The Politics of Problem-Solving: Schools Up on Mayors' Agenda

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A growing number of urban school districts are hearing from a new player in the education-reform arena: their mayors.

Long constricted by traditional "turf" demarcations, mayors from Boston to Los Angeles are breaking with the past to find the points at which the school board's problems and city government's converge.

Like governors before them, they are forming task forces, launching initiatives, and examining alternatives.

And, like governors, they are finding that at a time when negative economic and so6cial forces darken their jurisdictions' future, school improvement is not only good policy but good politics.

"Mayors are beginning to realize that if they don't fix up their school systems, they're in terrible trouble," said Denis Doyle, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. The trend toward greater school involvement, he said, was "entirely predictable."

It will also become more visible this week, when the U.S. Conference of Mayors is scheduled to release a report on the status of children and children's issues in 52 cities.

Mayors "don't want to be left out of a debate" that has become one of the most significant political movements of the decade, said Russell Owens, director of the national policy institute at the Joint Center for Political Studies in Washington.

"The mayors are assuming higher visibility," he said, "because we are talking about fundamental changes in the way we educate our youth."

In fact, the number of high-profile mayoral forays into education has grown from a mere trickle in past years to a veritable flood this year.

In Boston, Mayor Raymond Flynn last month named a 12-member task force to advise him on ways to restructure that city's troubled school system. "No one is satisfied by the status quo," he declared.

The panel will focus on strengthening the relationship between teachers and pupils and on revamping the district's student-assignment plan, which has recently been freed from a desegregation order.

In Denver, Mayor Federico Pena announced during his July state-of-the-city address that he would "work to make our children a central priority for Denver."

Mayor Pena has revived a city/school coordinating commission and, last year, created an educational council that has undertaken several projects with the schools.

In Phoenix, a task force of business and education leaders appointed by Mayor Terry Goddard released preliminary recommendations this month that include a call for the city to allocate more money for education-related programs.

The Phoenix panel is also recommending, among other initiatives, that the schools move to a year-round calendar, provide flexible grade levels that would allow students to advance at their own pace, expand kindergarten to a full day, and create after-school child-care programs.

In Los Angeles, Mayor Tom Bradley has diverted $2 million in redevelopment funds to fund after-school care and tutoring for students in 10 of the city's schools. The mayor says the pilot program will be expanded to include all of the city's more than 400 elementary schools within four years.

In Minneapolis, Mayor Donald Fraser has made school readiness one of his top two priorities for the year, and is leading a citywide effort aimed at ensuring that all children are developmentally prepared to enter the public schools.

The spirit of cooperation Mayor Fraser has forged over the past three years was evident this summer when the city council, in a rare move, allocated $1.5 million to help the school district meet a projected budget deficit.

At least a dozen more mayors are breaking new ground in their relationships with the schools--and adding their voices to those of governors, state legislators, and national political candidates who have pushed educational concerns to the top of the public agenda.

Following Governors' Path

In interviews, several national experts made comparisons between the mayors' emerging interest in education and that of the governors, who gave education a high political profile earlier in the decade.

With the release of the U.S. Conference of Mayors' report this week, the parallel will extend to the leaders' national organizations. Reports by the National Governors' Association have helped to inspire and sustain much of the state-level reform activity in recent years.

The mayors' report, while focusing on problem areas, was based on a survey that also identified dozens of programs for children that had not previously been compiled, said Michael W. Brown, director of public affairs for the mayors' conference.

Education is "traditionally not the kind of thing that the Conference of Mayors has had to get out front on," he said, "because there are a lot of other organizations that focus exclusively on education."

But the emergence of education and children's issues in the national political debate has helped to spur the mayors' interest, he said.

"When the federal government and the Congress pick up on an issue, it begins to get visibility it hasn't had before," he said.

Push From the Community

In addition, said Mr. Doyle, the involvement is a "natural outgrowth" of the increasing role of non-educators--businessmen as well as governors and legislators--in the school-reform movement.

Several of the mayors have taken the same path that governors did--by looking first at how to stimulate economic development, then tracing workforce problems back to educational preparation, and in some cases back further to school readiness and even prenatal care.

"Mayors are viewing education as necessary for economic development," said John Kyle of the National League of Cities. "They are realizing both that they need to have well-prepared workers, and, just as important, that good schools are an incentive for business relocation and expansion."

"Whether they have specific regulatory or financial reponsibility is immaterial," he added.

In many cases, the mayors are also responding to a local political climate in which youth issues have been raised to prominence by concerned business leaders and community activists.

The late Mayor Harold Washington of Chicago lent his political clout to a movement to reform the public schools only after community leaders stepped up their pressure on him during the third week of a 19-day teachers' strike last year.

Like many governors, mayors are coming to see education "as an opportunity they would be more at risk by not taking," said Susan Fuhrman, director of the Center for Policy Research in Education.

"They've got to see some political payoff, or they wouldn't be doing it," she said of the new initiatives.

'Sorting Out' Roles

Others noted that the same holds true for urban school officials, who have welcomed the mayoral involvement to a surprising degree.

Urban school systems are being widely criticized at the same time that city leaders are struggling to deal with such interrelated problems as rising drug use, crime, conditions of economic deprivation, and the breakdown of families.

Mayor Bradley's after-school-care initiative in Los Angeles, for example, was designed to provide an alternative for "latchkey" children, who have often been drawn into8gang activity in the hours after school when their parents are unable to supervise them.

"When I look at the long-term trend in our city--the growth in poverty, the growing number of young people who have difficulty making it as adults, the rise in participation in gangs, the high dropout rate--I figure that city officials have got to move beyond the traditional concerns with fire, police, and public works," said Minneapolis's Mayor Fraser.

"Trying to change those adverse trends is the single most important thing a city can do to change its social and economic health," he added.

"The problems are large enough," said Mr. Owens of the Joint Center for Policy Studies, "that everybody can play a role. Everybody's got to contribute--the challenge is to sort out their proper roles."

Shifting 'Turf Constraints'

Several private foundations with a major focus on urban-school problems have stimulated cooperation between city and school leaders by requiring joint planning and work as a condition for receiving grants.

And the mounting number of national reports on children and youth issues has also encouraged new linkages between the two in some cities.

This in particularly true in Minneapolis, where James J. Renier, president and chief executive officer of Honeywell Inc., has become a major participant in the city's new effort to address the full range of problems faced by urban children.

Mr. Renier's role in helping formulate the Committee for Economic Development's 1987 report, "Children in Need: Investment Strategies for the Educationally Disadvantaged," helped inform his thinking on such issues.

Mayor Fraser admits that several years ago, when he was first asked to turn his attention to these issues by the city's school superintendent, Richard R. Green, who has since become the New York City schools chief, he "didn't understand why he wanted us to become involved."

In Minneapolis, as in many other cities, both the governance and the financial operations of the city and the school district are completely independent.

Even in cities where school-board appointments or budgets are controlled by the city government, many mayors restrict their policy role in education to influencing the selection of superintendents and school-board presidents.

These built-in "turf constraints," Mr. Owen said, are the likely cause for some mayors' hesitation to become more involved in school matters.

For more than a hundred years, said Mr. Doyle, politicians have been satisfied to leave school-system management to the "experts."

Now, he said, there seems to be a "willingness among educators to enlarge the fold."

Resistance in Boston

Nevertheless, some of the new mayoral initiatives have run into political resistance from educators.

In Boston, for instance, Mayor Flynn's education initiative has been severely criticized by the school system's leaders, who initially denounced it as a move motivated more by the mayor's political aspirations than by his concern for the schools.

The controversy arose after Mayor Flynn paid a visit to the Pittsburgh school system, which has freel10lquently been praised for its reform efforts, in search of new ideas that could be applied to Boston's schools. His entourage included advisers and reporters, but no representatives from his own school system.

Shortly after his return to Boston, the mayor announced his formation of an advisory panel to "look at" ways to improve Boston schools. Again, school leaders said, they had been unaware of the mayor's plans until they were publicly announced.

"We didn't like it, and we said we didn't like it," complained the Boston superintendent of schools, Laval Wilson. "We thought it was the wrong thing to do."

During the past few weeks, the Mayor and school leaders have met and begun to patch up their differences, however. And the school committee has said it will cooperate with the mayor's advisory panel.

"Mayor Flynn is genuinely concerned with improving education in the Boston Public Schools," said John Nucci, the school committee's president.

"What seemed to slowly dawn on the mayor's office," he added, "is that so are school officials."

Mr. Flynn's education adviser, Ellen Guiney, is a long-time school activist who has been credited by many with being the moving force behind his new visibility in education.

The mayor, she said, "is deeply convinced that almost all of the other issues he keeps struggling with have at their root education."

Ms. Guiney added, however, that Mr. Flynn has hesitated to extend his role in education beyond his statutory budget powers because "any greater intervention has historically been frowned upon."

When he tried to intervene in a school-bus drivers' strike early in his tenure, she recalled, "he just got creamed."

"The media, parents, the Boston Teachers Union--everybody said 'get out, we'll settle our own affairs."'

New Variety of 'Power Grab'?

In Boston, as in some other cities, much of the friction between city and school leaders springs from fears that the mayor is attempting to broaden his or her influence over the schools at the expense of school officials' autonomy.

Mr. Nucci acknowledged that he still views Mayor Flynn's efforts with a wary eye. "It's too early to tell whether this is a power grab," he said.

Those concerns may be well founded, according to several sources, who cited behind-the-scenes pressure on the mayor by influential people who believe the system's governance structure should be overhauled.

"There is a perception that there's a logjam at the top here," said Ms. Guiney.

In New York City, Mayor Edward I. Koch led an effort earlier this year designed to gain more control over appointments to the board of education, the majority of which are now made by borough presidents.

Gov. Mario Cuomo initially backed the Koch plan and was involved in trying to craft a compromise that would satisfy opponents of the move. But he soon decided not to make the issue one of his top priorities for the year.

"There was a lot of pressure on the Governor" not to back the measure, partly because Mayor Koch's popularity in the city has been steadily eroding, said Jeanne Frankl, executive director of the Public Education Association, a local watchdog group.

"Even people who might have4been comfortable with increasing the mayor's control over the board in other circumstances questioned the wisdom of relying on this single initiative to deal with a wide range of endemic problems," she said.

Mayor John O. Norquist of Milwaukee, advised by a mayoral commission this summer to create a task force to examine the governance of the school system, declined to do so, citing concerns about protecting the authority of the district's new superintendent of schools.

Superintendent Robert S. Peterkin, who says his decision to accept the Milwaukee post was influenced by the mayor's unusually strong support for education, told Mr. Norquist he would like an opportunity to address the system's problems before the mayor stepped in.

Other recommendations from the Mayor's Committee for the Future of Milwaukee have been warmly received by school officials, including proposals that the city expand student health services and support for youth employment programs.

Becoming 'Advocates'

Several other mayors have avoided potential conflicts with their school chiefs by confining their children-and-youth initiatives to services outside the scope of traditional school activities.

Mayor Fraser of Minneapolis, for example, has earned high praise from school officials, one of whom said that the mayor "has become a tremendous advocate for students."

"He has made it clear over and over and over again that his interest is in doing the things that the school system cannot do--not in encroaching on what we do," said Judith L. Farmer, a member of the Minneapolis board of education.

Even in Phoenix, where Mayor Goddard's Commission on Excellence in Education clearly strayed into the area of school-policy issues in its preliminary report this month, school officials remain receptive to mayoral collaboration.

"We are pleased that the city seems more than willing to cooperate with us," said Roger C. Romero, assistant superintendent of community relations for the Phoenix Union High School District.

Mayor Goddard's Commission did, however, avoid the one major issue that would almost certainly have proved divisive--the question of whether the city's 28 districts should be unified into one system serving students from kindergarten through high school.

'Sell That Pride'

Federico Pena, Mayor of Denver, echoed the comments of many of his colleagues when he said, in his state-of-the-city address, that "public education is everybody's business, and that includes the Mayor."

In the July 13 speech, Mayor Pena said that the connection between city and school services is clear. Such indicators as a 95-percent dropout rate among students living in the city's public housing projects, he said, make the point.

The school system cannot be expected to tackle the range of social and economic problems such a statistic represents alone, he said, and it must not be forced to accept the blame when they are not solved.

He also used a bit of salesmanship sure to be adopted by other "education mayors."

"Not enough people know that the Denver Public Schools have a lot to be proud of," he said. "We're going to help sell that pride."

Vol. 08, Issue 08

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