updated 1/7/2007 6:19:21 AM ET 2007-01-07T11:19:21

The statistics tell a sorry tale about the public schools in America’s capital.

A majority of fourth- and eighth-graders are failing to read or do math at basic levels. Roughly four in five schools are not meeting achievement goals under the federal No Child Left Behind law. Just 43 percent of students graduate from high school in five years.

The new mayor, Adrian Fenty, got an earful about the situation during last year’s campaign.

So he is doing what a dozen other city leaders around the nation have done: trying to gain control over the schools. For Fenty, that means convincing the city council and Congress to support his plan to require the superintendent to report to him and to further limit the authority of the elected school board.

The problem for Fenty and his colleagues is that mayors generally lack the power to overhaul schools.

“Mayors are held accountable for something they have no responsibility for,” said Fritz Edelstein, who recently stepped down as a senior adviser to the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

In most places, elected school boards and the superintendents they hire govern school districts. It is a structure set up about a century ago to insulate schools from political strife and corruption in city government.

Yet it has not always worked as planned.

For example, before a mayoral takeover of New York City’s schools, an investigation into a Bronx school board found that members routinely misused district personnel and resources.

Those kind of problems, plus low voter turnout for school board elections and sagging test scores, have fueled a movement since the 1990s for mayoral control of schools.

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