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Five Ways City Leaders Can Promote Education Equity

January 28, 2014 By Michael Diedrich, Education Fellow

The Minneapolis mayoral campaign featured education as a key policy, and Saint Paul's mayor promises to make education a significant issue for his third term. However, school governance runs through districts and local school boards, and state funding goes directly to districts and charter schools, not cities.

A reasonable person could ask, “So what can a city do about the schools?” Mayors, city councils, and city managers have a number of other tools at their disposal.

Sure, there’s always mayoral control, wherein the mayor is granted the authority to appoint the school board and pick a chancellor. It’s proven to be a recipe for contention in places like New York City, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., with lots of upheaval followed by a mixed set of results. It’s a big step to take, and there are a lot of other options on the table.

1. Expand Pre-K
Mayors are working to push the boundaries of local powers to expand pre-kindergarten and child care opportunities to more residents. High-quality early experiences are good for kids, and expanding opportunities is good for working families (and want-to-be-working families) that need safe and healthy options for their children. If you’re looking for long-term economic gain, plus some short-term relief for workers, more pre-k and early child care should be able to mix it up with stadiums. I’d also consider coordinating the city’s efforts with the existing school district if it’s already got an early childhood program.

2. Locate Services in the Schools
The community schools approach emphasizes co-location, or putting lots of different community services together in a school, such as health care and social services. The school is a natural access point for many families, and offering services aimed at helping families in schools helps families take advantage of those services. A city that steps up to do this could serve a “seeding” function, setting the school up as an access point for community services run by nonprofits. Again, this requires coordination with the school district.

3. Convene, Then Act
There’s a heck of a lot of convening going on in education policy these days. Too often, though, the people gathering at a table already share a general perspective and orientation. At other times, organizations convene, but their education-related actions are low on the priority list. A city leader looking to play a more hands-on role in education problem-solving would do well to convene a variety of actors and act as a genuinely neutral third party. This means not pushing a particular agenda, but rather guiding the diverse table towards collaborative action. The city leader can also be the one providing the sustaining energy to keep the collaboration going and ensure it turns from well-intentioned concern to meaningful action.

4. Take Charge of the Police-Student Relationship
The connections between our school system and law enforcement are receiving much-needed attention right now. The school-to-prison pipeline, counterproductive “zero tolerance” policies, and an approach to discipline that treats it like law enforcement in miniature are all places where new action is needed. The schools can only do so much on their own, and city leaders can encourage positive, solution-oriented engagement from the city police department. Especially in denser urban areas, the relationship between students and the police can be strained, and it’s up to the adults in the room to take charge of healing that relationship.

5. Advocate for More Integrated Housing
Intense racial and economic segregation in housing makes school integration very difficult. Integration carries benefits for all children, who must learn how to work in our increasingly multicultural society. The schools can’t do much to integrate housing, but dedicated city leaders (especially across the metro area) can work to decrease current residential segregation. This means increasing high-quality, affordable housing in middle class and wealthy areas and investing in under-resourced communities to increase their appeal for the middle class and wealthy.

It’s clear that equity gaps in education are interconnected with equity gaps in other parts of our society. City leaders need to make comprehensive equity -- not only educational equity -- their goal. To focus only or primarily on the educational system as a means of reducing educational equity neglects the many other powerful areas where city leaders can have influence. Collaboration with school districts and school workers is critical when the city does work with the schools, as it can and should. However, it’s important for city leaders to investigate what they can do beyond school walls to improve educational outcomes.

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