School & District Management

Mayors Gather to Explore, Debate Leverage Over Schools

By Catherine Gewertz — October 01, 2003 3 min read
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The mayors of 25 cities gathered here last week to brainstorm about how they can improve schools in their communities, even though most lack legal authority over education. The message they heard from a panel of experts was encouraging: You still can exert tremendous influence, even if you don’t hold the reins.

Facing one another around a massive table, the city leaders explored the leverage points and political difficulties of their roles in school improvement. Many expressed frustration at being held responsible by their constituents for inadequate schools when they lack clearly defined power to change them.

But they agreed that, with or without specific powers, mayors need to embroil themselves in making schools better.

“Mayors are getting more involved because the quality of our future depends on the quality of our schools,” James A. Garner, the mayor of Hempstead, N.Y., and the president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which sponsored the meeting, told reporters. “Mayors have to be educational leaders whether or not they have a formal role in how schools in their cities are run.”

Mayor Anthony A. Williams of the District of Columbia offered a timely illustration. In his remarks to the mayors, he reiterated his support for a controversial pilot program that would provide federally financed tuition vouchers to schoolchildren from low-income families in Washington. That program is being debated in Congress.

The day after the summit, Mr. Williams, who currently appoints four of the nine members of the school board, revealed that he is developing a plan to gain more formal authority over the city’s schools.

Philosophical Differences

Some of the mayors at the conference have been involved in school improvement efforts for years, and they advised the novices in that arena on how they could forge strong relations with school leaders to offer their city governments’ help. But despite their broad areas of agreement, a divide emerged: charter schools and vouchers.

Mayor Bart Peterson of Indianapolis, the only mayor in the nation who has direct authority to grant a charter, described his city’s burgeoning charter school movement as a change for the better.

Mayor Kirk Humphreys of Oklahoma City challenged the organization to take a stand in support of vouchers. The U.S. Conference of Mayors, however, has taken no position on the issue since 1985, when it came out against federally financed national voucher programs.

Some city leaders, such as Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston—one of the few mayors who control their school systems—opposed vouchers, saying they are tantamount to “giving up on the public schools.” Others opposed charter schools as well, worrying that they drain public school coffers.

Despite their differences on those issues, the mayors shared common ground on the need to get involved, especially as the federal No Child Left Behind Act exerts increasing pressure on schools to succeed.

Among the avenues of involvement they outlined were acting as the conveners of many education stakeholders, and exploiting their bully pulpits to rally community support for school improvement. They explored ways cities can direct resources to schools for such purposes as construction and after-school programs, and how they can coordinate city services needed by children and families.

Michael W. Kirst, a Stanford University education professor who has written extensively about mayoral influence on schools, warned the leaders that they are “up against a deeply ingrained educational view that mayors are not relevant in education,” an attitude recalling the corruption that drove a movement to separate city and school governance in the early 1900s.

The main challenge for mayors, he said, is to “move beyond incrementalism” to ensure improvements actually touch the classroom.

Lisa Graham Keegan, the former state schools superintendent in Arizona who is now the chief executive officer of the Education Leaders Council, a Washington-based group of state and other officials, urged the mayors to advocate more parental choice, through such means as charter schools and vouchers, in order to exert pressure on the existing school system to improve.

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