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A Battle Brews Over Who Controls the Schools

by Gail Robinson, Feb 19, 2008
 Illustration of schools on a chess board.
Kelly J. Brownlee/Gotham Gazette

It is a tale of two systems.

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In one, students in orderly classes eagerly learn language arts and math as teachers, equipped with the latest data, tailor the work to the children's needs. Teens flock to nurturing small schools that capture their interests, enabling them to earn a Regents diploma in four years as delighted parents hail the achievements of a system that finally puts children first.

In the other, arrogant Ivy League-educated lawyers ignore parents bewildered by constant bureaucratic reshuffling, convoluted admissions procedures for middle schools and draconian discipline. Students spend hours preparing for standardized tests, unable to experience art, music, physical education or the joy of real learning.

Which of these describes New York City public schools? It depends on who you ask. Six years after Mayor Michael Bloomberg successfully persuaded the New York State Legislature to give him control of the nation's largest public school system, New Yorkers remain sharply split over the success or failure of that experiment.

Those divisions, centering around who can best make decisions about the education of 1.1 million students, will come to the fore in the coming year as the State Legislature prepares to decide whether to end mayoral control, modify it or keep it in its current form. Sixteen months before the law creating this system of school governance is set to expire, hearings already are taking place, reports are being written and positions taken. In short, lines are already being drawn.

THE LEGISLATURE'S TASK

The law creating mayoral control expires in June 2009. If the Legislature does nothing at all -- lets the date come and go without taking action -- mayoral control will end, and the schools will again be governed as they were from 1969 to 2002: by a central Board of Education appointed by the mayor and borough presidents and 32 elected community school boards.

On the other hand, the legislature could simply renew the current system as is -- without changes.

Many are seeking a middle ground: keeping mayoral control in its basic form but changing it to address some of the mayor's critics, who have chastised how Bloomberg has controlled the schools. Parents, politicians, educators and others variously call for more checks and balances and a greater role for parents.

"I have never seen a time when parents felt more put off," said Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer. He would like to see some changes. But, he continued, "I don't think we should end mayoral control....Having a strong leader works." And he said, "There's a lot of creativity at [the Department of Education] and looking outside of the box."

Although the administration, according to Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott, will be talking with the legislature about school governance, it backs the system and wants it continued. "People say, "We really don’t want to go back to the old system, but…' What is the but? The but is always key," Walcott said, adding, "we strongly believe in the system of mayoral control."

HOW WE GOT HERE

The New York City schools has been organized and reorganized many times since the State Legislature created an elected New York City School Board in 1842. That system ended in 1871, when William Marcy a.k.a. Boss Tweed persuaded the legislature to launch mayoral control.

Since then, the system has veered from centralization to decentralization and back again several times. Demands for community control, largely from black and Latino communities, in the 1960s sparked the decentralization of 1969 with its elected community school boards. That ended in 2002.

The new system abolished the Board of Education, replacing it with a largely powerless Panel for Educational Policy controlled by the mayor. The mayor gained the power to appoint the chancellor, and Community Education Councils, consisting of parents, replaced community school boards.

In turning authority over to Bloomberg, New York joined a number of other cities, including Boston and Chicago. And Bloomberg has encouraged other mayors to follow his example. With his support, the mayors of Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles won major changes in how their schools are run.

TAKING THE REINS

Whatever one thinks of mayoral control, the push for it was spurred by widespread frustration over the failure of the old Board of Education to provide a sound education to many children, particularly in low income and black and Latino communities. Elected officials vied with each other for power, special interests staked out their positions, and community school boards dissolved into internecine squabbling. As a result, the reasoning went, children suffered. Mayoral control would sweep that away, putting one person in charge and making him or her accountable to the voters for the successes and failures of the schools.

"It’s about accountability," said Walcott. "It's about focusing attention on schools directly and making sure we have results to show from it. And being able to respond to issues and question and not having people have to worry abut where they have to go to get a response. That's a direct result of control by the mayor."

Bloomberg has clearly been in charge. He appointed Joel Klein as chancellor, shaped the Panel for Educational Policy to his liking (and got rid of members when they balked) and instituted an array of changes in the school system: tying promotion to test scores, requiring more standardized tests, closing many poorly performing large high schools, opening dozens of new small schools, establishing a uniform curriculum, changing the funding formula for schools, and on and on.

Bloomberg has even reorganized the reorganization. After centralizing the system -- so much so that teachers complained bureaucrats from the Department of Education told them how to arrange their bulletin boards -- he shifted power to principals, giving them greater autonomy over hiring and budgets. And after establishing 10 educational regions in 2003 to supplant the community school district, he did away with them in 2007 saying, "their job is done."

CHANGE FOR BETTER....

While always being careful to note that more remains to be accomplished, administration officials believe their efforts have been a success, citing significant progress in test scores, the dropout rate, discipline and numerous other measures. The Citywide Performance Report unveiled by Bloomberg last week looked at 48 indicators in the area of education and found only two (English language learners testing out of special programs after three years and building ratings for schools in fair to poor condition) to be declining and those by only a small amount. Reporting on an education department survey of parents, teachers and students last year, Bloomberg noted that 90 percent of the parents who responded were satisfied or very satisfied with their children's teachers and said the results showed a "generally high level of approval among parents."

"It's important to put this in context," Walcott said. "The system that preceded mayoral control was in existence for 38 to 40 years… This system of control has been in place for roughly six years, and we have shown significant results in that very short term frame."

The applause goes beyond the administration itself to much of the city's media and its business community.

Calling mayoral control a "quantum leap forward," Kathryn Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City, a business group, credits the change with getting businesses involved in the schools and keeping middle class people in the five boroughs. Wylde reportedly opposes any effort to modify the system, fearing the State Legislature would start tinkering and not know when to stop. "That's a horrifying prospect," Wylde has said. "I would venture to say that if that happened, it would trigger a mass exodus of corporations from New York City."

In 2007, the school system won the Broad Prize for Urban Education, awarded by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation to "large urban school districts that demonstrate the greatest overall performance and improvement in student achievement while reducing achievement gaps among poor and minority students. " And editorials, particularly in the Daily News and the New York Post, have praised Bloomberg and Klein for taking control and boosting achievement.

...OR WORSE

Anyone who attended a teachers union forum in the northeast Bronx earlier this month would have come away with a sharply different picture. Speaker after speaker, including parents, teachers and some students, stood up to denounce a system that they charged ignores educators, puts too much emphasis on standardized tests and neglects the arts and social development.

Academic experts echo some of these concerns.

Diane Ravitch, probably the leading historian of education in the country and a professor at NYU, has emerged as a leading critic of mayoral control. Few people inside or outside New York City, she has written, "realize mayoral control means that there are no public boards, no central board, no local boards, no public voice whatever. The mayor controls everything. Decisions are made behind closed doors by a cadre of lawyers, with no public discussion or public review…. All democratic governance has been eliminated from public education in NYC."

This form of management, Ravitch continued, has supposedly created a miracle in city school. But, she wrote, "Unfortunately there is no such miracle…. Parents, teachers, and student know it. The editorial writers in NYC don't. The business community doesn't."

The skeptics on mayoral control have their polling data too. The department's survey omitted any questions on overall school policies, because officials said, they wanted to focus on individual schools. So Class Size Matters, an advocacy group, commissioned a telephone survey of a representative cross-section of 604 parents and invited other parents to respond on-line. In response to questions on mayoral control, less than 30 percent of the random sample and 20 percent of the other group wanted to continue the system in its current format, with the largest percentage of respondents from both groups wanting to "modify the current system."

"Mayoral control simply gave control to this administration to make whatever changes the administration wanted," said Carmen Colon, a parent and education activist. "There's simply no other side. It's their way or the highway."

Colon attributes some of the support for the changes to the education department's large public relations operation that has succeeded in shaping the media's perception of the changes. "Their perception becomes the reality," she said. But Colon added, "For parents, it's a completely different reality."

MODIFYING THE SYSTEM

Few, if any, concrete proposal have emerged yet for changing mayral control. However, as they begin to examine governance, many elected officials say they would seek changes to address some overarching concerns.

Consulting Parents

"Parent involvement has been wiped out," said City Councilmember Robert Jackson, chair of the education committee.

Colon believes the law intended to involve parents. It just hasn't turned out that way. "In terms of the state law, parental involvement was one of the key elements to make the law work," she said. "But it was vague enough so that [education department] attorneys could come in and put their own spin on it."

Parents also complain of not knowing where to go for information and help. "There's a blurriness as to who parents should call and reach out to," said Councilmember James Vacca, one of the three co-chairs of the council's working group on governance (see box).

Walcott counters that parents are notified and consulted. To keep parents better informed, he said, the administration created the role of parent coordinator in almost every school in the city and appointed Martine Guerrier, herself a public school parent, as the department's first chief family engagement officer.

Checks And Balances

The alleged lack of consultation does not extend only to parents. "When my office interacts with the Department of Education, they're almost gleeful when we're not included in a meeting," Stringer said. "This is a world unto itself... I think the building went to their head.... It looks like a fortress," giving rise to a fortress mentality.

Under the old system, the borough presidents appointed some members of the Board of Education. And in communities across the city, people elected community school boards. "It didn’t mean there were a whole lot of people who elected us," Carmen Alvarez of the United Federation of Teachers and who once served on a board recalled. "But it was a very interactive democratic process."

To many people the key challenge in fixing governance is restoring some of that democracy -- but avoiding the chaos and dysfunction.

Walcott though denies such a change is needed. Already, he said, the administration consults with community groups, the Panel for Educational Policy, community education councils and other groups "We firmly believe -- and we believe the system is set up for -- major consultation taking place," Walcott said. "A lot of times people may not agree but at least they know who they disagree with."

"In the past," he said, "you didn’t know who the final decision maker was and if you knew it wasn't always in the best interest of the entire city. It may have been what was in the best interest of a small part of the city."

Critics see the existing review groups as rubber stamps, if that. And they argue, the administration resists supervision from City Council, ignoring legislation passed by the council a that would allow student to have (but not use) cell phones in schools and instituted an anti-bullying initiative.

To correct this, they offer a number of remedies, such as giving City Council more authority on education, establishing fixed terms for members of the educational policy panel, who now serve at the pleasure of whoever appointed and changing the composition of the group.

The Business of Education

In calling for more controls on the department, some parents and others complain the Department of Education at Tweed Courthouse is run more like a business than a government education system.

"There's a corporate structure where decisions are being made without consultation," Jackson said. This results, some parents and teachers contend, in students being treated more like widgets -- whose progress can be measured on a precise numerical scale -- than as human beings.

Many teachers, in particular, say educators would know better, but they note that Klein is a former corporate and government lawyer who has only the most minimal teaching background. "We have the largest educational system in America and it’s being run by non-educators. How is that possible?" Pascual Peloso, the UFT chapter leader at Walton High School said at the Bronx forum.

Transparency

While the administration regularly produces reports demonstrating the huge strides the system has taken, some experts question the data, particularly on rising test scores. In his critique of mayoral control, Sol Stern of the Manhattan Institute accused the education department of distorting test score data. "Without transparency, real accountability doesn't exist," Stern wrote. To address this, Stern calls for a "guarantee that that an independent research agency will be created and properly funded."

Even if the numbers and ratings isued by the education department are valid, they can be difficult to understand. According to Vacca, parents are confronted with an array of often conflicting data, with the city report cards, state Schools Under Registration Review and federal No Child Left Behind systems all assessing schools differently. "There's no independent analysis as to how a school is doing," Vacca said. "As we discuss governance, you have to discuss verifiable information a parent can have."

DOES IT MATTER?

It is far too early to know what kind of school governance system will emerge from the coming months of discussion.

Vacca, for one, sees a number of questions left to be answered. "Do we have mayoral control or municipal control?" he asked. "Should we empower the City Council for example?" Should the city once again have community superintendents, which he said, many people feel "was not a bad model." And what about the fate of the local bodies, the Community Education Councils, and the school leadership teams, the committees made up of parents, administration, teachers and students in every school, which still exist but have less power than they once did?

The governance issue, along with budgets, will probably dominate the education news during the year ahead. But is this the discussion we really should be having? Does this make a difference?

Perhaps not. Looking at the country as a whole, results of mayoral control seem mixed. New York City's test scores have shown some improvement but so have test scores in Rochester and Syracuse, which did not see a shift to mayoral control. And Stern contends that the advances in test scores in the city predate mayoral control. Looking at national figures, different academic draw different conclusions about the impact of mayoral control.

"I'm not sure that it doesn't matter," said Josh Karan, a long time education activist and member of the District 6 Education Council. "We need to focus on the core values of education. Only then can structure have some impact."

Whatever happens, Mayor Michael Bloomberg will not control education in this city after 2009. And what will that mean?

"I think this mayor has done an outstanding job in making it work, but if you're really for this system you're for it and you're for it for the right reason, not based solely on personalities," said Walcott.

Stringer believs that whoever is sworn in as mayor in 2010 could have an even greater impact on school governance than the legislature in 2009. "The next mayor has to look at how parents interact with the system," he said.

Or as Karan put it, "is the problem mayoral control or control by this mayor?"

Previous Articles School Governance

Reorganizing the Schools (Again) (January 2007)
Another round of adjustments to the city's school system announced by Mayor Michael Bloomberg would give principals more power, reform tenure and change the school funding formula.

Parents Grading School (July 24, 2006)
An education department official describes the school system's plan to start asking parents, teachers and students how they rate city schools.

Grading Students, Grading Schools (June 5, 2006)
Since the advent of mayoral control, the Department of Education has increasingly relied on standardized exams as an indication of a school's performance and of the state of the nation's largest school system.

Giving Principals More Control (June 2006)
In the second radical reorganization of the school system since 2002, hundreds of city principals have been gives far more autonomy.

Hang Up on Parents (May 22, 2006)
The ban on cell phones in schools heightened complaints that mayoral control shuts parents and others out of any meaningful involvement in school decision-making.

After Mayoral Control, Rivals Call for More Changes (August 2005)
School governance in the 2005 mayoral campaign.

Setbacks and Successes for Community Education Councils (July 2005)
A look at one of the local structures that replaced community school boards.

Entering the Autonomy Zone (March 2005) Are more autonomous schools more successful schools?

School Reforms (July 5, 2004)
Assessing the first full year of Bloomberg and Klein's program to dramatically change the New York City school system

Gearing Up for Changes (July 2003)
The school system tries to put all the new programs into effect before students start school.

Mayor's Education Plan Challenged (June 2003)
Opponents go to court in an effort to block some aspects of mayoral control

Shaking Up the School System
Education officials begin implement the "Children First" agenda.

The Mayor's Plan for Schools (Jan. 20,2003)
Bloomberg unveils the biggest changes in New York City schools in 30 years, turning a decentralized one into a centralized one.

The New Chancellor (August 2002)
Mayor Michael Bloomberg appoints lawyer Joel Klein to run the nation's largest public school system.

Hope and Fear for City Schools (Nov. 11, 2002)
The late Jill Chaifetz wondered what mayor control would mean for city students.

Major Changes for City Schools (Oct. 14, 2002)
Newly appointed chancellor Joel Klein lays out his approach to shaking up the school system

Improving the Schools (July 29, 2002)
The mayor won a big victory when he convinced the legislature to give him control of schools. Now comes the hard part.

School Control (May 20, 2002)
Irving Hamer, a former member of the city Board of Education, looks at the shortcomings of mayoral control.

Elect the Board of Education (May 20, 2002)
The former head of the principals union presents another alternative.

Community School Boards' Uncertain Future (May 20, 2002)
What mayoral control might mean for 32 local school boards.

Mayoral Control (March 2002)
Newly elected Mayor Michael Bloomberg presses the state legislature to give him control of city schools.

NYC Issues 2001: Education Overview
Mayoral control as a key issue in the 2001 campaign.

 


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