Mayor de Blasio visits a school (photo: Rob Bennett/Mayor's Office)
With the announcement that Carmen Fariña will retire in early this new year, Mayor de Blasio has an opportunity to improve the way that New York City public schools are governed, and he should take this chance.
Many New Yorkers have lost their patience with the mayor on this important issue. In addition to Fariña’s retirement news, we learned just one day earlier that the DOE spent a mind-blowing 600 million taxpayer dollars to improve just 94 struggling schools over three years. Only 21 schools improved enough to shed the label, despite $2 million per year per school, on top of regular school funding! Tangible results are hard to find at the Renewal Schools, de Blasio’s signature school improvement program.
Further, thousands of Renewal Schools children, their parents, and hard-working teachers all around the city also learned that their educational futures would abruptly change via a cornucopia of closures, mergers, and truncations upon which the mayor’s Panel for Educational Policy will vote.
In District 3’s Harlem neighborhoods, where two such Renewal Schools exist, one of them is being punished while the other gets another year to show progress. Our elected council of parent keeps asking for answers to contradictions like these and keeps finding a common problem: mayoral control of city schools without mayoral responsibility.
The most recent two-year extension of mayoral control in Albany was hailed as a victory for school governance, but it was, as usual, peppered with backroom deals allowing recycling of revoked charters and increasing the city’s financial obligations for charter school operations. In the weeks prior to the deal, advocates for mayoral control painted a bleak picture of what would befall New York City children if Albany failed to extend it.
But a simple question remains unanswered – indeed, unasked – from the original mayoral control debate under Mayor Bloomberg: If the mayor has control, for what are the mayor, the schools chancellor, and district superintendents responsible beyond daily operations and basic accountability for the overall system?
As the elected parent leaders of Community District 3 in Manhattan, we consider this question urgent. Many districts suffer from the question of local accountability; there can be circular finger-pointing among superintendents, principals, and the DOE. Many of the school communities we represent face a crisis not of their own making and for which the Department of Education has taken little responsibility.
In the northernmost part of our district, zoned elementary schools have seen a drop in their enrollment of a full third in the past decade. Leadership under successive mayors has not led to a dramatic renewal of these public schools, but a systematic hollowing out of their enrollment and place in our community.
This is not accidental. Under Mayor Bloomberg, charter schools proliferated through cooperation between his office and charter-friendly politicians in Albany. Today, parents across the city face a wide array of school options, but choice has ballooned in geographic clusters that correlate directly with racially segregated neighborhoods. In District 3’s Harlem neighborhoods, just 36 city blocks, parents send their children to more than 60 different school options inside and outside of the district.
District 3 is not even the most impacted by this failing governance structure. In the South Bronx and all over Brooklyn, public school leaders, parents, and other stakeholders face the same conundrum.
School choice was promised to improve all of our schools through competition, but the results have been far from that. In fact, the lack of transparency surrounding charter schools makes it almost impossible for school districts to predict enrollment, manage their administrations, and develop long term plans. We essentially have a de facto two-school system Department of Education, and that must end.
Across the city, zoned schools in heavily chartered neighborhoods have higher percentages of high-needs children than a decade ago; far higher, in fact, than the surrounding charter schools. Furthermore, district schools are left to “compete” in this complex environment with no assistance from the Department of Education, which leaves principals to “market” themselves with whatever they can shoestring together from already overstretched budgets.
Meanwhile, charter networks such as Success Academy spend lavishly on marketing consultants and direct mail campaigns to attract applicants. And they deliver this marketing via third party transactions that tap into student and family residential information that the DOE licenses, yet won’t provide to traditional public schools for the same purpose. The playing field to compete for students is not level, and nobody in the mayor’s office or DOE is taking responsibility for it, preferring to leverage dwindling enrollments by school mergers, closures, and truncations without looking at key underlying problems.
And the promised systemic improvements to all of our schools? It is nowhere to be seen.
While some charter networks boast high test scores, many do so by employing methods that would never be tolerated in our city’s high-performing schools largely attended by middle and upper middle class families.
Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg bragged in March 2012 to a panel in Washington, D.C. that his policies had cut the achievement gap between white students and students of color in half. However, using data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and from New York’s state exams, Dr. Aaron Pallas of Teachers College demonstrated that between 2003, just before Mayor Bloomberg’s reforms had been implemented, and 2011, the achievement gap demonstrated by the NAEP actually rose and the gap measured by state exams closed by a mere 1%.
Mayor de Blasio, not an ally of charter schools, did not initiate this problem, but he does own it. That is the meaning of mayoral control. It is about the roots of school governance, school choice, and school quality.
The parents in District 3 are tired of this situation. If the mayor is going to have control of our schools, then his office needs to engage in a serious, respectful, and sustained conversation with our community about what we truly need so that all our district schools are places where all children thrive. Moreover, he needs to take responsibility for helping them compete in the slick, professional marketing environment in which they exist. This cannot wait for another two years when Albany will go through yet another staged drama at our children’s expense, considering the new terms of extending mayoral control.
The search for the new New York City schools chancellor should factor in these critical issues as well. Before the mayor replaces Chancellor Fariña, we ask that he taps into our collective expertise. We need an educator, with a vision that will permeate to superintendents, an adroit manager, and someone who is willing to go deep into the structure for changes that will heal gaping fissures in the organization. New York City children deserve it.
by members of the District 3 Community Education Council
Kristen Berger; Manuel Casanova; Inyanga Collins; Daniel Katz; Lucas Liu; Michael McCarthy; Genisha Metcalf; Jean Moreland; Dennis Morgan; Yan Sun; and Kimberly Watkins (President).