The Importance of Mayoral Leadership for Education

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This is a guest post by Mayor Ralph Becker and Mayor Christopher B. Coleman. They are the co-founders of NLC’s Mayors’ Education Task Force.

Kids doing homework.(Getty Images/John Moore)

There appears to be a renewed surge of urgency from members of Congress to overhaul the No Child Left Behind Act – the most recent reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). It’s vitally important this happens.

In the race to develop a highly educated and skilled workforce, America is lagging behind in the global economy. In 1990, the U.S. ranked first in the world in four-year college degree completion among 25-34 year olds; today, we rank 12th.

Many of our public schools, particularly those that serve primarily low-income students, need strong and sensible accountability mechanisms as well as additional resources to provide the highest quality education to all of their students. By high quality, we mean an education that prepares young people to not only attend but to graduate from college and to succeed in career and life.

Even a revamped ESEA will not be enough on its own to meet the challenges ahead, though.

A key element of any successful education reform effort must include a commitment to “go local.” To accelerate our progress and be truly competitive in the 21st century, we must close the opportunity gaps that now undercut academic achievement for far too many students and create more and better learning time for those most at risk of falling behind.

Some of this work can and must be done by school districts. Big pieces of the challenge, however, can only be addressed when entire communities rally to support education – and that’s why mayors must play a central role in developing and implementing strategies to move us forward as a nation.

In 2012, we worked through the National League of Cities (NLC) to form the Mayors’ Education Task Force, bringing mayors from across the country together to talk about ways to close opportunity and achievement gaps in our communities. Much of our conversation has focused on the need for strong partnerships between school districts, union leaders, local officials, community and faith-based organizations and local business leaders. Mayors are uniquely able to bring key leaders and community partners together to ensure all children have access to high-quality educational opportunities in the classroom and beyond.

To this end, in Salt Lake City we created A Capital City Education, a citywide, multi-sector alliance between the mayor’s office, the Salt Lake City School District, the University of Utah and Salt Lake Community College. The alliance focuses on college and career readiness for low-income youth and is committed to a shared investment of resources to achieve this goal.

In Saint Paul, we collaborated with community organizations and Saint Paul Public Schools to create Sprockets, a citywide network of afterschool and summer programs. The expanded learning opportunities that Sprockets provides are a key part of our strategy to provide more and better learning time and build social and emotional skills young people need to succeed in academics and in jobs

We, along with so many of our colleagues, recognize the need for a cradle-to-career approach to education. A growing body of research confirms that we need to start early, and that children who have the chance to participate in high-quality pre-kindergarten programs are better prepared to succeed in grade school, in high school and beyond.

We also know that our cities need new strategies for increasing postsecondary access and completion, thereby ensuring that improvements in K-12 education lead to more young people graduating from college and obtaining the skills they need to compete in a global economy. On both ends of the cradle-to-career pipeline, mayoral leadership is essential.

The returns on our investments in high-quality education systems – a more competitive workforce, the ability to attract and keep more families and businesses in cities, fewer residents living in poverty – are precisely those things that create healthy, safe and economically vibrant communities. Mayors have no more important job than this one.

About the Authors:
Ralph Becker, Mayor of Salt Lake City
Ralph Becker is the mayor of Salt Lake City, Utah and immediate past president of the National League of Cities (2014-2015).

Chris Coleman, mayor of Saint Paul
Christopher B. Coleman is the mayor of Saint Paul, Minnesota and past president of the National League of Cities (2013 – 2014).