After our conversation last month with San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee, we crossed the Bay Bridge to visit Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, where we found that the dramatic differences in their situations illustrate the many factors beyond governance structure that impact how a city’s chief executive can work to improve education.

Living Cities is hitting the road with former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak to learn about the complex relationships between mayors and urban school systems. Much of the debate about mayors and education has centered around the broad question of whether City Hall should have direct control of schools. In reality, the issues can be more subtle as we found with visits to two California mayors, neither of whom have direct control of schools. 

Only one year into her first term leading a city with real and complex needs, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf has already found time to make a significant impact on the young people of her city. She also knows she has to do much, much more.

“Here we are in the middle of a sea of opportunity, the wealthiest part of the world,” she said, “and we have 9th grade classes where only 10 percent of the students will get a college degree. With every year that goes by, education becomes more important, but our kids are not getting the opportunities they deserve.”

Mayor Schaff also knows that as she sets out to improve the future for the youth she represents, she has far fewer tools at her disposal than Mayor Lee next door in San Francisco.

San Francisco’s Mayor has control over the county, meaning he can align a multitude of youth-related social services; Oakland’s Mayor cannot. Lee came into office with continuity from the previous administration, keeping on his predecessor’s education policy director and other key staff; Schaff ousted an incumbent mayor and came into office with a slate that was fresh, but also empty. While Oakland is showing significant signs of revival and has recently attracted some showcase businesses like Uber, the capacity of its business community still pales in comparison to the tech center of San Francisco.

As I talked with Schaaf late last year it was clear she understood she was dealt a tougher hand, but also that there was no way to avoid the urgent needs of schools. “When you look at the challenges, it’s tempting to tell people I’m not in charge of schools,” she said, “but I can’t wake up in the morning and not take responsibility for something so inextricably linked to the future of the city.”

“I wasn’t sure how the relationship with the schools and superintendent would go, but it helped that I was deeply engaged in education issues before I was elected. I ran a school volunteer program for three years, was on the board of an education non-profit, on the founding board of one of Oakland’s more successful charters and did a ton of volunteer work.

Mayor Schaaf undertook a concerted effort to make her intentions clear in initial meetings with the superintendent.

“I also told the superintendent I wasn’t here to take over the schools. I’m not an educator and don’t pretend to be. I told him I would respect his role but there was a lot the mayor and the city could do to help that wasn’t directly about teaching.”

Like San Francisco’s Mayor Lee, Mayor Schaaf came into office wanting to focus on youth and schools. But Schaff couldn’t build off her predecessor’s agenda and didn’t have an education advisor who stayed in place from one administration to the other. Scaaf wanted to expand her team to do more work with schools and youth but felt that her first few months in office was the wrong time to expand funding for her staff. Instead, she was able to attract funding from a local philanthropy and brought the funder into the hiring process. “People were excited because the position was born out of partnership, not conflict, so from the beginning there was buy-in from people beyond my office,” she said. “The superintendent didn’t see it as a threat as much as having the power of the mayor’s office in the education conversation.”

The superintendent asked the mayor to focus, first, on a partnership with the East Bay College Fund to help students prepare for, stay enrolled in and complete college. The goal for Schaaf, who graduated from Oakland’s Skyline High School, is to triple the number of students from her city who get a post-secondary degree.

Schaaf believes this was a good place to start, but as she enters her second year she sees this work as just one part of a more comprehensive cradle-to-career youth agenda. She wants this “Oakland Promise” to include efforts in early childhood development, “future centers” where students can get advice on how to improve their college prospects and universal college savings accounts for kindergarteners and their parents.

“Some of our efforts, like college scholarships, pay off relatively soon, but some, like those efforts for babies and kindergarteners, won’t pay off for a long time,” she said. “We are looking for sustainability in the long-term strategies, and that’s why we want a robust partnership with multiple places of intervention.”

After many years involved in the community and a year in office, Schaaf is convinced her city has a collection of strong players who can help Oakland students thrive. She also recognizes the limit of individual actions in education. “There is great work taking place in Oakland, but we have an achievement gap that is shameful and we are not moving the needle like we have to,” she said. “When you have an abundance of organizations but the collective impact is not what it should be, there is a role a mayor can play to help move everyone in the same direction.” Along with helping partners align their work, she said, she is also interested in developing measurement strategies that help all partners focus on common metrics for common goals.

I left our conversation wondering what the situation will be in Oakland in a few years. Can the partnerships Mayor Schaaf is developing—so promising in these early years—stay intact as the players grapple with the tougher, often intractable issues at the core of the achievement gap? Will the mayor formalize her vision for a cradle-to-career pipeline by joining the Strive Network we will be talking about more in later blogs, or will she continue to create a unique and independent effort in Oakland? If she begins to show more impact, will she seek, or will the residents of Oakland give her, more authority to tackle tough issues?

One thing is clear: Only about 380 days or so into the job, she is already looking well down the road.

Both Oakland and San Francisco gave us insight into how transitions between administrations can impact a city’s education agenda. To learn more, we’re crossing the country to Boston, where Mayor Marty Walsh followed long-term Mayor Tom Menino into a system where the mayor has more control and a long history of aggressive intervention in schools.

Published: January 13, 2016
Category: Blog
Contributors: R.T. Rybak