Already a hot topic of the Minneapolis mayoral campaign, education took center stage at dueling events Monday as candidates touted their prescriptions for improving student achievement.

Former Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Andrew and City Council Members Betsy Hodges and Don Samuels each held news conferences to lay out their policy visions surrounding education. Energy attorney Cam Winton, an independent, also addressed reporters. Education is historically a tricky subject for the mayor, because the independent school board holds most of the reins on the city's schools.

But the candidates insisted there is plenty that could be done — particularly around the periphery — to improve what is often described as one of the country's worst achievement gaps between white and minority students.

Samuels' plan drew the support of former Mayor Don Fraser. Fraser, who left office in 1993, was a vocal supporter of early childhood education during and after his tenure. He also launched several initiatives that remain active today.

The achievement gap "is a problem that will yield to a concerted community response, but that response needs to be led not only by the school board and the school administration, but by the whole … administration of the city," Fraser said at a news conference for Samuels. Fraser said Samuels' plan was "the strongest statement that's been rendered in this campaign." He stopped short of endorsing Samuels' overall campaign.

Samuels said he would create a privately funded education trust, based out of his office, to reward improving schools as well as focus on their underperforming peers. He said he would champion schools that excel, such as north Minneapolis' Harvest Preparatory School, elevate the teaching profession and spend more time communitcating with parents.

"I live in the most troubled neighborhood in the city and I know these parents. I live by them," Samuels said on the steps of Harvest Prep. "I will directly engage them, so they can understand their role in helping their children achieve."

Down the street, at the home of a Head Start facility named after Fraser, Jim Thomas, a mayoral candidate who based his campaign largely on education dropped out of the race and endorsed Andrew. Thomas, a special-education teacher who generally opposes charter schools and Teach for America, said he and Andrew "share values in terms of how we can improve our schools in Minneapolis."

Andrew's plan involves securing money to upgrade school buildings, using city lobbying and the mayor's bully pulpit to obtain more funding for early childhood programs, and improving after-school programming. "It's not just about the kids. It's about the future of the city," Andrew said.

Back at City Hall, Hodges unveiled a "Cradle-to-K" plan intended to target children from before birth until they reach about 4 years of age. "That is where the city is in the best place to make a difference for kids," she said.

Her plan would expand the city's Healthy Start program, which aids low-income parents before and after childbirth. It would also push for more "child-centered" child care and convene a "Mayor's Cabinet on Cradle-to-K" to help direct resources.

Winton told reporters that many candidates are simply "rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic." His proposed reforms include ending the so-called "last in, first out" policy that rewards teacher seniority, switching to longer school days and years, and giving the mayor power to appoint school board members — some of which would require state action.