Education Up Front

November 20, 2002

December 4, 2002

December 18, 2002

What should be a city's role in our schools?

In San Diego, as well as throughout California and much of the nation, school districts are governed by boards of education, comprised of members who are elected by the voters who live in the district.

Conventional wisdom over the years has shown that the challenges inherent in operating schools and providing a quality education are hardy enough to require a separately elected local public agency, independent from other local political influences, to oversee schools and the education they provide our children.

Such is not the case elsewhere, however. In many cities, school districts are run by city hall and where the mayor is the educational czar. Just three months ago, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg became the latest urban mayor to obtain control of his city's public schools. Over the past decade, mayors in other major cities have expanded their roles in school district operations, including Chicago; Cleveland; Detroit; Harrisburg, Pa.; Oakland, Calif.; Washington, D.C.; and Boston where former San Diego City Schools Superintendent Tom Payzant, now Boston Public Schools Superintendent, reports to that city's mayor, Thomas Menino.

The question, of course, seems obvious: Has city control of school districts in these municipalities really worked in terms of delivering improved academic achievement?

An article this past fall in Education Week reported mixed results when mayors take control of the public education processes in their respective cities. While student test scores did not improve wholesale, some school systems, under mayor control, experienced gains at certain levels and improvements in other areas -- such as school buildings being in better condition, textbooks arriving on time, and better results in teacher recruitment.

Those are important achievements, but it appears that running school systems from city hall does not automatically bring about significant improvements in student performance -- which, in the end, is the bottom line.

It reinforces what I and other educational reformers have known for some time -- that academic achievement is more a function of what happens or doesn't happen at the classroom level than how a school system is governed. When all is said and done, it is the classroom teacher -- not politicians -- who influences how much and how well our children are learning. Cities and their leaders need to think in terms of how to support the educational processes already in place that support teaching and learning -- not how to run them.

In an Oct. 16 Education Week article, San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales outlines several steps mayors can take in leading their cities to provide the conditions under which effective teaching and learning can take place in their public schools. They are worthy to consider.

A mayor's first obligation, Gonzales said, is to ensure that essential

city services are provided to help schools and families. Such amenities include strong neighborhoods that are safe and clean, good libraries and parks, effective transportation systems, and affordable housing for families at all income levels. These services create stable and healthy neighborhoods that support schools, learning, and educational excellence.

Gonzales suggested more specific ways city leaders might contribute to the quality of public education in their municipalities: Cities, he said, should take the following steps:

  • Become "teacher-friendly." Cities can help districts recruit and retain good teachers by providing ways for them to be able to afford housing in the communities in which they teach. Teacher homebuyer programs can provide no-interest loans to help them purchase their first homes.

  • Invest in preschool programs and quality childcare. Children under the age of 5 need supportive, challenging, and nurturing environments to develop and succeed. Cities can build preschool centers and operate them in partnership with school districts, Head Start, and private preschool operators.

  • Keep schools safe. Cities, large and small, can create safe school campus initiatives to reduce violence and potential risk at or near

    schools. Such preparedness can help in not only Columbine-type incidents, but in earthquakes and now, terrorist attacks.

  • Extend the school day by providing quality after-school programs. San Diego and other cities already offer a broad range of after-school recreational and educational programs and served as the model for Proposition 49. Homework centers can provide students with a safe and supportive environment and even tutoring and computer access.

  • Encourage innovation in public education. City leaders have been at the forefront of encouraging innovation in education through encouraging charter schools and college-prep offerings. Cities should not be observers, but active participants in these

    innovative practices and programs.

  • Recognize and encourage schools that show improvement. All too often, the only stories about public education are negative. Cities can celebrate the most-improved schools in their jurisdiction, and in doing so, encourage them and other schools to continue on their way to becoming high-performing schools.

  • Encourage parents to be active in their child's educations. Cities need to be creative in finding ways to encourage parents to get more involved in their children's lives. Programs that train parents to be effectively involved in their children's education are just one strategy. San Diego Unified does have in place a highly effective parent involvement program that could be supported and strengthened. Other cities can help their school districts that don't have such resources.

  • Build strong relationships with school leaders. Children, teachers, parents, and everybody benefit when city governments and school districts work together. Good relationships can be built and maintained through a schools-city collaborative that meets regularly to identify issues, solutions, and opportunities.

  • Support efforts to improve school facilities. A community's commitment to education can be judged by the quality of its schools -- including its school buildings. Mayors should champion well thought-out school bond issues and look for other ways to help districts deal with their facilities needs.

  • Talk about education. Mayors can stimulate public interest and support to improve the educational quality of the schools in their cities by talking about education and mobilizing civic leaders, other elected officials, business and community organizations, and the news media to ensure that education remains atop the public agenda.

    Several mayors and city council members are taking office throughout local communities this month. Many, if not most of them, talked about education to some degree during their election campaigns. They now have as much, if not more, political capital as they will ever have. What better time is there for mayors and council members to invest that capital into the important task of educating our children -- and our future?

    Hovenic, Ed.D., is president and chief executive officer of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce Foundation and executive director of the Foundation's Business Roundtable for Education. E-mail her at

  • November 20, 2002

    December 4, 2002

    December 18, 2002