Mayors Adopt 'Action Agenda' For Education

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For years, mayors of many of the nation's cities watched from the sidelines as the troubles in their local schools mounted as fast as public concern over education. Many of them felt trapped politically, forced to share the blame for problems over which they had little control.

Now, some of those mayors are taking an increasingly hands-on attitude toward the public schools in their communities.

Some mayors haven't done much more than gripe about high spending and low test scores, while others have assumed direct control of their schools. But whatever their level of involvement, a consensus is emerging that education is an issue they cannot ignore.

"Mayors have traditionally not wanted to get involved," said William A. Johnson Jr., the mayor of Rochester, N.Y. "But if we don't revitalize our schools, everything we're doing to revitalize our communities will do no good."

Concern over public education was very much in evidence last month as the U.S. Conference of Mayors gathered here for its annual convention.

In addition to a speech by President Clinton, the highlights of the five-day gathering included a session on education that focused on the transfer of power over the nation's third-largest school district a year ago to Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. (See Education Week, July 12, 1995.)

The 220 mayors also embraced "an action agenda" for strengthening public schools and released a report describing municipal efforts to improve education in nearly 50 cities.

"The goal of mayors across the country is to make sure that the education system thrives, because it's so critical to city development," said Bruce Todd, the mayor of Austin, Texas. "How we deal with education is the most important issue."

School Boards Concerned

To many school officials, the increased attention is at best a mixed blessing.

If it brings more money and enhanced public support for the schools, they feel, so much the better. But if it means mayors substituting themselves for existing governance structures, that's another matter.

"There is a role for mayors in supporting children," said Michael A. Resnick, the senior associate executive director of the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va. "But it won't serve any valuable purpose if the mayors think they're in a better position to actually run the school systems and make judgments on curriculum and other matters regarding education."

Taking Charge in Chicago

In Chicago, Mr. Daley makes no apology for the state law that allowed him to replace the former school board and superintendent with a management team plucked in part from his City Hall staff and answerable only to him. Indeed, he contends that more mayors should take direct responsibility for their schools.

As the newly elected president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Mr. Daley intends to make education a top priority. Echoing many of his colleagues, he blames much of the exodus from cities to suburbs during the past generation on a desire to escape inadequate schools.

"For many years, middle-class families from all racial and ethnic groups have been leaving our communities because of the deteriorating quality of public education," Mr. Daley wrote in the report on municipal education initiatives.

"To keep and attract middle-class families to our cities," he added, "it is essential for mayors to assume leadership and responsibility for this critical issue."

Some Relish Control

Many mayors say they have no desire to emulate Mr. Daley, in part because they hope never to face problems in their schools as severe as those in his city.

"Chicago is not the example we would hope to have to follow," Mr. Todd of Austin said. "If you're successful, you'll never reach that point."

Yet other city leaders, notably New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, would relish the control over their schools that Mr. Daley enjoys.

Mr. Giuliani has been pushing state legislation--without success--that would abolish the elected central school board in the nation's largest school system and give him the power to appoint its chancellor.

The school system's budget this year is $8 billion.

In Boston, Mayor Thomas M. Menino is fighting to stave off a challenge to his sway over the schools and their $469 million budget.

Under his predecessor, Boston changed five years ago from an elected school committee to a one appointed by the mayor. The state law that created the appointed board calls for a referendum on whether to revert to an elected panel. That election is scheduled for November, and Mr. Menino is pushing hard to preserve his control.

In Philadelphia, where the mayor also appoints board members, some community activists are agitating for an independently elected school board to oversee the district's 256 schools and their $1.4 billion budget.

But Mayor Edward Rendell would like to move in the opposite direction. He favors strengthening the appointed board's ties to City Hall by having them serve contemporaneously with the mayor instead of in staggered six-year terms.

In Baltimore, another district with a mayorally appointed school board, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has been battling to retain his control over the schools and their $654 million budget. As the city and state seek to resolve a legal fight over funding, Mr. Schmoke has been balking at Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening's demands for a greater say in district management in exchange for increased state funding.

Many mayors point out that their efforts to boost school performance are not without a grain of self-interest. Even in cities with independently elected boards, mayors often take the heat for schools' shortcomings.

"Education can no longer be left to the educators, because politically you're going to be held accountable whether you have authority over the schools or not," Denver Mayor Wellington Webb told the mayors meeting in Cleveland.

"They don't understand that we don't have power over how the money is spent," agreed Mayor Anthony M. Masiello of Buffalo, N.Y. "People hold us accountable."

Accountability at Issue

But Mr. Resnick of the school boards' association contends that such assessments are overstated. He says many mayors find it politically attractive to criticize the schools precisely because they do not bear true responsibility for them.

"Some mayors are becoming more interested because the public is saying that educational improvement is its number-one priority," Mr. Resnick said. "Politicians move to where the political pressure points are. They can jump on the bandwagon without accountability."

Still, mayors such as Mr. Menino of Boston contend that their engagement in schools is far more sincere.

Indeed, Mr. Menino has dubbed himself "the education mayor" and invited voters to judge him at the polls on the basis of whether he follows through with his vows to fix the schools.

"People often tell me not to get involved in the schools, that it's a political time bomb, and sometimes I would agree," Mr. Menino said in an interview. "But as mayor, I can't sit back and abandon our schools. If we abandon our schools we abandon our children and our future."

Involvement Varies

Many mayors who have no interest in running their school systems are nonetheless paying more attention to how they can support children and educators, said Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools. But he believes that such heightened concern is not universal.

"Some mayors don't have any real interest in this, and some school systems don't have any real interest in the mayor being interested," said Mr. Casserly, whose Washington-based organization represents the nation's 50 largest urban school systems. "It changes from city to city."

Mr. Casserly was among 35 mayors, police chiefs, and school officials who met in Denver in May to discuss how cities and school systems can begin to collaborate to address interrelated public safety and educational problems.

The result was the action agenda adopted at the Cleveland convention, which calls for mayors "to establish quality public education as the highest priority of a city."

Mr. Casserly sees the greater concern for schools and children among city governments as a largely welcome development. And he predicts that mayors will intensify their efforts to work together with school officials in the years ahead.

"It's a conversation that has to continue and that has some longevity," Mr. Casserly said. "The mayors, the schools, the police, and other authorities in the cities have too many problems that are overlapping to not try to pull together."

Vol. 15, Issue 40

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