School & District Management Opinion

Conflict or Consensus?

By Donald J. Borut, Anne L. Bryant & Paul D. Houston — September 20, 2005 8 min read
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New survey research shows that national membership associations actually share common perspectives on many of the issues that matter most to the future of public education in America.

It often seems that city and school leaders don’t agree on much. Turf battles and political rivalries all too often end up as headline news. Yet new survey research from the three national membership associations representing these groups shows that they actually share common perspectives on many of the issues that matter most to the future of public education in America.

We all know that communities with high-quality public schools have a distinct advantage in the competition for new businesses and private-sector investments. We also know that when local schools are strong, they create more durable connections between young people and their hometowns, producing a next generation of citizens who will be more productive and better equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

In response to a recent set of surveys administered by the National League of Cities, the National School Boards Association, the American Association of School Administrators, and the Learning First Alliance, overwhelming majorities of city officials, school board members, and superintendents expressed the belief that providing high-quality education improves community life and social cohesion, attracts and retains families, helps develop a skilled workforce, fosters economic growth, attracts new jobs, and increases real estate values. City and school officials clearly agree that the fortunes of our cities and our schools are closely linked.

—Illustration by Jonathan Bouw


Perhaps even more striking is the extent to which municipal and school leaders also agree on many of the key challenges that lie ahead for our public schools.

More than half of city officials and school board members—and an overwhelming majority of school administrators—highlight difficulties in hiring and keeping good teachers and lack of parental involvement as critical challenges.

Even larger majorities of school administrators and school board members cite the achievement gaps between different racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups as an important challenge, and more than half of municipal leaders share this view.

Finally, at least three of four respondents in all three groups express concern that lack of funding is a major or moderate challenge for their school systems.

These broad areas of agreement give city and school leaders a singular opportunity to forge partnerships and collaborations that drive future progress. To take advantage of this opportunity, city and school officials must move from a shared understanding of the problems to a common agenda and plan of action with shared accountability for results.

The potential benefits of a collaborative effort to improve public schools are enormous. Mayors and city council members are in an excellent position to engage the public, raise awareness of critical needs, and marshal the political will to address them. School board members, superintendents, and other educators can contribute to these efforts and ensure, by virtue of their knowledge and expertise, that new initiatives are designed, targeted, and implemented effectively.

Strong city-school partnerships can also address the social and economic conditions that so often hamper the achievement of our most vulnerable students. For example, the surveys by the NLC, the NSBA, and the AASA reveal widespread recognition of the importance of supplemental or “wraparound” services that support the physical, social, and educational development of children. By working together, cities and schools can achieve important gains in areas such as access to early-childhood and preschool education, after-school programming, recreation, cultural enrichment, and school safety and youth-violence prevention.

Finally, city agencies and school administrators can work together to achieve savings and greater efficiency in an era of tight budgets through joint-use agreements for city and school buildings, as well as shared maintenance of facilities, vehicles, parks, and athletic fields.

All of these approaches reflect the potential for convening civic leadership and pooling local resources to raise student achievement and meet the needs of children and families.

Effective partnerships are built on a foundation of trust. Because municipal officials typically do not have direct authority over school districts, a mayor’s interest in public schools can arouse suspicion or even alarm among school board members, school administrators, and other community leaders. Fears of mayoral intervention have been fueled in part by the move from elected to appointed school boards in some major urban areas. When the option of a mayoral “takeover” is off the table, however, city and school leaders can often join together in powerful partnerships that advance a common agenda and plan of action for local school improvement.

In large cities and small towns, municipal and school leaders are already working together to make their public schools better. Here are a few examples:

Long Beach, Calif. Although the survey data suggest that most city officials, school administrators, and school board members rely on informal channels of communication, more formal and regularly scheduled meetings between city and school leaders can take partnerships to a new level. A “collaborative conversation” spearheaded by Mayor Beverly O’Neill brings her together with city council and school board members on a quarterly basis to discuss opportunities for enhanced coordination and joint planning.

Nashville, Tenn. In response to shared concerns about the adequacy of funding for public schools, city and school leaders have strong incentives to work together in tapping existing funding streams and coordinating the use of available resources. Mayor Bill Purcell formed a task force with a very broad range of stakeholders—including school board, district, parent, and student representatives, as well as city council members, state legislators, and business, higher education, community, and labor leaders—to examine trends and options for educational funding and the expansion of new programs for a growing student population.

Strong city-school partnerships can address the social and economic conditions that so often hamper the achievement of our most vulnerable students.

Lansing, Mich. Parent and community supports for learning can contribute in important ways to increased student achievement. Confronted by a growing dropout rate and low achievement among middle school students, the city of Lansing worked with Superintendent E. Sharon Banks to launch a communitywide literacy campaign designed and overseen by a broad-based local coalition. The campaign led to the establishment of a new mentoring program, a clearer emphasis on the use of data to identify problem areas, and a stronger focus on reading, in the classroom and throughout the community.

Fort Worth, Texas. City-school partnerships also can drive the expansion of out-of-school learning opportunities for children. In Fort Worth, then-Mayor Kenneth Barrand Gary J. Manny, then the president of the Fort Worth Independent School District’s board of education, joined together to provide matching funds for a major, new after-school initiative. The city and district targeted funds to 52 of the city’s most underserved schools, driving a marked expansion of after-school slots and improved program quality at these school sites.

This list could easily go on. Mayor Rick Baker in St. Petersburg, Fla., has enlisted the help of local corporations, which are partnering with schools in creative and powerful ways. In San Jose, Calif., Mayor Ron Gonzales has championed school-readiness and teacher-recruitment and -retention efforts. To bolster college access, Mayor Eddie A. Perez in Hartford, Conn., has brought together postsecondary leaders and worked with the school district to identify strategies for reforming and improving the city’s public high schools. And in Columbus, Ohio, Mayor Michael B. Coleman gathered school district leaders from across the metropolitan region to devise strategies for closing achievement gaps in both suburban and central-city schools.

Clearly, city-school partnerships come in myriad shapes and sizes. Although each community and school district has its own specific needs, challenges in every jurisdiction can be addressed through more effective collaboration between cities and their schools.

If cities and school districts are serious about making lasting and positive change, they must find new ways to work together, and recommit themselves to supporting joint efforts that boost student achievement.

The National League of Cities, the National School Boards Association, the American Association of School Administrators, and the Learning First Alliance call upon their respective constituents to collaborate in areas where there is common ground. By so doing, each organization acknowledges that the education of our children is too important to be left solely to schools. Education must bea collective enterprise and communitywide priority.

Mayors, council members, school board members, and school administrators should jointly commit to the following actions:

Schedule regular meetings and joint public appearances or convenings of other key stakeholders to build trust, open lines of communication, and lay the groundwork for collaboration.

Develop and report regularly on a citywide vision and action plan that establishes clear goals and benchmarks for school improvement and holds city leaders, school officials, and other stakeholders responsible in fulfilling their respective roles.

Partner on school-readiness initiatives and strategies for meeting students’ health and social-service needs to prepare all children to achieve at high levels.

Forge joint-use agreements to reduce city and school costs for facilities, equipment, and staff.

Address school fundingshortfalls by jointly advocating for federal, state, and local funds to support school operations and bond issues to improve school facilities.

Launch public-engagement campaigns to highlight the importance of high-quality public schools and encourage parents to become actively engaged in the education of their children.

Support the development of high school alternatives and options for students who are at risk of dropping out or have already left school and are seeking a second chance.

Strong cities need strong schools. Strong schools, in turn, need the active support of city and community leaders. Municipal and school officials can embrace their interdependency while still acknowledging and respecting their unique roles and responsibilities. But “business as usual” is no longer an option. Only with a renewed sense of urgency on both sides will effective city-school partnerships sprout and put down the deep roots that are essential to improve our public schools and help all children reach the high standards we have set for them.

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A version of this article appeared in the September 21, 2005 edition of Education Week as Conflict or Consensus?


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