History may be in the making, I believe. Just maybe. In New Orleans we have seen Mayor-elect Mitch Landrieu take the unprecedented move to name education one of three policy foci; the other two are crime and Economic Development. Although being consistently careful to remind the citizenry that the mayor does not control public education in the city-meaning he has no direct authority over the allocation of the near billion dollar budget, construction of new schools, and licensing and revocation of public school charters-the Mayor-elect has nonetheless articulated his belief that it is within his job description to make sure that one of these central functions of government – public education – is done effectively and efficiently. This is a very good sign. Even before he takes office, Mayor-elect Landrieu will be facing tough policy choices.
Through the Recovery School District, the Louisiana state government is on the verge of landing unilateral control over the allocation of approximately $2b in FEMA funds for new school construction. A lot of money, a helluva lot. The question is: who will ensure oversight of this multibillion-dollar windfall? In other words, what unit of government will guarantee accountability over spending? The understanding is that the RSD will not need the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education approval to spend the money. I suggest that this is a bad public policy. At minimum, Mayor-elect Landrieu should strongly consider coordinating spending from the mayor’s office and perhaps, if need be, intervening in the distribution of these funds as part of his job description. (I will have more to say on the mayoral role in education more broadly in future posts).
Hopefully this strategic move to engage the Office of the Mayor in public education (described above) is a harbinger of more good things to come. It has happened in other major cities. For example, in New York Mayor Bloomberg, working in concert with a coalition of community-based organizations including the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, provided almost $30m in funding to support middle school improvement programs. This “research-based” school reform proposal happened for two reasons: (1) a grassroots coalition mobilized in behalf of the funding; and (2) Mayor Bloomberg took advantage of his strategic position as mayor in control of schools. In combining his strategic position with city budgetary resources, Bloomberg was able to fund the policy and programmatic recommendations. Alas if New Orleans only had the fiscal and policy wherewithal to mount such impressive efforts!
There is a historical context to having the mayor involved in public education in New Orleans. In the mid 90s, then-mayor Marc Morial, with the support of the head of the teachers’ union and a broad-based education task force comprised of 50 individuals representing multiple sectors of the community-the Urban League, public housing, non profit agencies, universities and the like-proposed a change to the City Charter revision advisory committee to allow for an education adviser in the mayor’s office. I was a member of this task force and vividly remember that we secured consensus to pass this recommendation. Resistance form the Orleans Parish School Board prevented implementation.
This time I hope the outcome will be different because we may be seeing history in the making.