RVA Education Compact or Coup?

This week the City of Richmond will hold the first of a series of public meetings on a new education "compact" between the city government and its schools. This sounds... not terribly exciting. But the city's plan actually offers a tremendous opportunity for both the young Mayor and Richmond as a whole - but with lots of hidden politics threatening the city if it goes badly.

In past years, Richmond Public Schools (RPS) had developed a tense relationship with the City, characterized by fruitless meetings with City Council and continual sparring with former Mayor Dwight Jones over funding. When he was elected last fall, incoming Mayor Levar Stoney realized he did not want to spend precious political capital by continuing these old battles.

Instead, Mayor Stoney released in February a draft proposal for an "Education Compact." This proposal establishes a framework and infrastructure aimed at accomplishing three goals: better coordination between city government and RPS; setting and achieving goals for educational achievement and poverty reduction; and a funding strategy for the city’s schools.

Garet Prior at Richmond Forward has an absolutely essential breakdown of what the Compact means, including a rough timeline of how, as he puts it, "the next 24 months determines our next 20 years." Prior is a fan of the Compact, but he also raises some important questions about transparency and staffing. For example, will the compact provide opportunity for real input from community stakeholders often left out of citywide initiatives like these -- especially parents in poor sections of the city?

As far as transparency goes, the city is already having some trouble getting the word out. The compact will be discussed this week as part of a district meeting held by City Council member Andreas Addison, but there’s nothing obvious on Addison’s Facebook page about the Compact. The city’s website has separate announcements about the Compact meetings and Council meetings even though they are held at the same place at the same time. And while there was a small item on the meetings in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, it was buried in the Metro section. I'm sure Stoney’s administration is sincere about soliciting public input, but this first public meeting is woefully under-promoted.

But there might be an even bigger concern, one that might only show itself over the long term: power imbalance. With the Compact, the mayor will have extraordinary impact upon and -- a cynic might say -- control over the city schools. Part of the point of having a directly elected School Board, as Richmond does, is to insulate the school system from such political control. The Compact could operate to lessen the School Board’s input into its own operations.

Maybe this is a good thing; the Board's track record in recent years hasn’t been great, as seen in part by this year’s mysterious appearance of an $8M surplus. (That's more than a few coins in the couch cushions.) And Stoney was elected in part because of his endorsement of new ideas like this compact. The overwhelming majority of Richmonders voted last fall for either him or Jack Berry, who ran even more directly on a platform of reforming city government.

But the reform wave that swept Stoney into office also produced an entirely new School Board. With the recent departure of former Chair Jeff Bourne to the General Assembly, every member of the Board is a political neophyte. If the institutional reforms produced by this Compact wrest control of schools away from the Board, and Stoney’s benevolence fails him -- or, if he leaves for higher office, as his critics have often suggested he will, leaving the city to a less reform-minded Mayor -- does anyone on the Board have the political heft to try and wrest it back?

The good news is that the Compact is clearly participatory in intent, and seeks to bring in all stakeholders, including both the Board and parents. (The hands of Thad Williamson, Stoney's senior policy advisor and head of the previous mayor's anti-poverty task force, are clearly all over the proposal.) But activists like Prior and the citizens behind him had better keep a close eye on how the Compact is implemented, and ensure that coordination does not become mere consolidation of power.