State of the Cities 2013: Investing in Education Today for a Better Tomorrow

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This is the fourth post in a seven-part series on trends and themes in local leadership.

In his 14th State of the City Address delivered at a local high school on Columbus, Ohio’s south side, Mayor Michael B. Coleman stood before fellow city leaders, school district officials, nonprofit and business leaders and residents, passionately calling for the whole community to unite in the struggle for quality education.  “When our kids graduate from high school, they should be able to do one of four things: get a good job, go to college, join the military or start a business,” said Mayor Coleman.  “Too many of our young people are not prepared to do any of the above.”

In the very school building where the mayor gave his Address, more than a quarter of enrolled students struggle with disabilities, more than 91 percent are economically disadvantaged, and less than 56 percent graduate after four years.  For these youth, and others around the country, tough family situations, neighborhood violence and bullying in the classrooms compound the effects of strained school budgets and inadequate or even failing educational policies and practices.

These challenges not only take on moral implications, insists Mayor Coleman, but also wide-ranging consequences for the growth and competiveness of the city.  In particular, increasing the number of residents that graduate from high school and go on to attain a postsecondary credential – whether it is a bachelor’s degree, associate degree, apprenticeship, or certificate – is critical to the success of any local economy.  By one estimate, more than six in 10 jobs will require at least some postsecondary education by 2018.

“We can find a way for every kid in Columbus,” said the mayor.  “But we must first stack hands and become the best city in the nation for every child to receive a quality education.”

Like Mayor Coleman, mayors around the country are stacking hands with community partners to restructure the education system to meet the demands of the 21st century economy.  Although mayoral influence on education can take many shapes depending on the local context, our analysis of mayors’ State of the City Addresses finds that local leaders are seeking greater coherence in the school system by promoting multi-sector partnerships and leveraging local resources to spur new innovations as a means to increase student achievement.

Building and Sustaining Partnerships

In Columbus, Ohio partnerships have been central to “finding a way for every child.”  The Columbus Education Commission, an ambitious, city-led, cross-sector effort, is working to develop a pathway for change by executing extensive community outreach to identify and outline the key roles for the school district, city government, the private sector and civic leadership, among others.  Formal partnerships or governance structures that incorporate city leadership are essential to developing education systems that truly respond to the entire needs of the community.  They break down silos, spread accountability, and leverage important community assets to work towards common goals.

In Richmond, Va., Mayor Dwight Jones is working cooperatively with the superintendent of Richmond Public Schools to resolve current funding issues and strengthen the future of the community’s children.  In his State of the City Address, Mayor Jones touted the Schools’ Accountability and Efficiency Review Task Force.  This group is made up of individuals with backgrounds in municipal and state finance and is tasked with identifying solutions to an immediate budget shortfall, and assessing long-term opportunities to help Richmond schools begin to establish a strong fiscal foundation for the future.

Numerous partnerships help Salt Lake City, Utah support and strengthen educational opportunities for children and youth.  Mentioned in Mayor Ralph Becker’s Address, the Capital City Education Plan was developed by the city, the Salt Lake City School District and the University of Utah, with input from parents, non-profits and the business community.  The initiative has pioneered a “cultivation model” that centers around supporting the family and engaging students from birth to career in lifelong learning.  “We’ve worked diligently for five years to convene partners and play an integral role to improve educational opportunities and outcomes in Salt Lake City,” said Mayor Becker.

Innovating in Education

As education continues to gain prominence as a key driver of economic growth, municipal leaders have taken on both formal and informal roles to support comprehensive reforms and new innovations.  City leaders are spreading “cradle to career” strategies, more systematically interconnecting workforce development and education, and leveraging local resources to support critical educational functions, among many other efforts.

For example, in Mayor Tom Menino’s State of the City Address, he spoke of education reforms in Boston, Mass. that have led to turnaround schools, in-district charter schools, overhauled teacher evaluations, and new classroom resources.  In addition, as part of Mayor Menino’s comprehensive efforts to improve access to quality education, the city has established universal, voluntary Pre-K operated by Boston Public Schools and a robust system of high-quality, community-based care available for the majority of preschool-aged children.

In Louisville, Ky., Mayor Greg Fischer is building a workforce with the technical skills to thrive in the 21st century by linking education and workforce training.   “We spot training opportunities, and work with our educational partners to capitalize on them,” said Mayor Fischer.   “That’s why we developed computer-coding and sales training programs to quickly respond to market needs in the past six months.”

To the east, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, of Baltimore, Md., worked with the City Council to approve an historic increase in new funding for school renovation – the single largest local source of school renovation funding ever approved in the city’s modern history.  In addition, the Mayor and the City Council have implemented a dedicated local funding stream for continued school renovation.

Acting with Urgency

Evidenced by this year’s State of the City Addresses, it’s clear that cities are not standing on the sideline when it comes to education.  To be attractive to businesses and families alike, city leaders recognize that more residents must obtain the skills required for the best-paying and fastest-growing jobs.  “Great cities are smart, innovative and entrepreneurial,” notes Mayor Ralph Becker.  “It takes brainpower to achieve success as a thriving, livable city.”

The urgency to build and expand this “brainpower” has cultivated new innovations that are already having an impact in communities.  For mayors, the stakes are simply too high not to take on this challenge.  As Mayor Tom Menino put it, “our most important collection of talent lies in our young people.  So our first task is improving public education in our city.”