’s schools do not stand a chance of fulfilling their responsibilities to students.

After reading many publications about the potential of mayoral control over the appointment of school board members to improve school performance and ferret out corruption, I grew convinced that HISD would benefit from mayoral control.  Under mayoral control, transparency is achieved: unlike unaccountable and often unknown elected school board members, all responsibility for both performance and improprieties lies directly with the most politically accountable city official, the mayor. Furthermore, both city council members and the mayor are usually required by law to disclose all gifts to independent agencies; in Texas, this agency would be the Texas Ethics Commission. Mayor-appointed school board members are nonpartisan, education experts—not politicians. Mayoral control of the school district leverages existing city resources to provide better-integrated services to students and parents. The school district’s policy goals become the city’s goals, and HISD’s $1.6 billion dollar budget would be allocated more transparently. In light of the district’s $40 million budget shortfall for the 2012–2013 school year and the 700 district employees who have been laid off as a result of budget cuts, allocating district resources in the most efficient manner possible should be of the highest priority for school officials. Effective change starts at the top, and officials that enact education policies must be both insulated from politics and held accountable by all whom their policies affect. Mayoral control of school system fosters such an environment because it eliminates the election of board members and the political exigencies that inevitably lead to conflicts of interest and outright corruption.

I have became fascinated with the topic of mayoral control, and have grown more curious as to why the city of Houston had not followed other big cities in giving the mayor the power to improve public schools. Several big cities such as Chicago, New York, and Providence have power structures in which the mayor exerted influence over the public school system, but no Texas school boards are under control of the mayor. I continually wonder: if mayoral control combats corruption and improves student achievement, why hasn’t Houston granted its mayor this necessary power? Put a different way, why isn’t Houston doing everything it can to help students?

Mayoral control of public school systems is proven to improve education outcomes in urban areas. Texas big cities, however, have not considered such reform. I will investigate why such reform measures have yet to succeed in Texas, and I will attempt to make implementable deductions as to why or why not mayoral control of Texas school systems is desirable, feasible, and politically practicable.