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Originally published Wednesday, September 3, 2014 at 6:16 PM

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Editorial: Mayor Ed Murray turns focus to education

Mayor Ed Murray’s pivot toward education is welcomed, but his power is constrained by state law and dysfunction on the Seattle school board.

Seattle Times Editorial

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MAYOR Ed Murray is beating a trail through the thickets of Seattle process toward a singular goal: a reputation as the mayor who gets stuff done.

His first-year record now includes a slowly phased-in $15 minimum wage, a brokered deal between taxis and upstart digital competitors and a gold-star pick for police chief. He helped convince Seattle voters to approve a new park district, despite the proposal’s inherent flaws.

After a busy first eight months, Murray is turning toward education. If he sticks with it, Murray has the potential to be the best Seattle mayor on education since Norm Rice.

Murray speaks of the “moral imperative” of closing the achievement gap between white and nonwhite students. Half of Native American students and one-third of black and Latino kids in Seattle don’t graduate on time, versus only 14 percent of white kids.

“I want Seattle to be the first urban city in America to end the achievement gap,” Murray said at an education-focused news conference this week.

The first step toward that worthy, audacious goal is the creation of a new city-funded network of prekindergarten programs. The idea originated with Seattle City Council President Tim Burgess, but Murray has championed it from the mayoral bully pulpit. Seattle voters will be asked on the Nov. 4 ballot to approve a four-year, $14.5 million-a-yearpreschool levy. If approved, high-quality, curriculum-based instruction would be free for low-income children, and deeply subsidized for working-class families.

Murray, at the news conference, also said he plans to streamline City Hall bureaucracy to create a new Department of Education and Early Learning. The city’s existing child care and education programs — many of them funded by the Families and Education levy — are spread across various departments, with varying levels of rigor applied to measuring outcomes.

Consolidating them into a new cabinet-level post has symbolic and administrative value, for City Hall and for Seattle Public Schools.

But the value of a city department of education is diluted as long as the Seattle school board remains mired in dysfunction. With the elected board whipsawed by ideologies and personalities, Seattle is now looking for its fifth superintendent in a decade. It is telling that three left for smaller school districts. The district’s special-education department — on its eighth chief in five years — is an embarrassment, as shown by a Monday Seattle Times news report.

If Murray is going to make a lasting difference on education, he needs power to ensure competent leadership is part of the seven-member school board. The mayor of Oakland has the power to appoint three members to a 10-member local school board.

Doing something like that here requires state legislation. Murray himself, as a state senator, once introduced such a bill. He demurred at the news conference this week when asked if he wanted mayoral control of the district. But he is clearly thinking about it. “It makes it easier to get something done,” he said.

The City Council, and the mayor, should make mayoral power over the school board a top legislative priority for the 2015 session. If Murray is going to cement a reputation for getting things done, education is a ripe opportunity.

Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Sharon Pian Chan, Jonathan Martin, Erik Smith, Thanh Tan, Robert J. Vickers, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).

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