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Mayors Can Be Effective Advocates for Better Schools

January 26, 2012

The following post was written by Michael Karpman, Senior Associate for Outreach in NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education and Families.

Municipal involvement in education has been steadily increasing for at least two decades.  Yet there continues to be a common misperception that mayors who care about education but don’t govern their school districts have few options for improving local schools.  People who still share this notion might gain a different perspective by looking to St. Louis, where Mayor Francis Slay has aggressively advanced a K-12 school improvement agenda since 2001.

The mayor’s office is a member of the Cities for Education Entrepreneurship Trust (CEE-Trust), a “network of city-based education reform organizations, initiatives, and foundations dedicated to accelerating the growth of entrepreneurial education ventures.”  Learning from other network members – including The Mind Trust founded by former Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson and his charter schools director David Harris – and through peer networks in NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education and Families, Mayor Slay has demonstrated some of the unique roles that mayors can play in pushing for school reform.

For instance, as an avid supporter of new, high-quality charter school options, Mayor Slay’s office utilizes the city’s regulatory and service delivery expertise to review charter school applications and endorse those with the greatest potential for success.  Local entities with the power to sponsor charter schools benefit from the careful review process conducted by the mayor’s office.

The intensity of the national charter school debate often obscures the wide variation in quality across charter schools.  Mayor Slay’s efforts show how mayors can have a more nuanced and thoughtful discussion about charter school quality.  Elsewhere, Nashville Mayor Karl Dean has supported the development of a charter school incubator, and Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard remains the nation’s only mayor with the authority to grant charters.

Recently, Robbyn Wahby, who serves as Mayor Slay’s education advisor and is a longtime member of NLC’s Education Policy Advisors’ Network, shared some thoughts with CEE-Trust about the city’s school reform accomplishments, priorities and challenges.  The interview, which appeared in the January 2012 CEE-Trust Times, is reposted below.

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What are a few of Mayor Slay’s greatest achievements in K-12 reform?

 -School Governance

The Mayor chaired a coalition of civic, religious, and business leaders who wanted rapid and dramatic change of the St. Louis Public Schools (SLPS) system.  This resulted in the development, campaign, and service of school board members who had a shared platform.  After union-backed leaders took over the school board, the Mayor called for (and got) a state takeover of SLPS.

-Charter Schools

The Mayor replicated the Indianapolis’ mayor’s charter school efforts, with the exception of authorization.  In November of 2007, Mayor Slay issued an RFP for high quality schools and created a board to review the applications and make recommendations for endorsement to the Mayor.  Once endorsed, the Mayor then connects the schools with eligible sponsors.  Additionally, he communicates the names of schools that have been denied to sponsors, thus preventing potentially low performing schools from opening.  Thirteen schools have opened since 2008 under this model.

-Expanding Entrepreneurship:  Teach For America, College Summit 

Mayor Slay asked local businesses to support the start up and ongoing funding for key school reform organizations.  TFA and College Summit have both expanded beyond St. Louis Public Schools to high-need suburban districts as well.

What are the Mayor’s current highest priorities? 

In focusing our education agenda, we tried to make it really simple, asking: how do you get good schools to kids?  Ultimately, what people want is to be able to depend on a good local, community school.  We’re continuing our efforts to attract new charters, working on the replication of existing charters, and closing low performing schools.  Aside from these things, we’re focused on preserving after school programming, increasing opportunities surrounding early childhood, and increasing access to post-secondary education.  We’re keeping several balls in the air, but our K-12 policy is firmly focused on charter schools.   

Given the Mayor’s interest in expanding the charter market, have there been any conversations about launching a charter school incubator? 

Unfortunately, we have not been able to launch an incubator in St. Louis yet.  We have formed a sort of “local CEE-Trust,” bringing top education leaders together to talk about very critical issues in public education and how to advance them here in St. Louis.  Specifically, we’ve discussed how to support the development of new and innovative schools in a scalable way.

This spring, I’ve secured a graduate student intern from Washington University’s Brown School of Social Work to work on our charter incubation efforts.  He is very knowledgeable on school reform, and I’ve asked him to research how to best craft an incubator; he will definitely be in touch with the CEE-Trust network.

What challenges have you faced advancing the reform conversation in St. Louis? 

Like many communities, we’re struggling with the ramifications of a weak economy. There just isn’t as much money to invest in reform right now. The Mayor continues to use his bully pulpit but a lot of the state and local/district conversations right now are being driven by how to slice up an ever smaller pie of tax dollars.

In addition, I’ve learned that simply getting our key education leaders in the same room is not a small order.  They are extremely busy, and to ask them to take on another layer of this work when they have their own goals specific to certain schools and initiatives, is a lot to ask.  Suggesting that we discuss replication, scalability, and incubation on a large scale when these leaders are attempting to launch individual schools can seem pretty daunting. Yet, the positive side is that in a mayor’s office, you have the power to convene; people come because the mayor asked.

How can CEE-Trust and its members be most helpful in your work?  

We’ve got a pretty good network of folks within CEE-Trust.  I feel very comfortable calling on the network, and I think the cities share amongst ourselves as well, whether from a CEE-Trust perspective or otherwise.  An important part of CEE-Trust is that we share issues and ideas with one another, because we often know what the issues are before they’re apparent to the masses.  I think that convening us for those targeted, deliberate meetings is also important.

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