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Mayors Tout Leadership, Choice to Further School Reform

By Kathy Wiggins
January 30, 2012

"Education needs to be front and center in all our communities, in a real way," said Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, Chair of the Conference of Mayors Education Reform Task Force, opening a mayoral panel on education reform at The U.S. Conference of Mayors Winter Meeting closing plenary on January 20. The panel examined a spectrum of mayoral leadership and engagement in education as outlined in the new Conference of Mayors publication Mayoral Leadership and Involvement in Education: An Action Guide for Success. The panel included Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer and Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard.

"All of us as mayors fit somewhere along this spectrum," said Johnson, "and we have brought you best practice examples of what mayors are doing in their cities. These four mayors represent alignment, partnership, advocate and partial control along the mayoral spectrum of involvement in education, and they are here to share their stories with you to see where you could become involved."

"All of us as mayors have to, at the bare minimum, align our city services with the school system. It doesn't cost us money. It's about efficiency and building partnerships, relationships," said Johnson as he introduced Goodman.

"The first thing in terms of alignment is working with your school superintendent, so we start there," said Goodman in addressing the alignment issue. "We have our safety program where we provide care or tutoring or some kind of structure before, after and sometimes during school, as well as snacks and food. We are also a parks provider for those schools that need our facilities for their athletics. We partner in the security program. We partner in the arts program for middle and upper schools we provide facilities in which they can hold their programs. We provide tutorials for English as a Second Language and have an adaptive program for physically challenged children. And we do also have our Batteries Included Program for at-risk young people to provide job skills, life skills, training and internships. And we always have the bully pulpit that's what we all have to do."

The second area was partnership where mayors can make their education program a city-wide initiative. A great example of this is Fischer's 55,000 Degree Initiative. "When your office calls, people tend to show up," said Fischer in explaining the success of his leadership on the education program. "The goal is to move Louisville into the top tier among its peer cities by raising education attainment so that by 2020 40 percent of working-age adults hold a bachelor's degree and ten percent an associate's degree."

The third category of mayoral involvement was as an advocate. Hancock exemplified this role as a leader in the bully pulpit. "There is no greater advocate, or potential advocate in the city for education reform than the mayor. The bully pulpit, the exposure, the ability to grab attention from the business community, the media, and to direct them toward an issue is one of the more powerful tools around this whole question of education," he said.

The fourth category was partial control, and in this area Ballard outlined his charter school-authorizing ability; he's the only mayor in the country who has the ability to authorize charter schools. "We have a dramatic effect when our charter schools are effective. There's strict accountability. The great thing about charter schools is that a good number of them go into tough neighborhoods. I like choice; I like competition in schools. I think that's important."

The final category is full control, as in New York City under Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and in Washington (DC) under Mayor Vincent C. Gray.

The panel ended with a discussion of education reform policy for consideration at the 80th Annual Conference of Mayors. "In June we're going to bring forward a number of policies we-d like to have passed as resolutions, including school choice and competition, the charter compact, teacher evaluation and the parent trigger," said Johnson.