Even the casual observer of current events knows that education reform is a major concern for Americans. Turn on Fox News, MSNBC or any nightly news program, and you’re likely to hear debate on a number of issues, from teacher unions and Common Core to pre-K opportunities and the overall cost of education. But by watching the national debate, which can be as combative as it is complex, it’s easy to forget that we live in a country with nearly 20,000 municipal governments — each of which is working on unique, location-specific efforts to improve their respective public school systems.
Last fall, mayors from four of those municipalities — Michael Hancock (Denver), Kevin Johnson (Sacramento, Calif.), Julian Castro (San Antonio, Texas) and Angel Taveras (Providence, R.I.) — rallied to rise above the national chatter and actually collaborate to improve public schools. And to do that, they hit the road on the inaugural Mayors for Educational Excellence Tour (MEET), an initiative with a simple premise: The four mayors visit one another’s cities to learn successful methods being used in pre-K through 12th-grade public schools, which can then be implemented in their own hometowns — and cities across America. The tour kicked off last October in Denver with Mayor Hancock, before stopping in Sacramento and San Antonio. It’s slated to end April 24 in Providence with Mayor Taveras.
At each stop, the host city’s mayor showcases his community’s most innovative education initiatives. The host city also holds a town hall meeting where all the mayors can engage with parents, students and other education leaders in a wide-ranging conversation about public-school reform. “MEET was designed to be an echo chamber where the mayors could have unfiltered conversations over a day or two in a particular city, as opposed to a rushed 15-minute meeting,” says Peter Groff, a principal at MCG2 Consulting in Woodbridge, Va., and a former Colorado legislator with a longtime interest in education reform. Groff conceived and developed the tour with Hancock; this included choosing the three other mayors based on their education-focused administrations. “They’ve heard about what the other mayors have done, but they haven’t seen it firsthand.”
That Hancock, Johnson, Castro and Taveras are all progressive mayors who favor more liberal reform policies no doubt makes this kind of teamwork easier. All four mayors are also governing the very cities they grew up in — and are graduates of the public-school systems they’re trying to fix. But the biggest factor contributing to their success may be the very fact that they serve as mayors.
Last October, a Pew Research Center report found that just 19 percent of Americans trusted Washington to do what’s right most of the time or all of the time. But living outside the Beltway, MEET’s four mayors say they can buck that stereotype to actually make measurable progress.
“Mayors mostly govern in a nonpartisan environment, so we don’t have to tow the party line from one side to the other,” Mayor Castro says. “Being in local communities, the residents are more likely to know their mayors — people actually approach mayors, so they’re not cardboard cutouts, or just the bad guy or the good guy. Cities are where things can still get done. And that’s not something they can say in Washington, D.C., and most state capitals.”
With the final stop on the tour approaching, MEET’s organizers are already thinking about next year and how to scale their mission. Mayor Hancock says he’s received inquiries and requests from other mayors to join. And the Educational Excellence Task Force of the United States Conference of Mayors, an organization for leaders of cities with more than 30,000 people, is working to document digitally the lessons from MEET’s first run so all its members can access the takeaways. “If a mayor on another side of the country wants to see what Denver’s doing, they just need to go online and read the case study,” Hancock says. “We’re moving forward with what we’ve learned. We’re moving nationally. And all that is because of this tour.”
Here’s a look at 5 big ideas from MEET that may be coming to a school near you:
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