Blog: The Educated Reporter

Big-City Mayors and School Chiefs Talk Education Reform

The mayors and school chiefs of the three largest cities in the United States joined U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan today in Washington, D.C. to share their views on school reform.

The forum, titled “Education Now: Cities at the Forefront of Reform,” featured Mayors Michael Bloomberg of New York City, Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles, and Rahm Emanuel of Chicago. Joining them were school chiefs Dennis Walcott of New York City, John Deasy of Los Angeles and Jean-Claude Brizard of Chicago. The session, sponsored by The U.S. Department of Education and held on the campus of American University, was moderated by NBC news anchor Andrea Mitchell, who asked the education leaders questions hitting on subjects now familiar in the reform debate: the role of testing in evaluating student and teacher performance; the relationships between administrators, parents, and teacher groups; the push for all students to attend a four-year college or university; school safety; and other topics.

How education money is spent was a key thread throughout the forum. “Budgets reflect our values. They’re not numbers,” said Duncan. Emanuel went further, advocating for education spending that goes beyond the schoolhouse, saying there’s no greater investment than afterschool programs. Duncan also stressed greater funding for early education opportunities.

Combined, the three school districts serve 2.5 million students, of whom 88 percent are minorities and 77 percent rely on free and reduced-price lunches.

There was some chest-thumping among the mayors and school chiefs, too:  Villaraigosa touted his city’s ability to double the number of charter schools while cutting down the percentage of low-performing schools from roughly 33 percent to just 10. He was also proud of LA’s role in introducing parent trigger laws. NYC’s Walcott, meanwhile, thanked Bloomberg for upping the number of small schools in the district to 500. 

On accountability, there were some differences among the speakers. Duncan said there has been an overemphasis on testing under No Child Left Behind, later plugging the Obama administration’s waivers to opt out of NCLB’s student proficiency expectations. He also said testing doesn’t paint the whole picture of a student’s performance. Bloomberg on the other hand was steadfast in his support for data, telling the audience the tests his city conducts are in the teachers’ and students’ best interests.

These leaders also had several ideas in the works or in place for keeping talented educators from leaving the profession. Emanuel announced that Chicago will offer top-tier principals a $25,000 signing bonus, later adding that a sound education landscape includes an accountable principal, motivated teacher and willing parent. 

Mitchell asked whether expecting all students to end up in college was “snobbish.”  Duncan said some form of higher education, be it a trade school or two- and four-year institutions, should be the aspiration of every young person. LA Superintendent Deasy agreed, stating school administrators must construct systems that reflect the belief that all students can be college and career-ready. 

Still, there are signs low education levels are keeping cities back from fully getting over the economic slump: Mayor Villaraigosa provided an account of a recent exchange with regional economists, who said the city’s high unemployment rate (over three percentage points above the national average) can be blamed in part on the low level of high school completion.

For better or worse, LA’s Deasy quipped, “LA is America, only sooner.”

For more takeaways on the forum, search twitter for #EdCities.