School & District Management Opinion

Takeovers or Toeholds?

By Fritz Edelstein & J.D. Larock — October 01, 2003 8 min read
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Fritz Edelstein is a senior adviser at the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington. J.D. LaRock is a Presidential Fellow at Harvard University’s graduate school of education, in Cambridge, Mass. The authors wish to acknowledge support from the Broad Foundation in preparing this essay.

Mayoral takeovers of public school systems have received a lot of attention of late. Indeed, as some keen observers of the reform landscape point out, they’ve come to be considered something of a “movement” in urban education. And to be sure, they’ve led to some positive changes. In Boston, one of the first cities that moved to mayoral control, Superintendent Thomas W. Payzant has presided over the schools for eight years—an eternity in this age of revolving-door superintendents. After Mayor Richard M. Daley assumed authority over Chicago’s public schools in 1994, citizens there saw both school budgets and standardized-test scores rise steadily. And since Harrisburg, Pa., Mayor Stephen J. Reed took over that city’s school system in 2001, student enrollment, which had been plummeting for decades, has risen by nearly 20 percent.

But mayors don’t have to take over their school systems in order to make a difference. In fact, in many cities, the strategy may not even make much sense. In the South and West, for example, many school districts cover metropolitan areas that are bigger than the city limits. Conversely, many cities contain dozens of independent school districts in their boundaries—San Jose, Calif., for example, has 19. And despite all the criticism being lobbed at school boards these days, they remain popular in many places, especially in smaller municipalities.

Such impediments haven’t, on the other hand, stopped mayors from getting more involved in public education. In fact, as big-city mayoral takeovers have been grabbing the headlines, dozens of mayors have embraced smaller, more targeted initiatives to gain a toehold in their local school systems. These “toehold issues,” as we call them, may lack the dramatic sweep of full-scale takeovers, but they nonetheless address real problems schools face today. They can be initiated without the political donnybrooks that often accompany more drastic reforms. And taken together, they represent what we believe is the real movement in urban education today: that mayors recognize the importance of providing leadership in public education, and are finding lots of ways to do it. Here are some of them:

Much more could be cited: mayors’ efforts to allow city employees to attend school conferences more easily, initiatives to tie city health and social-service agencies more closely to schools, collaborations with business leaders interested in education reform, to name just a few. The point is that successful mayoral involvement in education is not only about assuming more authority over school systems, it’s about using what authority one does have constructively.

  • After-School and Out-of-School Programs. Many mayors have turned to after-school and out-of-school programs as an initial way of showing support for the public schools. Since most mayors have authority over youth-development and recreation agencies, supporting these programs is easily done. And since most schools want more of these programs, the mayor’s involvement is usually welcomed. Recently, several mayors have even helped school systems respond to the federal government’s call to make after- school programs more academically oriented. For example, in Tulsa, Okla., Mayor Bill La Fortune’s office worked with the city’s community college, Urban League chapter, and school district to create a summer youth academy focused on literacy. In Louisville, Ky., Mayor Jerry Abramson’s office helped the school district implement “KidTrax,” a system that monitors student progress in after-school and out-of-school programs.
  • School Safety. Providing for public safety is a core responsibility of every mayor, and in this post-Columbine and post-9/11 world, mayors are connecting city law- enforcement agencies and the public schools as never before. In Fort Worth, Texas, former Mayor Kenneth Barr and newly elected Mayor Mike Moncrief have committed to funding 50 percent of the cost of all the police officers in the city’s middle and high schools. Mayor Paul Fraim of Norfolk, Va., arranged for specially trained police officers, known as “school resource officers,” to be placed in the local school district’s high schools. And in Omaha, Neb., Mayor Mike Fahey brokered an agreement with his city’s school districts to expand the number of police officers on middle and high school campuses. Increasingly, mayors are also bringing police officials and school administrators together to develop comprehensive school safety plans in case of terrorism and other violent events.
  • School Finance. Although many mayors have little to no formal authority over their cities’ education budgets, quite a few have used their bully pulpits to bring more money to the public schools. In Seattle, several mayors, including the current one, Greg Nickels, have been instrumental in securing and maintaining the city’s Families and Education Levy. That initiative is providing $69 million over seven years to support almost two dozen programs aimed at removing barriers to effective student learning, including those providing early-childhood intervention, health care, and other services. Mayor Anthony Massielo of Buffalo, N.Y., has won praise for his proposal to increase taxes for the specific objective of funding prekindergarten and kindergarten classes. And countless other mayors have helped their school districts apply for major grants from foundations and corporate partners.
  • School Facilities. Mayors are also providing needed help to modernize old school buildings and build new ones. Recently, Mayor Tom Kincaid of Birmingham, Ala., helped push through a school bond issue that is expected to generate $168 million for school construction and repair. Nashville, Tenn.'s Bill Purcell has so far made good on his promise to provide city funds every year to support school construction, modernization, and maintenance. Other cities have taken creative routes: Mayor Vera Katz of Portland, Ore., helped establish a Real Estate Trust of city, school district, and business officials to facilitate the sale and lease of buildings that are being converted into schools. In St. Petersburg, Fla., Mayor Richard Baker has pledged to dedicate all local permit and development fees to support tree-planting and landscaping in the city’s schools. And in Fort Worth, the mayor’s office has helped local school districts with the bureaucratic side of school construction, establishing a special process to expedite the issuing of building permits, inspections, and certificates of occupancy.
  • Access to Technology. As school districts focus on narrowing the “digital divide” within schools, a number of mayors are either assisting them in their efforts or launching programs aimed at increasing families’ access to computers outside schools. In Seattle, for instance, the mayor’s department of information technology is overseeing an initiative that provides matching funds to community groups that want to establish neighborhood technology centers. Mayor Ronald Loveridge’s office in Riverside, Calif., administers a program that gives computers directly to low-income families— nearly 400 so far. And in San Jose, Mayor Ron Gonzales is encouraging schools to establish more after-school programs in the city’s libraries, which provide Internet access and training for students.
  • Higher Education Issues. Mayors have the unique power to bring important groups in their cities together, and, increasingly, they’re using it to address pressing issues that have an impact on both the K-12 and the higher education communities. Mayor Francis Slay of St. Louis, for instance, recently convened a meeting of school district officials and area university presidents to examine why students’ ACT scores and four-year college matriculation rates are lagging. Other cities, such as Milwaukee and Louisville, have had long- standing “roundtables” of university and school system officials. Among their activities have been work to improve teacher-preparation courses and the creation of programs that allow promising high school students to take courses at the local public colleges.
Even mayors who have no formal power over the public schools have a valuable trump card: They are the chief executive officers in their cities.

  • Showcasing Education. To their credit, most mayors are not just intervening in aspects of their cities’ school systems they find lacking. Quite a few are going to great lengths to call attention to what students and schools are doing right. Scores of mayors visit schools regularly, giving awards to exemplary students and teachers as they go. Other mayors have gone the opposite route, bringing students into City Hall by establishing youth councils and holding events geared toward families. From one-day events like the “Walk Our Children to School Day” sponsored by both Birmingham’s and Buffalo’s mayors, to the mayorally sponsored lineup of events for the first week of school in Nashville, mayors are recognizing the importance of enhancing pride in public education—and increasing public engagement in the process.

Even mayors who have no formal power over the public schools have a valuable trump card: They are the chief executive officers in their cities. They have enormous leverage to shape the public discourse around education. They can bring diffuse interests together to focus on education and engage citizens in their schools as no one else can. And they can bring to bear every city service they do control to benefit children and schools.

That’s why voters—quite rightly, in our view—hold mayors accountable for the performance of the schools in their cities, even if the mayor doesn’t control them. And it’s why mayors are—also quite rightly—being impelled to get more involved.

Fritz Edelstein is a senior adviser at the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington. J.D. LaRock is a Presidential Fellow at Harvard University’s graduate school of education, in Cambridge, Mass. The authors wish to acknowledge support from the Broad Foundation in preparing this essay.

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