Relationships between mayors and school systems are often complex, but a recent tour of U.S. cities surfaced a few universal lessons to drive outcomes regardless of structure or formal authority.

The Mayors and Schools Field Trip is a regular series. Read the introductory article or peruse our archive of past articles to learn more.

It seems like everyone has an opinion about schools. They are the public institutions best-positioned to create economic opportunity for low-income people. Schools can set people on course for the rest of their lives, impacting the earning potential of entire communities. That’s part of the reason the national conversation about education can be so charged. From what they represent, to who they serve, to the implications they have on a person’s—and a city’s and nation’s—future prosperity, schools are just different.

Policymakers realized this difference early on, and set public education apart from other municipal services. As a result, schools in most places are governed and funded independently from other city departments and authorities. Mayors typically have direct control over how the trash gets picked up, where new roads get built and how public safety is maintained. But if a mayor wants to affect schools—the highest-profile function government provides—the calculation is different.

Living Cities and former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak spent the 2015-16 school year visiting cities around the country to learn more about the relationships between mayors and schools. In some of the cities we visited, the mayor had been granted direct oversight of the school system. But in most, mayors don’t have or don’t want direct control of schools.

At a recent convening of the Project on Municipal Innovation, mayoral chiefs of staff from the nation’s largest cities heard from former DC Mayor Adrian Fenty and outgoing DC Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson about mayoral control of that city’s public school system. Motivated by the tremendous achievement disparities among DC students, Mayor Fenty strongly felt that major change was necessary to turn the system around.

Mayor Fenty’s view is unambiguous: DC could not have achieved its gains in student performance over the last decade had he not had direct authority to manage the schools. Indeed, other mayors—from Chicago to New York—have argued that to enable improvements in school performance, it is essential that a direct line of responsibility extends from the mayor’s office to the principal’s office. Many argue that schools should be like any other city department, ultimately accountable to City Hall. In other words, schools aren’t that different from other city services after all.

Regardless of structure and authority, mayors can use their political, budgetary, or agenda-setting power to make an impact. Living Cities’ work over the past two years has revealed several key elements to a successful mayoral relationship with schools, no matter the level of formal authority they have.

Define an agenda early.

Regardless of the school governance structure in a city, mayors have substantial power to shape a broad set of policies and programs that directly impact children and families.

In Louisville, the mayor—who does not have legal authority over the schools—organized relevant city departments and services around improving “cradle-to-career” outcomes for youth by standing up high-profile inter-agency initiatives like 55,000 Degrees.

In Chicago, former Mayor Richard M. Daley sought to integrate the needs of young people in both the classroom and the community, developing “an aligned city strategy for the whole child.” Direct mayoral control allows Chicago to manage multiple city agencies, including the school system, toward a comprehensive strategy.

At PMI, DC’s Mayor Fenty spoke powerfully about mayors’ ability to make their priorities known early—even before taking office. In this way, mayors can orient the culture of city government toward the desired end result of student achievement.

Use the levers of control you have.

DC’s Chancellor Henderson noted that mayors have the ability to influence—directly or indirectly—the wraparound functions that, in turn, enable schools to function. Services like construction and facilities maintenance, information technology, student health and safety, and transportation are all critical to schools, and could be—or are already—administered by other city departments or standalone authorities.

Being able to outsource these support functions is a critical mayoral power—and typically is welcomed by school administrators, who would generally rather devote their limited time and energy to their students and not to managing contracts with software vendors or bus companies. Henderson called taking away these functions from school leaders “the greatest gift you can give them.”

Spend political capital to make bold moves, quickly.

After Mayor Fenty was inaugurated, school governance became the first major piece of legislation he sought to push through the City Council. Moving quickly, he says, demonstrated the priority he placed on reforming the governance structure in the district and the investments he planned to make in overhauling the schools. Mayors have a certain amount of “chits” to cash in at the beginning of their terms; moving with speed and intention to spend that political capital sends a powerful message to partners in government and the public that education is a top priority.

Resident involvement must be robust and thoughtful.

Whatever governance structure exists in a city, mayors can quickly alienate parents and galvanize opposition to the changes they make if residents do not feel sufficiently involved; not just listened to, but heard. Aside from the typical diet of public hearings and community meetings, mayors can do more to provide accessible, useful data on schools. This data can help clarify the case for proposed changes, and can also give residents the information needed to draw their own conclusions. The second cohort of the City Accelerator uncovered several leading practices cities around the US are using the revitalize public engagement.

Mayors can exercise power in many different ways.

The type of power mayors have over schools can take different forms in different cities. In several places, mayors who have direct control can exercise the “hard power” functions of hiring, firing, budgeting, and making the big decisions. In other places, mayors use a “soft power” approach. While she did not have direct control over her school system, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf has described her role as a convener, bringing together local philanthropy, the business community and other agencies to get things done for the nearly 50,000 students in her city.

The most successful partnerships between mayors and schools—regardless of governance structure—seem to depend on mayors giving school district leaders the space to make their own decisions. In nearly every city visited so far, mayors spoke of offering advice and support, just as they would to any of their other direct reports. If a mayor has the authority to appoint the school district leader directly, selecting a skilled manager with experience leading complex bureaucracies is critical. Where mayors do not select the superintendent, they can build trust and credibility by offering needed support and resources to their school district, without being seen as “taking over the schools.”

As one of the highest-profile transitions to mayoral control in the country, DC offers several powerful examples—and counter-examples—to mayors as they navigate their relationships with their school systems. No matter the structure or types of power at their disposal, mayors in cities large and small have a keen interest in striking the right balance and recognizing the critical uniqueness of their relationship with schools.