In the debate over how to improve the governance of the city schools, most people seem to see the choice as either mayoral control or an expansion of the membership of the current Board of Education. We have not looked at how some of the most successful school districts in the state are run. Most New York districts with fewer than 125,000 students, including the most high-performing suburban districts, have elected schools boards. They are financially and politically independent of their municipal governments.
New York City, though, has never had an independent board of education. The current Board of Education is, at best, only quasi-independent, with members responsible to the borough presidents and to the mayor, who appoint them, but not to the taxpaying and voting public. To think that a New York City mayor does not already influence education funding and policy is, at best, naĂťve. The mayor controls the money because education is included in the city budget. New York State education funds go directly to the city, not the Board of Education, so the mayor has control of those dollars as well. The mayor also plays a role in the selection and removal of a chancellor. Yes, New York's mayor could have more control, but a review of cities that have mayoral control of education does not support the notion that that alone leads to reform.
And so perhaps we should consider legislation that would make New York City more like its successful neighbors. An elected school board should govern the city's schools. There would be a member from each borough as well as two at-large members elected by all voters.
More importantly, funding for this elected school board, and the school system, should come from a consistent source of city income earmarked for education, and legislation should insure that that funding does not fall below a certain level. Now local, state and federal education funds are all deposited directly into city coffers and allocated by the mayor and City Council. There would be more accountability if an elected school board, representing parents and taxpayers, received money set aside for education and knew that it was responsible for making sure the funds were well-spent.
Infrastructure and the building of new schools should also depend on a consistent source of funds, with the board able to issue bonds.
While the state legislature considers the overall governing structure for our public schools, we should also address the governance at the school level. Individual schools need greater autonomy. New York City must hire and retain skilled school leaders, principals, and teachers. They need guidance from parents and the authority and freedom to determine how their schools should be run.
These reforms, along with a change in Albany's funding of schools so that New York City is no longer short-changed, would go a long way to ensuring the success of New York City's public schools.
Jill Levy is the president of the Council of Supervisors and Administrators, the union representing principals, assistant principals, supervisors and administrators in city public schools.
School Control, by Irving Hamer, Jr.