Thursday, March 19, 2009

inner-city education and mayors as benevolent dictators (potentially)

Democracy is a deeply-flawed political system, but typically better than the alternatives. In particular, democracies are marked by the remarkable influence of special interest groups.

Groups turn out to be powerful because they stand to gain much-per-person, while imposing modest-per-person costs on the general public. The public pays little attention to what are commonly unconstitutional, unethical, and impractical policies-- because the costs per person are relatively small: modest redistributions of their wealth or restrictions of their freedom.

When interest groups are dominant, dictatorship has the capacity to improve outcomes (ironically!). As long as the dictator is benevolent and has reasonable knowledge, he can impose a solution which socially dominates the interest group's preferred equilibrium.

Along those lines, here's an application of this principle to the government's monopoly on elementary and secondary education-- from John Hechinger and Suzanne Sataline in the WSJ...

More U.S. cities are considering scrapping a longstanding tradition in American education, the elected school board, and opting to let mayors rule over the classroom.

Dallas and Milwaukee are currently mulling mayoral control of the city's schools, and Detroit is under pressure to try it -- for the second time. A dozen major school systems, including New York, Boston, Chicago and Washington, D.C., already have a form of mayoral control.

Advocates say the structure, in which mayors generally appoint school boards and have the power to pick superintendents, enables tough-minded reforms by promoting stable leadership and accountability. Giving the idea more currency, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, until recently the Chicago schools chief, is a fan and product of mayoral control. And, this week, President Barack Obama promoted some controversial initiatives that have been pushed heavily in districts with mayoral control: charter schools, merit pay for teachers, and accountability, based on rigorous testing standards....

But critics say that results on student achievement are mixed, and mayoral control can shut out dissent, especially from parents and teachers. That concern is fueling a debate over the reauthorization of a seven-year-old state law this June that gives New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg control over the city's schools. His hard-charging chancellor, Joel Klein, who has introduced more school and teacher accountability, has also alienated some politicians and parents, leading to questions about whether the law should be changed or eliminated....

Interestingly and ironically, Mr. Klein previously ran the Justice Department's antitrust division before he became superintendent!


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