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City

Choosing Sides in the Fight Over Schools

by Gail Robinson, Nov 17, 2008
 

What is New York City's high school graduation rate?

A. The highest it's ever been.
B. 60 percent
C. 52 percent
D. More than 16 percentage points lower than the overall rate for New York State

The answer is all of the above, depending on how one crunches and spins the numbers. To an ordinary New Yorker, all three answers except A look bad. So it should come as no surprise that A is the response Mayor Michael Bloomberg's supporters use on a Web site cultivating support and enthusiasm for the way Bloomberg has run the New York City school system.

Having won the chance to go for a third term, Bloomberg continues to press hard for a renewal of the state law, which in 2002 gave him control over the city's public schools, including the right to appoint the chancellor and reprieves from many checks, balances and oversights.

As the mayor's allies have marshaled his wealth and prestige to press their case, other key players -- teachers, parents, administrators, politicians -- stake out their positions. On Saturday, for example, the union that represents school principals and other administrators released a report calling for significant change in the current system.

At the crux of this -- beyond the power, politics and money -- is the question of how well the nation's largest school system has served its students over the last seven years and what, if any, changes in governance would help the schools do better.

NEW REALITIES

The legislature has until June to act. If it does nothing, mayoral control ends. The city would return to the old system where the Board of Education, appointed by the mayor and the borough presidents, set broad education policies and named a chancellor to run the schools. Individual community school boards made some, more local decisions. Alternatively, the legislature could extend mayoral control as it currently exists -- or tweak it, raising the issue of what changes to make and how extensive those changes might be.

Term Limits

Much has happened since the battle over running the schools began to shape up almost a year ago. Responding to the mayor's exhortation that the city needs him for four more years, the City Council extended term limits from two terms to three, making it very likely that the mayor controlling the schools for four more years would be Bloomberg, not an unknown successor. In the view of supporters of mayoral control, that has plusses and minuses.

"It makes it that much harder to imagine the abstract issue of mayoral control if we're going to be continuing to talk about this particular mayor," Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform, which supports mayoral control, has said.

Merryl Tisch, a member of the State Board of Regents, takes a different view. "If it's not Michael with the hand on the rudder, I would say that you're open for a much broader renegotiation of mayoral control," she told the Times. "I think people have confidence in the job that he's done."

The fight over school control, coming just months before the 2009 mayoral election, will become inextricably tied to Bloomberg's re-election campaign. A private group, set up by close Bloomberg allies, has announced plans to raise $20 million for a public relations and lobbying effort aimed at preserving mayoral control. Meanwhile the mayor has indicated he could spend up to $100 million to win re-election -- and some of those millions of dollars in advertising will undoubtedly trumpet his actions on education.

Senate Switch

In Albany, the State Senate, which must approve any extension of mayoral control, seems likely to have a Democratic majority in January. Bloomberg, though now an independent, has seen the Senate Republicans as allies and contributed money to their campaign hold the Senate. Under those circumstances, Democrats may be less likely to line up behind Bloomberg and mayoral control than their Republican counterparts.

The Democrats already have held hearings on mayoral control with an eye toward reaching a position sometime before the vote. Whatever they decide, said Matt Trepasso, policy director for Sen. Martin Malave Dilan, who serves on the group, Senate Democrats are likely to feel more involved in the issue than Republicans because most of the state senators from New York City are Democrats.

"Whether or not we wind up extending mayoral control, it wouldn't matter if it was Bloomberg or not," Trepasso said. "It's not a personal thing."

Meanwhile Assembly Democrats also remain in question. Speaker Sheldon Silver has reportedly said he does not favor a return to the former system, but he has noted "the real concerns of parents regarding the lack of parental input."

Other Democrats in the Assembly have expressed their concerns more bluntly. One, Alan Maisel, a former principal, has said he supports mayoral control, but not "the Stalinist form of mayoral control” we have now.

Gov David Paterson, who would have to approve any bill on mayoral control, has indicated his support for it.

Meanwhile, long-time state education commissioner Richard Mills, whose policies played out in city classrooms regardless of the local governance system, has announced his resignation, and the new Obama administration in Washington could change many other education policies affecting New York City, particularly the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Economic Effects

Then there is the new budget reality. Between the implementation of mayoral control in 2002 and last summer, the school system's operating budget increased by 42 percent to $16.9 billion. Those additional funds may have papered over policy differences.

Now with funding cuts looming, fights will almost certainly arise over what and where to cut, revealing other fissures.. This has already become apparent. Last week the Independent Budget office released a report, which concluded that the education department spent some $135 million last year on programs to assess and rate schools. Schools Chancellor Joel Klein defended the expenditures as "some of the smartest dollars we've spent." But Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum, who requested the report, said, "I'd rather see cuts in the accountability initiative than cuts in individual school budgets."

In a statement, teacher's union president Randi Weingarten acknowledged the changed picture. "Between the budget crisis and the term limits issue, the landscape has certainly shifted The debate over governance, and particularly the issue of checks and balances, is going to be more robust now," she said.

REINING IN THE SYSTEM

While no consensus has been reached, the outlines of the debate have begun to emerge. In general, there is little evidence of support for turning the clock back to the days of the Board of Education.

"I am a realist," said Ernest Logan, president of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, announcing the union's position at a conference Saturday. "I believe the mayor will continue to have control of public schools."

The mayor does have some supporters, including the Partnership for New York City, a business group, that see any changes to current arrangement as dangerous.

But many fall somewhere in between, calling for an extension of mayoral control but seeking more oversight of the Department of Education, particularly its statistics and its contracts, and more consultation with parents and other political leaders.

The first of many reports expected to weigh in fit this mold. Prepared by a commission of education experts for Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum, it came down solidly in favor of mayoral control, concluding that the new arrangement had focused attention on education in New York City, brought in more money and allowed for change.

"Although change is not synonymous with progress, it is a prerequisite for progress," the report said. "The capacity to implement change could be the single most important and measurable advantage of mayoral control when the current arrangement is compared to the one that preceded it."

What kind of changes could be in store?

Checks and Balances

The current structure lets the mayor appoint the chancellor. Although the state created a successor to the Board of Education -- the Panel for Educational Policy -- the mayor appoints a majority of its members and can fire them at will. The board has no real power. The education department's Web site does not even have any agendas or minutes for the council's 2008-2009 meetings.

To try to give the board more clout, both the principals union report and Gotbaum's commission call for fixed terms for the panel members and for assigning them power to approve significant educational policy decisions.

The Public Role

The current system eliminated community school board, which many saw as ineffective and even corrupt. In their stead, the city created Community Education Councils, but these, like the central education panel, have little power, and few parents have much interest in serving on them. Similarly the current administration curtailed the role of individual School Leadership Teams, although they still exist.

In the Senate Democrats' hearings on school governance, "the main thing they heard over and over again without fail, were complaints from parents about their lack of a meaningful role in the schools, said Trepasso, Dilan's policy director. "They feel really pushed out. ... They want to have more input. They want to have more say." The avenues for parent participation now, Trepasso said, are "dead ends."

Both the Gotbaum commission and the principals' report call for strengthening the community councils by giving them a more significant role. The principals, for example, want the councils to have to approve new charter schools in their areas or the closing of local public schools.

Klein has frequently indicated he thinks such changes could dramatically undercut efforts to improve the schools. "All these things that people say 'checks and balances,' are basically fundamentally an effort to impose different policies," he has said. "In the absence of mayoral control, I assure you, you'll have paralysis."

In his speech Saturday, Logan dismissed such concerns. "We have to stop believing that if we have to listen to what other people are saying it will take too long," he said.

Accountability

Joel Klein loves to talk about accountability. His department has the accountability initiative. He speaks of making students accountable for what they learn, of holding teachers accountable for the success or failure of their students and of principals being accountable for what goes on in their buildings.

The principals, perhaps chafing at their own performance reviews, think the chancellor needs a yearly reckoning too -- complete with a public hearing.

Other proposals will likely seek greater oversight of the department. While the mayor likes to say he has control of the schools -- and by all accounts he does -- the Department of Education is not subject to the same kind of scrutiny that dogs other agencies.

Gotbaum's commission, citing testimony by City Comptroller William Thompson, noted the department had more than $100 million in no-bid contracts in 2006, up from $15 million in 2001, before mayor control.

It took the Independent Budget Office months to try to figure out how much money the system spends on its accountability initiative -- essentially compiling progress reports, or report cards, for city schools. The department does not release this kind of line-time data, and budget office officials and aides to Gotbaum say the department was reluctant to repond to their requests for information.

"If the Department of Education is going to be treated more like a mayoral agency, then it should be expected to follow the same procedures as other mayoral agencies," the public advocate's report said.

That, the commission said, would mean oversight by the Independent Budget Office, requiring the department adhere to regular city procurement rules and allowing the city comptroller to audit the department.

A Check on the Numbers

Even more in contention than budget figures are the numbers documenting student performance. To resolve the disputes over which data matters and what it says, many advocates have called for an independent research arm to assess the numbers, similar to the Consortium on Chicago School Research. This may well happen. At a panel discussion at the New School last year, Deputy Schools Chancellor Christopher Cerf, said he personally would like the city to have an office "that would be empowered to review or opine on the numbers."

Last month, a group of academics, educators and business leaders announced the creation of the Research Partnership for New York City Schools to consider the effectiveness of the school changes. Whether its efforts will be widely accepted remains to be seen. Diane Ravitch, the prominent education historian who has emerged as a leading critic of the Bloomberg and Klein policies, has expressed concern over the presence of Klein and teacher's union president Weingarten on the partnership's governing board. "A research institution should not be controlled by the people whose work is being evaluated," she told Education Week. It's raises questions about how independent this group will be."

A CASE STUDY

These arguments about numbers -- test scores, graduation rates, reading levels -- lie at the heart of the debate over whether mayoral control has succeeded. The mayor's supporters cite scores on state tests, which have shown advances in the last five years. His critics cast aspersions on those numbers -- the test has gotten easier, they charge -- and instead point to a national test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAEP, where the city has not advanced as much.

A look at specific numbers provides evidence of why determining what works and what does not work in education can be so difficult. Take the persistence of the so-called achievement gap, where white and Asian students consistently score better and are more likely to graduate than their black and Latino counterparts. Bloomberg and Klein have cast their effort to change schools here as a civil rights struggle. They announced their first sweeping actions on Martin Luther King's birthday in 2003.

The mayor's school campaign, Klein told the principals Saturday, as he has told so many other groups around the city, is "an effort to make sure that ZIP code, skin color or family income no longer determines what kind of education a child receives."

And the administration points to sign of progress. ""Over the past six years, we've done everything possible to narrow the achievement gap — and we have," Bloomberg told Congress this summer. "In some cases, we've reduced it by half."

In 2002, one report found, the black-white gap on a state fourth-grade math test was 35 percentage points, with 76 percent of white students scoring "proficient" compared to 41 percent of black fourth-graders. By 2008, the gap had narrowed to 18 points as all scores increased: 91 percent of white students scored proficient compared to 73 percent of black students.

On the other hand, under this administration black and Latino students are less likely than they once were to get into elite academic programs. In an effort to insure uniform access to gifted and talented elementary school programs across the city, the Department of Education instituted a standardized test with a uniform cut-off for admission. Of the of the four, five and six years olds who passed the test, the Times reported, more than half are white. Only 18 percent of city public school students are white.

The disparity continues with older students. The Times found last month that the racial gap at the city's elite high school has widened. For example, in 1999, 9 percent of students at Bronx High School of Science were black; now that number has fallen to 4 percent, while the portion of Asian students has increased from 46 percent to 61 percent. At Stuyvesant, 2 percent of students are African-American and 3 percent Hispanic.

"The trend in specialized high school composition sits uncomfortably with the DOE's claim that they are closing the achievement gap ... 'in some cases by half,'" wrote The Eduwonkette.

The disparity seems to extend beyond the most adept students by some measures. According to research compiled by Citizens Union, the sister organization of Gotham Gazette's publisher, New York students overall put the city in the top third on selected urban areas on the National Assessment of Educational Progress test. But on the scores of minority students only, the city fell to the bottom third. In addition, Citizens Union found some increases in the gap between 2005 and 2007, particularly on the English assessment.

Even if the gap persists, Klein has said, it may be more important to look at the scores themselves. And those, he has said, have gone up for everyone. "If the way to close the achievement gap is to pull whites down, that's not a strategy that any intelligent person or any responsible school district would ever follow," Klein told the New York Sun last summer .

THE DECISION

Educators and parents know that no single number can tell the story of a whole class, let alone an entire school system as large and diverse as New York City's. Even if the scores all told a clear picture, other doubts would remain: How much was attributable to mayoral control? What about aspects of education difficult to measure -- joy for learning, creativity, social skills?

Mayor Bloomberg has certainly sold his plan to other mayors and nations. Since New York City instituted mayoral control, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles have followed suit. Australia and England are looking at copying the school report cards. True to form, though, New Yorkers and their elected officials may prove a much tougher sell

 


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