School & District Management

Mayors Stepping Up to Improve Quality of City Schools

By Karla Scoon Reid — April 09, 2003 7 min read
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While most mayors have little control over the public schools in their cities, increasing public pressure is putting the elected leaders on the political hot seat to help improve struggling urban districts.

For years, mayors could fend off concerns about the quality of education because their cities’ schools had their own elected leadership. Today, though, some city residents want mayors to extend their reach beyond supporting soccer and baseball leagues.

Increasingly, mayors—who have always acknowledged that the welfare of their communities is linked to the success of their schools—are becoming more active in their local districts’ affairs. While their involvement doesn’t make the front-page news generated by mayoral takeovers of city districts, it is still an important sign that civic leaders’ attitudes toward schools are changing.

Two of the nation’s leading civic organizations, in fact, are now focusing attention on public schools to give mayors the support and resources they need to enter the education arena. The National League of Cities and the U.S. Conference of Mayors, both based in Washington, have efforts under way to bolster city leaders’ educational expertise.

Mayors in cities such as Lansing, Mich., and Columbus, Ohio, are forging coalitions to tackle topics ranging from the transformation of middle schools to closing the achievement gap between African-American and Hispanic students and their white and Asian-American peers.

“Mayors are increasingly being held accountable for their schools, whether or not they have a governance role, because they’re the most prominent locally elected official in the community,” said Clifford M. Johnson, the executive director of the Institute for Youth, Education, and Families at the National League of Cities. “If they’re going to take the heat, then they figure that they might as well get involved and have some impact.”

Beyond Takeovers

For some mayors, takeovers of district governance in Boston and Chicago have raised the possibility that direct intervention in districts could yield positive results, said John DeStefano Jr., the president of the National League of Cities and the mayor of New Haven, Conn.

“The sense of possibilities about public school districts changed,” said Mr. DeStefano. In his city, the mayor has long both served on and appointed the school board.

But with both mayoral and state-initiated takeovers of school districts producing mixed results, according to researchers, some city leaders are hesitant to take the plunge. (“Big-City Mayors’ Control of Schools Yields Mixed Results,” Sept. 11, 2002.)

For others, seizing control of their cities’ schools would not be a practical option.

In many cities, school district and city boundaries are not contiguous, Mr. Johnson explained. Other large cities have several independent school districts within their jurisdictions.

Mayor DeStefano notes that becoming involved isn’t a matter of takeover vs. no takeover for elected city leaders. The definition of “community” has expanded, he said, which compels mayors to become more sophisticated about their approach to their cities’ schools. In New Haven, for example, the mayor named a task force to devise a plan for increasing access to and improving the quality of early-childhood education.

“We have to start thinking about ways to help these kids succeed,” Mr. DeStefano stressed. “There is a place for city leaders in education, irrespective of reporting and jurisdiction.”

The National League of Cities began to emphasize education in 2000, with the creation of the Institute for Youth, Education, and Families. The league is an advocacy organization representing more than 18,000 cities, towns, and villages.

The institute’s mission is to strengthen municipal leaders’ capacity to address issues facing families, teenagers, and schools by providing hands-on, practical assistance. The 15- member staff identifies promising practices, disseminates informational material, reviews research, and makes site visits.

Last month, the league launched a network of more than 40 education policy advisers, which will bring together the city education officials who work most closely with mayors on school improvement.

A National League of Cities survey of municipal leaders in 2001 found that nearly four in five respondents cited the quality of education as a major or moderate problem affecting the future well-being of America’s cities.

That same year, the institute launched the Municipal Leadership in Education project, which helps mayors in six cities shape and carry out a specific education agenda. With the support of a three-year, $511,000 grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the institute is supporting education efforts in Charleston, S.C.; Columbus, Ohio; Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Lansing, Mich.; New Haven; and Portland, Ore.

Audrey M. Hutchinson, the institute’s program director for education and after-school initiatives, said initially there was an underlying tension about the mayors’ intentions in a community.

But once educators and community members learn how city leaders can support schools, she said, a sense of relief and a willingness to collaborate follow.

As the “commanders in chief” of their cities, she said, mayors have the public and political clout to bring disparate community, business, and political players together to improve the schools. And they can leverage their cities’ financial resources—public and private—behind education needs.

“It’s a city problem. It’s a quality-of-life problem. It’s an economic-development problem,” Ms. Hutchinson said of the quality of education in cities. “If we don’t solve it, everybody is going down.”

Taking Charge

The U.S. Conference of Mayors, meanwhile, is raising its education profile this year with the development of a staff dedicated to providing mayors with guidance and support on education issues ranging from charter schools to technology. The conference is a nonprofit organization representing mayors in almost 1,200 cities.

Supported by a $200,000 grant from the Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation, the organization is examining all the options available to mayors who wish to be involved in their cities’ schools—including gaining control of the local districts.

Leading the mayoral education charge is Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston, the president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. He also was instrumental in pushing for the establishment of the Institute for Youth, Education, and Families while he was the president of the National League of Cities. The mayor has appointed Boston’s school committee since 1992.

The problem with education, Mr. Menino suggested, is that it’s a “finger-pointing deal"—no one wants to be responsible. Now, he said, more mayors are not afraid to take more responsibility for their schools.

Not Standing By

In Ohio’s state capital, community residents, politicians, and even the editorial pages of the local newspaper have urged Mayor Michael B. Coleman of Columbus to seize control of his city’s 63,000-student district.

But the mayor said he doesn’t believe that step would result in an overall benefit for the city. “Taking over a school system is not synonymous with an improved school system,” Mr. Coleman said.

Instead, shortly after taking office in 2000, the mayor created the city’s first Cabinet-level position dedicated to education. And since then, Mr. Coleman has made education—especially closing the achievement gap—a crucial part of his tenure as mayor.

Under Mr. Coleman’s leadership, the city has instituted its own after-school program, with set standards and performance criteria. The Cap City Kids program began in 2001 with four sites; today, it runs 35 sites serving 2,900 children. The program is supported by a combination of city, foundation, and corporate donations.

Next month, Mayor Coleman will convene a second “community education summit” about the achievement gap, which is scheduled to include the 16 school districts in Franklin County.

More than half the students living in Columbus attend suburban school systems within the city limits. The coalition of districts is trying to identify specific strategies to bridge the test-score divide.

While it’s not an easy task, and the collaboration can be tricky at times, Mr. Coleman said cities have no choice but to jump into the struggle to raise student achievement, because it represents their communities’ futures.

“We can no longer afford to simply stand by,” he said.

Coverage of urban education is supported in part by a grant from the George Gund Foundation.

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