Tag: Bart Peterson


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The Future of Mayor-Led Reform


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Sometimes, it’s about the man leading the reform, not about reform itself. Judging by Washington, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty’s troubled re-election campaign alone, one would dare say that mayor-led school…

Sometimes, it’s about the man leading the reform, not about reform itself.

Judging by Washington, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty’s troubled re-election campaign alone, one would dare say that mayor-led school reform — including mayoral control of traditional school systems and other mayor-led reforms — is just a bad idea. Same would also be true if one looks at the fall of another municipal paragon of school reform, Bart Peterson, whose acclaim as the first mayor to authorize charter schools didn’t insulate him from losing his job as Indianapolis mayor three years ago.

Such thinking would be understandable. After all, mayors face more than enough threats to their long-term futures in politics — reforming city governments alone (much less just running them) leads to gaining entrenched enemies — without wading into the even-more treacherous landscape of public education. Once a mayor attempts to either take over a failing district, he or she is naturally rallying school board members, locals of the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers, superintendents and others; they may generally loathe one another, but they have greater enmity toward supposed interlopers invading their coteries. If the mayor succeeds in taking control, he now has a powerful rival in the form of NEA and AFT locals, who have the resources and ground games to whip up a frenzy among their supporters. All this before the mayor actually gets to the job of reforming schools.

Meanwhile, the average citizen — often still stuck in the old paradigm that education isn’t a city government concern — is still unsure of whether mayors should be in the education business. Even of the mayor does a great job on reforming schools, he must also get the other aspects of city government right: For many, keeping streets clean, cutting down crime, cutting taxes and improving quality of life are far greater concerns than education.

But one really judge the worthiness of mayoral control just on Fenty’s problems or Peterson’s fate. The former is in trouble because of his lack of appealing demeanor, stumbles in managing other aspects of city government, and missteps in handling Chocolate City’s race-based politics. Fenty is paying more for blunders such as canceling a meeting with the late Dorothy Height (a paragon of the civil rights movement) over one of his controversial moves as he is for challenging D.C.’S educational Ancien Regime.

Peterson’s strong efforts on school reform were not matched with equal effort on tackling the Circle City’s rising crime, improving quality of life in less-tony areas, and, as seen with his support of the now-completed Lucas Oil Stadium for the Indianapolis Colts, being fiscally prudent with taxpayer money. Citizens saw him as a complacent failure and showed him the door.

Mayors must still be as successful in improving the rest of city government as they are in school reform. That’s just the way it is. Residents aren’t just going to praise the mayor for fixing schools — especially if they are failing in other areas. This means mayors must be at skilled at managing goverment and keeping their supporters behind them; whether or not they launch school reforms, their jobs would still be the most-complicated in American politics.

The successes of New York City’s Michael Bloomberg, Richard Daley’s tenure in Chicago and John Norquist’s school voucher efforts in Milwaukee are better examples of how mayors can lead school reforms; their remaining challenges are also better examples of why the reform of American public education can’t just start or end at the central offices of school districts or one-off programs — and why the traditional school district model is no longer worth sustaining.

More importantly, as seen in efforts by the mayors of Rochester and Milwaukee to take control of the local district, the continuing saga in L.A. over Antonio Villaraigosa’s effort to nudge L.A. Unified toward reform (an effort first undertaken by predecssor Richard Riordan), and the problems of low educational achievement in  Hammond, Ind., Alexandria, Va., and elsewhere, mayors can no longer ignore the critical links between the long-term efforts of keeping middle-class residents and commercial activity in their cities and improving education. They must embrace school reform because so many of the issues with which they must wrangle are connected to it. Mayor-led reform is critical, not only in sustaining school reform, but in keeping cities thriving. No mayor wants to preside over Detroit-like despair.

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The Dropout Nation Podcast: School Reform As the Cornerstone of Community Renewal


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On this Dropout Nation Podcast, I take a look at one community and explain how education reform can help foster community renewal. Contrary to the arguments of defenders of traditional…

Dropout Nation Podcast CoverOn this Dropout Nation Podcast, I take a look at one community and explain how education reform can help foster community renewal. Contrary to the arguments of defenders of traditional public education, school reform is critical to addressing other community needs and ultimately building the middle class needed to improve neighborhoods.

You can listen to the Podcast at RiShawn Biddle’s radio page or download directly to your iPod or MP3 player. Also, subscribe to the podcast series. It is also available on iTunes, Blubrry, Podcast Alley, the Education Podcast Network and Zune Marketplace.

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Evan Bayh’s School Reform Legacy: His Name is Stan Jones


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Given the array of plays on the Indiana U.S. Senator’s name — including some of my own reports — I’ll shy away from the pile-on amid his decision to end…

Given the array of plays on the Indiana U.S. Senator’s name — including some of my own reports — I’ll shy away from the pile-on amid his decision to end his re-election bid. But Bayh’s exit does give one pause about the role he has played, not only in American politics (and especially in the Hoosier State), but in helping to re-shape how the nation measures academic performance and emphasizes rigor and data over guesswork and academic failure.

For the most part, Bayh’s role in this was incidental. Save for championing some odd policy or two, education was an afterthought for him. The earliest school reform efforts came before Bayh’s tenure as Indiana Governor in the late 1980s thanks to a group that included then-state superintendent H. Dean Evans and future state House Republican leader Brian Bosma.  The most direct impact he had on education wasn’t even on  policy itself, but on a move back in the mid-1990s to address the state’s perpetual deficit in its teachers pension. Although Bayh and his main successor, Frank O’Bannon, helped decided to use funds from the Hoosier Lottery to pay down those deficits and fully fund the pension, it didn’t work. Indiana’s teachers pension is currently $10 billion under water.

One indirect legacy lies not with Bayh himself, but with his onetime chief of staff, Bart Peterson. After becoming Indianapolis’ first Democrat mayor in four decades, Peterson struck a blow for school reform and school choice when he successfully battled his fellow Democrats in Indiana’s statehouse to become the first mayor in the nation to authorize charter schools. Whatever Peterson’s other flaws as a politician (namely a lack of focus on quality-of-life issues), he remains a pathbreaker in education reform through his founding of the Mind Trust, one of the leading incubators of education reform solutions in the nation.

Bayh’s most-important school reform legacy was rather incidental. It came during his last two years  in the governor’s office when he appointed one of his aides, a former state legislator (and onetime candidate for state schools superintendent) by the name of Stan Jones, to the state’s Commission for Higher Education. At the time, the agency did little more than serve as the sounding board for the state’s higher ed policymaking and presenting budgets to the legislature.  What Jones managed to do over the next 13 years set the path for how education policymakers — both in the Hoosier State and throughout the nation — should approach systemic reform.

Even before the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, Jones was among the first to call for reform of the state’s high school graduation rate calculation, which had been so inaccurate for so long that perpetual failing school districts such as Indianapolis Public Schools were allowed to post graduation rates of 95 percent and higher (even when it was more likely that they were graduating a mere 50 percent of freshman in four years). Not only did Jones call for replacing the old graduation rate calculation with a new one, with the help of one editorial board (on which I served) and a smattering of state leaders, Jones spent much of his tenure battling school districts, his fellow Democrats and even the state’s longtime education superintendent (and longtime foe) Suellen Reed to make it happen.

More importantly, along with the state’s Chamber of Commerce and Derek Redelman (a once-and-future Chamber executive who once, oddly enough, helped Reed beat Jones in winning the superintendent’s job), Jones began rallying state officials — including Bayh’s successor, Frank O’Bannon, Joe Kernan and Mitch Daniels — and business leaders to begin addressing Indiana’s most-pressing educational issues. He helped transform a politically-driven state college into a network of community colleges where high school graduates who weren’t ready for the rigors of Indiana University and Purdue could get prepared.  He began addressing the reality that the Hoosier State — home to the university that hosts the nation’s second-largest foreign student population (and another whose international tentacles extend into Asia) — couldn’t even assure that more than a quarter of its high schoolers were attending college.

These days, Jones is working with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to address the nation’s problems of low college attendance and completion. But his past work has an impact far in Indiana and beyond. These days, state schools superintendent Tony Bennett — who may be the most-successful state schools chief executive in the nation — has to thank Jones for paving the way for Bennett’s own efforts to address teacher quality and end social promotion. Outside of Indiana, the work on graduation rates — along with the pioneering research of Jay P. Greene, Robert Balfanz and Christopher Swanson — is the underlying reason why President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top effort is gaining traction.

Bayh hasn’t exactly done much since on education policy. He hasn’t even been much of a presence in the debate over No Child or Race to the Top. But let’s give him credit for picking the men who cared about school reform and improving the lives of America’s children.

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