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Sacramento Mayor Says City Officials Can Lead on Literacy

Kevin Johnson is a mayor without mayoral control over his city's schools. But at a national gathering of state lawmakers Tuesday, he argued that city leaders can and should play a strong role in education, particularly in promoting reading skills at early grades.

Johnson, a former standout professional basketball player for the Phoenix Suns, was elected mayor of Sacramento, Calif., in 2008. He's a proponent of making sweeping changes to schools, such as changing teacher seniority and tenure practices, and promoting early literacy.

Speaking at the National Conference of State Legislatures' annual legislative summit, Johnson said he's trying to use the power of his office to bring business and civic leaders, university officials, unions, and faith-based groups together around the goal of ensuring that students are proficient in reading by 3rd grade. Other mayors, he said, need to do the same.

Only about a third of Sacramento's 3rd graders are reading at grade level, according to recent estimates. Johnson announced a reading campaign earlier this year, and he's set ambitious goals for improving students' skills.

"We want to be the first city in the country where all our kids can read at grade level by the time they finish 3rd grade," he said, adding later, "As long as I can breathe, or scream, or kick, I'm going to be talking about it."

Learning to read by 3rd grade is widely regarded as crucial to future academic success, and it has become a major focus of state officials in recent years. As a city official, Johnson said he sees evidence of the dire consequences of students failing to reach that level, for young people, and for a city trying to build a workforce.

"Seventy-five percent of people incarcerated are illiterate," Johnson said. The choice, he said, is one between "cradle to career" and "cradle to prison."

The Sacramento mayor is engaged, somewhat famously, to former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee. While serving as chancellor, Rhee worked for a mayor, Adrian Fenty, who oversaw the schools and backed her often-controversial efforts to improve teacher quality and to close struggling schools, among other steps.

In an interview after his speech, Johnson said he's a supporter of mayoral control of districts, and he left little doubt that ideally, he'd like that power. (He alluded to legal barriers in California that would prevent that change.) As it now stands, he quipped during his speech, he doesn't "have a direct line" to controlling schools, "I don't have a dotted line."

Afterward, Johnson acknowledged the obvious political risks of mayoral control of schools—witness voters' ouster of Fenty last year, and the subsequent resignation of Rhee, who was a divisive figure in the city.

But whatever their official connections to their local school districts, Johnson said mayors have an obligation to wield their power in ways that help districts.

"I'm trying to get mayors to understand there's a spectrum of involvement," Johnson said. "We can use our bully pulpit to champion certain things to attract more resources ... you have to be involved."

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