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IN THE LINE OF FIRE: Mayors Move to the Forefront in Education Reform

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"If you have a school district that . . .is struggling, it has an impact on everyone."

In the two-plus years since the No Child Left Behind Act became law, the word “accountability” has found its way into nearly every conversation about education from Miami to Seattle. However, the people likely to be among the first to be held accountable during election time are not the principals or the school superintendents, but elected officials such as mayors in cities throughout the country. At the local level, teachers, principals, and, in most cases, superintendents do not hold elected positions. At the state and national level, voters concern themselves with a myriad of issues, of which education is just one. U.S. mayors, however, are in a unique position of being directly accountable for the status of education in the community, and possessing the tools and resources that allow them to improve student achievement.

Over the last several years, mayors in large cities like Chicago, Boston, and New York City have made national headlines for taking direct control of their city’s school system. Meanwhile, mayors in other cities throughout the country have been able to use their role as chief executive to bring together diverse interests within their communities in an effort to make a significant impact on education in their cities.

In “Takeovers or Toeholds,” a commentary in Education WeekFritz Edelstein, the senior adviser at the U.S. Conference of Mayors, andJ.D. LaRock, a Presidential fellow at Harvard University’s graduate school of education, highlight several areas from school safety to higher education in which mayors have been able to exert a significant amount of influence on education-related initiatives in their cities. They stress that in order for mayors to successfully involve themselves in education, they need not assume more authority over the school system. Mayors should just use the authority they already possess in a constructive manner.

One of the ways mayors are impacting education in their communities is by using the resources directly under their control. In many cities, mayors have authority over youth-development and recreation agencies, and have used their power to focus on after-school and out-of-school programs. For example, working with the city’s community college, Urban League chapter, and school district, Tulsa, Okla., Mayor Bill LaFortune has created a summer youth academy that works to improve literacy.

In his role as chief executive, the mayor also has the power of the bully pulpit to raise public awareness and drive community action on areas beyond his direct control. In Birmingham, Ala., for instance, Mayor Tom Kincaid was able to command public support for a $168 million school bond issue that will go toward school construction and repair. Over the years, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, building on the work of his predecessors, has secured and maintained the city’s Families and Education Levy, a $69 million initiative that supports over 20 programs, including early childhood intervention, health care, and other services that work to remove barriers that hinder effective student learning.

In today’s environment of state budget shortfalls and tight economies, mayors realize that their ability to improve education results affects not only parents and students, but also businesses and institutions of higher learning. A recent article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette highlighted a report released by Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy that found 54 percent of the city’s public school students cannot read at grade level. It also noted that a study from one year ago found that 43 percent of all high school seniors in southwestern Pennsylvania “read so poorly that they could be limited to jobs that pay less than $20,000 a year.” According to Ronnie L. Byrant, president and chief operating officer of the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance, the ramifications of poor academic achievement extend beyond the doors of the schoolhouse and ultimately affect business and the economy. “When companies look to move into an area, they look at not just the city, but the region overall,” he told the newspaper. “If you have a school district that . . .is struggling, it has an impact on everyone.”

To achieve much more dramatic results, a mayor will sometimes take on additional authority over educational activities. In Indianapolis, Mayor Bart Peterson is the only mayor who has received the authority from a state legislature to authorize charter schools in a city. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, one of the first mayors to fully involve himself in education, received authority to select the school superintendent and the school board. In much more historic move, New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg was given near-total control over New York City’s vast public school system, a change from the past when the school board was elected or appointed to control the city’s 1,200 schools.

In their article, Edelstein and LaRock also discuss a mayor’s ability to “showcase education” and call attention to outstanding schools and students. “Scores of mayors visit schools regularly, giving awards to exemplary students and teachers as they go,” they write. It is quite possible, especially in small towns across the country, that the mayor will be the highest-ranking public official that some of these kids ever meet. Who can predict the impact that a visit from the mayor will have on a child’s determination to succeed in the years to come? In these visits, the authors argue, “Mayors are recognizing the importance of enhancing pride in public education-and increasing public engagement in the process.”

Read the complete “Takeovers or Toeholds?” article at: http://www.edweek.org/ew/ewstory.cfm?slug=05edelstein.h23

Read the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article, “Ripple from City Schools Report Spread Far,” at:
http://www.post-gazette.com/localnews/20030928schools0928p3.asp

New Mexico Voters Grant Governor New Powers Over Education

In New Mexico, Gov. Bill Richardson (D) followed the lead set by his mayoral colleagues throughout the country when he asked voters across the state to grant him new powers over the state’s schools. In a special election last month, he got his wish when voters passed a constitutional amendment that created a governor-appointed cabinet-level position for a Secretary of Education. Voters also approved an amendment that would increase education funding by allowing for higher rates of withdrawal from the Land Grant Permanent Fund, which consists of income from oil, gas and mineral royalties, and includes the Permanent Schools Fund. In 2005, this will result in an additional $78 million for New Mexico schools.

While campaigning for the two amendments, Gov. Richardson said that New Mexicans could not afford to wait for improvements to the school system. “As I traveled across the state and visited dozens of schools, I heard loud and clear from parents and teachers who demanded New Mexico’s schools improve,” he said after the amendments’ passage. “This generation of New Mexicans deserves the best schools and now, with this victory, they will finally get what they asked for.”

With the passage of both amendments, Gov. Richardson has the additional funding for education that he sought, as well as greater control and accountability for the school system as a whole. However, he also realizes that he is ultimately responsible for the system’s success. The Secretary of Education, he says, will provide “real accountability for our educational system-and [ensure] that for the first time, the buck stops with one person, the governor. I will make sure dollars go into the classroom and not into administration.”

The Albuquerque Journal provides additional coverage of the New Mexico vote at: http://www.abqjournal.com/elex/apgov09-26-03.htm

 

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