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Urban School Leaders Call for Activist Federal Policy

Leaders of the nation's largest urban school systems are urging the new president to consider a greater and more cohesive federal role in urban schools.

The Council of the Great City Schools issued an "open letter" to the next president of the United States during its annual conference here last month, outlining its priorities and hopes for the new administration. Topics ranged from money for school renovations and teacher recruitment to requests that any criticism of urban schools take a constructive tone.

Clifford B. Janey, the superintendent of schools in Rochester, N.Y., said the country needs a "constructive dialogue" about public urban education.

"Divisive and destructive discussion and the surrounding rhetoric serves no purpose," he said at a news conference held at the Regal Biltmore Hotel to discuss the council's letter.

The council, which represents 55 districts serving a total of more than 6 million public school students, says it is seeking a targeted and well- articulated national policy that addresses the varying needs of urban schools. Urban school reform has been too reliant on state efforts, which often have been punitive, said Mr. Janey, who also is the chairman of the council's board of directors.

The letter is a call for the federal government to be a partner in the continued revitalization of urban schools, said Caprice Young, a member of the school board in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Urban districts have done their part by adopting standards and accountability measures and passing bond issues, she said.

The primary goal of encouraging more federal help would be to raise students' academic performance while closing the achievement gaps between students based on race, language, and income, the letter says.

To raise student achievement, Mr. Janey said, city schools need help in recruiting and retaining teachers and principals to lead improvement efforts.

"Simply mandating that we hire qualified teachers does not solve our problem," he said. "We can't compete with the suburbs."

Urban school leaders say they also want more federal dollars in order to address disparities in state education funding and to repair and renovate aging buildings. Superintendent Rod Paige of Houston, however, sees the federal government playing a different part in urban school reform.

Federal officials should set the tone of the education agenda, said Mr. Paige, who was an education adviser to the presidential campaign of Gov. George W. Bush of Texas and has been mentioned as a possible candidate for U.S. secretary of education in a Bush administration. Leaders in Washington should use their "bully pulpit" to trumpet effective education practices and leave school decisions up to state, and especially local, officials, the superintendent argued.

"It's hard to get too much assistance without control too," warned Mr. Paige, who also serves as the secretary and treasurer of the council's board. "There are things we need to do, too."

A clear difference between the presidential candidates' views of the federal role in urban classrooms emerged during a sometimes-heated debate here between the top education advisers for Mr. Bush, the Republican nominee in this week's election, and Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic nominee.

Jonathan H. Schnur, Mr. Gore's senior education adviser, said the Democratic candidate's education proposal would increase the federal share of funding for the nation's schools from 7 percent to 10 percent of local districts' budgets. The neediest districts, which often are those in the cities, would receive the bulk of the additional funding, Mr. Schnur said.

Sandy Kress, an adviser to Mr. Bush, said the Texas governor's education plans would likely continue to provide about 7 percent of schools' budgets, while stressing accountability systems and diagnostic tests to help prescribe a "cure" for public schools' ills. He said Mr. Bush would emphasize getting "more bang for the buck" in schools.

Other sessions at the Oct. 25-28 conference focused on leadership, funding, and efforts to close the achievement gap in public schools.

Marie Latham Bush, a special education case manager for the Toledo, Ohio, school system, presented the results of a study conducted as part of her doctoral dissertation at the University of Toledo.

She found that eight of the 11 female superintendents of urban districts in the council questioned during the 1998-99 school year said they lacked role models and mentors and faced subtle forms of sexism and racism in their positions.

Women who make mistakes aren't afforded the second chances that their male counterparts enjoy, Ms. Bush maintained.

"When you're a woman, and a woman of color, you are in a fishbowl, and you face unreal expectations during your entire career," added Darline P. Robles, the superintendent of the Salt Lake City schools. Ms. Robles, who participated in the study, is of Mexican descent.

Among other events at the meeting, Superintendent Eric Smith of the 105,000-student Charlotte-Mecklenberg, N.C., school district, was given the Richard R. Green Award, which the council bestows each year to recognize the nation's top urban superintendent.

—Karla Scoon Reid

Vol. 20, Issue 10, Page 12

Published in Print: November 8, 2000, as Reporter's Notebook
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