School Control: To Tweak or Not to Tweak?
March 6th, 2008
The state legislature has more than a year to decide whether to keep mayoral control or let it “sunset,” but the issue is already generating a lot of interest. First there was the City Council hearing on it on Monday, and this morning the New School attracted a near capacity crowd with a from on “Who Rules the Schools?”
The event opened with Schools Chancellor Joel Klein’s litany of all he and his patron, Mayor Michael Bloomberg have done to improve education in the city. While mayoral control does not solve all the daunting problems facing public education, notably the cavernous achievement gap, it is, Klein said, “a prerequisite for solving that problem. … You need leadership, visibility and accountability right at the top.”
No one at the discussion called for letting mayoral control go the way of dunce caps, Dick and Jane and ditto machines. But, aside from Klein, all saw room for improvement — and some want lots of it.
There is the management structure, which Samuel Freedman, the Times columnist who moderated the discussion, said a teacher referred to as “the gang of two.” Using an analogy from a different communist country, State Assemblymember Alan Maisel said he was for mayoral control but “not for the Stalinist form of mayoral control.” “We do not have to take the public out of public education to reform it,” agreed Ernest Logan, president of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators. Lauding the administration’s successes, Merryl Tisch, vice chancellor of the State Board of Regents, said the administration repeatedly derailed itself because of the “‘a’ word”: arrogance.
While no panelist went so far as to say explicitly that the administration had not scored successes, many indicated the advances were not as dramatic as Klein and his minions might claim. “The Department of Education has the second biggest public relations department, second only to the mayor,” said Carmen Colon, a longtime parent activist. “I don’t know of any Board of Education that spends as much as they do on data manipulation and extraction.” And Tisch and Christopher Cerf, a deputy chancellor at the education department, clashed over the accuracy of some of that data: the high school graduation rate.
“The city has a great story to tell about where they came from and where they are,” said Tisch. The problem, she continued, “is they don’t seem to be able to get a straight story.”
So how would the panelists fix mayoral control and address these issues?
Tisch would keep the focus on learning (critics fault the current administration for spending more time on bureaucratic shuffling than on what goes on in the classroom), and Logan would give would give the City Council a larger role.
For his part, Maisel would give the now largely powerless Community Education Councils (Maisel said he served on one but quit because “I thought we were wasting our time”) a role in hiring principals and superintendents. He said he would establish set terms for member of the Educational Policy Panel, which replaced the Board of Education — in name if not in power — and whose panelists now serve at the pleasure of the mayor and borough presidents (leading to the firing of three who crossed Bloomberg over the issue of promotion requirements). Maisel said he might even let the panel select the chancellor, something many observers would see as a throwback to the old days when the board did that. The way it is now, Maisel said, “This chancellor is not an advocate for the [school] system but an advocate for the mayor.”
Underscoring that he was speaking for himself not the administration (which has indicated the best change to the system is no change), Cerf said he would like the department to have an organization — a kind of Government Accountability Office — “that would be empowered to review or opine on the numbers.”
Conceding “there is a deep perception out there that parents’ voices are not sufficient in the mix,” Cerf cited all the meetings department officials hold with parents, conveniently ignoring, of course, that most of those sessions are held to apprise parents and community groups of decisions that have already been made. But, he said, “we need to do better.”
To what end? That is where many advocates and the city will continue to disagree.
The mayor and chancellor, Cerf said, must continue to be the ones making major decision on matters of educational policy. “The minute you start destroying that,” he said, “is the moment you give up on our ability to get something done.”
For activists like Colon, that might be the rub. “I don’t want to provide any input if all you’re going to do is pat me on the head,” she said.
(For more on the debate over mayoral control, see A Battle Brews Over Who Controls the Schools).By Gail Robinson on March 6, 2008, 3:10 pm
In category: Albany, Education, Electoral Politics, Gotham City | 1 Comment »