Kansas City Mayor Sly James made education a top priority when he took office eight years ago.
He succeeded in getting the business and philanthropic community to rally around third grade reading, but he couldn’t convince voters to pass a pre-K sales tax.
Now Kansas City is about to pick a new mayor.
“Every single person is asking about education in their top three issues,” said Councilwoman Jolie Justus, who is running against Councilman Quinton Lucas.
Yet at town halls and forums, Justus and Lucas have spent most of their time talking about housing, development and crime.
That’s because there’s only so much the mayor of Kansas City can do to influence education policy.
When KCUR asked Justus and Lucas how they’d improve education in Kansas City, both candidates said their focus would be on strong, safe neighborhoods.
“One of the most important things that the mayor can do ... is make sure that we have stable neighborhoods so that kids can stay in place, not have the mobility that they have right now in some of our poorest school districts. What does that mean? Making sure we focus on the other issues,” Justus said.
“What I can do is make sure that from 2:30 p.m. until 7:30 a.m. the next day, we're making sure that the city is as helpful to the education environment as it possibly can. That would include plowing the streets, so we don't have all these snow days again. That would include making our community safer,” Lucas said, adding that his answer wasn’t a punt. “I'd like to see us continue to have someone who is working on education in the mayor's office.”
James was the first mayor to have an education advisor, Julie Holland. It’s been her job to bring the mayor ideas and liaise with the school districts.
But that’s sort of where the mayor’s influence stops in Kansas City.
“Our city is not one where the mayor has authority over schools,” said Mike English, executive director of Turn the Page KC, the nonprofit James started to promote third grade reading. “Our mayor has to find a way to positively impact educational opportunities through personality and influence and community mobilization.”
Mayoral control in other cities
There are cities where mayors more directly control the school district. In Boston, Chicago and New York, the mayor appoints the school board. In Indianapolis, the mayor sponsors charter schools.
Jeffrey Henig, a political science professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College, has studied mayoral control in other cities. He said the idea gained traction with school reformers in the 1990s.
“There was a sense that mayors were able to get more things done – you know, drive change,” he said.
Mayoral control hasn’t been tried in Kansas City, which has 14 distinct school districts. And Henig said there really isn’t much evidence that putting the mayor in charge of the education system improves test scores, which is how most school reformers measure success.
“Mayors can help,” Henig said. “They can focus the issues when they're put in control. They can sometimes tighten finances and management. But as far as, you know, a magic solution to student performance? It's still eluding us.”
Cliff Johnson, the executive director of the Institute for Youth, Education, and Families at the National League of Cities, said mayoral control isn’t all that common. In most cities, the relationship between the mayor and the school superintendents is much more informal.
“I think it makes it even more important for the mayor to focus on creating the big table that allows leaders across different sectors who care about young people to work together,” Johnson said.
Denver, for instance, does not have mayoral control of schools but has had several strong education mayors. Voters approved a pre-K sales tax in 2006 and renewed it in 2016. Today, Denver has one of the robust universal pre-K programs in the country.
But in Denver, mayors “did it by finding ways to work with them, not engaging in warfare with the school districts,” Henig said.
Right idea, wrong approach
That’s been one of the challenges for James. He split bitterly with all 14 of the school superintendents over his plan to pay for pre-K with a sales tax. The superintendents said they weren’t brought in at the planning stage, and they ended up opposing the mayor’s plan.
“I don't see any new mayor coming in and wanting to take that issue up because there was a really a pretty resounding response to it all. It's the right idea. This is the wrong approach,” said Brent Schondelmeyer, the deputy director of the Local Investment Commission, better known as LINC, a nonprofit that does a lot of work in schools.
Schondelmeyer said it makes sense that the candidates aren’t campaigning on education issues, especially after James’ pre-K defeat. In interviews with KCUR, Justus and Lucas both emphasized the importance of listening to educators when it came to education policy.
“I'm already meeting with the superintendents, talking about what's next and if there is a (pre-K) proposal where they need the assistance of the mayor as the leader of Kansas City to step up and push that forward,” Justus said.
“I met with superintendents from every one of the 14 school districts in Kansas City. I’m very proud of that,” Lucas said. “And they are actually doing a good job of borrowing ideas from each other. I think the approach from the mayor’s office should be, how do we help you?”
Schondelmeyer said what schools really need help with is with the out-of-school factors they can’t control.
“School districts are ill-prepared to say, well, how do we create safe, affordable housing in our neighborhood?” he said.
And that’s where the mayor can come in.
Elle Moxley covers education for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.