updated 3/31/2009 8:13:02 PM ET 2009-04-01T00:13:02

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Tuesday that mayors should take control of big-city school districts where academic performance is suffering.

Duncan said mayoral control provides the strong leadership and stability needed to overhaul urban schools.

Mayors run the schools in fewer than a dozen big cities; only seven have full control over management and operations. That includes Chicago, where Duncan headed the school system until joining the Obama administration.

Speaking at a forum with mayors and superintendents, Duncan promised to help more mayors take over.

"At the end of my tenure, if only seven mayors are in control, I think I will have failed," Duncan said.

He offered to do whatever he can to make the case. "I'll come to your cities," Duncan said. "I'll meet with your editorial boards. I'll talk with your business communities. I will be there."

Urban school superintendents generally last three years or less, Duncan noted. He acknowledged Baltimore schools chief Andres Alonso, asking how many superintendents the city had in the past 10 years. The answer was seven.

"And you wonder why school systems are struggling," Duncan said. "What business would run that way?"

Lack of leadership
After the forum, Duncan told The Associated Press that urban schools need someone who is accountable to voters and driving all of a city's resources behind children.

"Part of the reason urban education has struggled historically is you haven't had that leadership from the top," he said.

"That lack of stability, that lack of leadership is a huge part of the reason you don't see sustained progress and growth," Duncan said.

It is unusual for a Cabinet secretary to weigh in on local matters. Yet Duncan has been emphatic on the subject, calling for mayoral takeover of Detroit public schools and for New York lawmakers to renew the law giving Mayor Michael Bloomberg control over his city's schools.

Duncan said it's impossible to have a great city without great schools that provide a skilled work force to bring and keep jobs.

"Given how far every city has to go until every child receives a high-quality education, we need to push on this very, very hard," Duncan said. "And given the fact so few cities have mayoral control, that's a huge impediment that hasn't been talked about enough."

Mayoral takeover
In Detroit on Tuesday, mayoral candidate and professional basketball Hall-of-Famer Dave Bing endorsed a mayoral takeover of the school system. Bing is challenging Mayor Ken Cockrel Jr. to finish the term of Kwame Kilpatrick, who stepped down last year amid criminal cases. Cockrel has said he is open to the idea, but not until the city gets its finances under control.

Duncan's position could make for an awkward exchange later this week — he plans to speak Saturday in San Diego to the National School Boards Association, which represents local school boards that control districts across the country and opposes mayoral control.

Association official Michael Resnick said local school boards are the backbone of community representation in schools.

"Education is too important to fall onto the already lengthy list of functions that mayors are managing," Resnick said.

Duncan responded later: "What's more important than educating a city's children? What could be more important than that?" he told the AP.

Mayoral control is worth considering in about 400 of the biggest school districts, said Kenneth Wong, a Brown University professor who studies the issue. Those districts enroll about a third of the nation's 50 million school children.

"I think the time has come; there has been enough research suggesting it is a promising strategy," Wong said.

"The way I look at it is, we are talking about real accountability," Wong said. "A lot of urban school systems are playing this game of blaming one another — the superintendent blames the school board; the school board blames the union.

"With the mayor in charge, there ultimately is one single official held accountable every four years, whether they're doing a good job or not," Wong said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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