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Why Minneapolis mayoral candidates are making strong schools such a big issue

“Mayors need cities that have great schools,” said education activist Brian Sweeney. Mayors, he says, can have real influence on a district and its schools.

Why is education a marquee issue for candidates for a post that in Minneapolis, as in most communities, has no formal authority over the schools?
MinnPost file photo by Bill Kelley

Five and a half years ago, Mayor R.T. Rybak stepped to a mic set up to one side of the Minneapolis School Board meeting room and addressed the seven board members sweating a contentious, high-stakes vote. The city as a whole desperately needed them to approve the plan on the agenda that night for a wholesale overhaul of its highest-poverty schools, he opined.

“The one place where you can let people down is to flinch in this moment,” Rybak told the board members. “You are not in this alone.”

As former Board Member Chris Stewart recalled it, the moment was more than symbolic. Rybak had helped recruit the civic and business leaders — also in attendance that night — that persuaded the consulting group McKinsey & Co. to produce the strategic plan on a pro bono basis.

“His Rolodex is crazy,” Stewart, now leader of the African American Leadership Forum, said Wednesday of Rybak. “He brought a lot of resources to the table. He brought intellectual and social capital. He brought a lot of attention.”

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The district had little credibility at the time, he recalled: “Having the person [voters] do trust show up and say, ‘I put my stamp on this, this is good for the city as a whole,’ that’s huge.”

Earlier this week, three of the highest-profile candidates to succeed him gave news conferences declaring themselves “the education candidate.”

City Council Members Don Samuels and Betsy Hodges and former Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Andrew all released platforms offering differing views that hinted at how they might position themselves on some of the hot-button issues currently facing the city’s schools.

Samuels’ document [PDF] was the most detailed of the three — and the one most likely to resonate with proponents of many of the reforms Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson is seeking in contract talks with the teachers union that began earlier in the summer. And it included cases studies of three cities in which mayoral influence had moved the needle decisively.

Andrew’s list of endorsers, by contrast, contains a number of names of officeholders past and present who have joined with the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT) in opposing some of the proposed changes. Andrew indicated on Monday that he was skeptical of charter schools and believes the mayor can best support schools by working to end racial and economic inequities

Hodges neatly sidestepped the labor debate, releasing a platform that commits her to pouring civic resources into early childhood education. Her roster of endorsers is diverse and progressive.

A longer shot, independent Cam Winton, has called for a number of reforms that include longer school days and years, giving principals the ability to hire whomever they want and tying teacher pay to performance.

Why is education a marquee issue for candidates for a post that in Minneapolis, as in most communities, has no formal authority over the schools? 

“Mayors need cities that have great schools,” said Brian Sweeney, director of external relations for Charter School Partners, a nonprofit seeking to drive quality in the charter sector. “I think a mayor, in Minneapolis in particular, can have a true influence and impact on the district and on the schools in their city.”

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Sweeney was St. Paul’s director of planning and development during Mayor Norm Coleman’s tenure, as well the head of the mayor’s Charter School Initiative. He also was  a founding board member of the Wilder Foundation’s widely copied Achievement Plus program, which is credited with the turnaround success of Dayton’s Bluff Elementary on the city’s East Side.

During Sweeney’s time in the post, Norm Coleman met monthly with the superintendent of St. Paul Public Schools and the city pushed for the creation of several of the charter schools now referred to as high-performing, such as Twin Cities Academy.

And Sweeney points to former Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson, a Democrat, who — “he, himself Peterson” — became a charter authorizer and opened two-dozen schools that now are among the city’s highest performing.

Tom Madden, while he was chair of the Minneapolis board, met frequently with Rybak. “It enabled consistency in certain messages,” he recalled, echoing Stewart’s statement that a strong, visible mayor can lend credibility to district initiatives.

“It’s got to be in support of the superintendent, though,” Madden said. “If for 10 years you’ve had a superintendent saying the best floors are blue and a new mayor comes in and says they should be green, you’ve got a problem.”

(For the record, neither current Twin Cities mayor wants mayoral control of the schools, the scenario that would enable the city leader to appoint some or all of the board and, by extension, dictate policy, such as is the case with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and New York’s Michael Bloomberg.)

Mayors can align civic resources to things that support schools, such as pre-K efforts and community policing, Madden added, but ultimately there’s a limit to how much they — or anyone at the local level — can do so long as the state and federal government create mandates and disburse funding.

“That’s the biggest problem we have,” he noted. “Somebody else sets the rules, somebody else sets the cost.”

In the platform he released Monday, Samuels drew attention to three urban mayors who went beyond anything under discussion in Minneapolis to date. Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker brought $100 million in outside funds to the city’s schools as part of an effort to overhaul its compensation system to reward results. And Los Angeles’ Antonio Villaragoisa leveraged a past as a union organizer “to push defenders of the status quo to transformational change.”

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The most intriguing of the efforts Samuels showcased was Denver Mayor Michael Hancock’s creation of the Denver Education Compact, a binding agreement between the city, school district and other civic and business interests intended to “depoliticize” education reform in a landscape not too different from Minneapolis. 

Which is a more audacious version of what Stewart called a mayor’s most useful power: The ability to get voters and civic and business leaders pulling in the same direction.

“To get people to even come to the table as co-convenors, you can’t say enough about having a person like [Rybak] as your co-signer,” said Stewart. ““Eighty percent of the people of Minneapolis don’t have kids in the schools. There’s a great deal of social distance between [them] and those kids.”