Part of the puzzle

Mayors deserve to play role in city school systems

August 18, 2004|By Paul Vallas

PHILADELPHIA -- I found it interesting that Maryland schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick suggested that the Baltimore school system be run by a court-appointed trustee.

What caught my eye most was Ms. Grasmick's statement that Mayor Martin O'Malley has become too involved in running the school system. Her strong stand against mayoral involvement in city schools has me wondering: Why would she ignore roughly 20 years of proven models for successful urban education reform?

A history review since the 1980s shows that successful urban education reform is directly linked to the ability to engage the city's mayor as a true partner in that reform. Boston, Cleveland and, most recently, New York have all seen improvements in their school systems because of the strong leadership and advocacy roles played by their respective mayors. My own experiences in Chicago and Philadelphia certainly show this to be true.

After Chicago's Mayor Richard M. Daley assumed control of the Chicago schools in 1995, he turned what was once considered the worst school district in the country into a model for urban education reform. In Philadelphia, under a joint commission appointed by the governor and the mayor, the School District of Philadelphia has made significant improvements over the past two years with the strong support of the city.

There are three reasons why strong mayoral involvement in urban school reform is critical.

The first is that mayors bring unrivaled financial and operational support that is key to turning an educational institution around. Traditional superintendents typically bring a wealth of curriculum and academic reforms to their roles in urban districts. But what is often lacking is the ability to marshal a district's financial and operational resources in support of these reforms.

The bottom line is that you can have all of the best educational practices in the world, but they are only as good as your ability to pay for and implement them. Strong leadership from the mayor brings this capacity to the table.

In Baltimore, it took the financial and operational resources of Mr. O'Malley to plug a $58 million deficit, restore financial stability and end the 2004 fiscal year with a slight surplus. This could not have happened without strong involvement and commitment from the mayor's office.

The second critical component of mayoral involvement is the plurality of city services and support agencies commonly found in urban settings. In cities that have successfully reformed their education systems, schools become centers of their communities. Once community leaders begin to understand that children can't learn if they are ill or can't see the chalkboard, or they don't come to school if their families are in crisis, critical health and human services resources become centralized around the schools in each community.

City agencies also can provide additional assistance to school districts that would be absent without strong mayoral involvement. In Baltimore, city agencies offer technical support in energy, fleet and capital project management to save money and redirect funds to the classroom. It is because of the mayor's involvement that these resources will be combined to the benefit of Baltimore's children.

Finally, mayors are in a position to bring added attention and support from external sources to school districts in which they play a prominent role. Mayors, from their bully pulpit, can be the greatest champions for their educational systems, and this attention can bring great rewards.

In Chicago, Mr. Daley is raising over $50 million in private support for school district programs. In New York, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has led the charge in garnering nearly $100 million in private and foundation resources for a variety of initiatives. With $13 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and another $7.5 million raised locally, Mayor O'Malley has helped bring desperately needed support from the business and nonprofit foundation community with him to his seat at the table.

The three most important services a city provides its residents are public safety, health and human services, and education. A majority of America's mayors have focused on the first two and have played a limited role in the third, to the detriment of their cities.

When you look at major cities that have experienced a renaissance over the past two decades, you see that they have done so only after reforming their public schools. And you see that this has been accomplished only after giving more responsibility, and thus more accountability, to the mayors of these respective cities. I applaud Mr. O'Malley for his strong role in turning the school system around; in the case of Ms. Grasmick's suggestion, less is certainly not more.

Paul Vallas is CEO of the School District of Philadelphia.

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