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Opinion

Opinion

In Charge and Unaccountable


I am a grassroots kind of guy. I believe that the best systems of governance welcome the participation of stakeholders. Good governance is open, and has debate and dialogue, clear lines of accountability and reasonable grievance procedures for resolving differences. Mayoral control of the city's public schools has not achieved these basic goals.

Additionally, because the chancellor is answerable only to the mayor, the children of New York City have, in some ways, lost their strongest advocate. No longer independent of the mayor's budgetary priorities, the chancellor's willingness to fight for school funding has been compromised by the ability of the mayor to hire and fire the chancellor and by the mayor's relationship with the governor and state Legislature.

Arguably, the best features of mayoral control should be on the business side (the Department of Education has the largest budget of any city department at more than $18 billion). In fact in several cities that have adopted mayoral control, the impetus was financial accountability. We should see efficiencies in procurement and operations. What I am seeing from my dual perspective as chairman of the New York City Council's Education Committee and as the lead plaintiff in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit, which stimulated the recent influx of education funding, is a distressing mix of privatization of basic functions and no-bid contracts.

For example, two and a half years ago I chaired a council hearing that explored a number of no bid contracts entered into by the Department of Education. We looked hard at the $15.8 million contract that went to Alvarez & Marsal, a global consulting firm based in New York City, to find cost savings through restructuring. That firm's recommendations on school transportation were implemented in the dead of winter in the coldest weather we'd had in a long while, leaving kids standing outdoors in below freezing temperatures while the kinks in the new plan were worked out. Some of my constituents complained, and rightly so, about glaring errors like student pick-up times scheduled after the start of the school day. It was an outrage.

And what were the long-term savings brought by this no bid contract? It's very hard to say because of the lack of transparency in the department's budget. I can only tell you that the department's transportation budget went up $52.5 million between fiscal year 2008 and the current fiscal year.

The City Council looked hard at that contract, but there was little we could do. Since education law is STATE law, the Department of Education always says that it is accountable only to the state. Quite frankly, I don't think the Assembly members and senators from upstate counties should really be that involved -- at the detail level -- in the oversight of the New York City schools. City residents are the stakeholders here, and city government is where oversight, compliance and enforcement should rest.

Accountable to No One

In 2005 the City Council passed legislation that required the education department to submit an annual report on the number of substandard or temporary classrooms and the number of students in them. After initial compliance, we received a letter saying that the department would not provide the data.

The Department of Education does not comply with state mandates either. Classes are not supposed to be held in rooms without windows. Yet 18 percent of principals responding to a recent survey (you can view the responses here) indicated that one or more classrooms in their schools were windowless. And this was no small sample – these principals represent 41 percent of the city's student body. Physical education instruction is provided for less than one hour per week in 47 percent of the responding schools. Our schools are not up to state mandated instructional standards in art, science or health either. When I asked the Department of Education how many classes received health instruction from uncertified teachers, it could not answer even though there were only 200 certified instructors for this subject in the entire system. But no sanctions or reprimands are issued when the department fails to meet the state standards.

Sometimes this failure is colossal. As the council readies to vote on the Department of Education's new $11.3 billion capital plan, it is worth pondering how our current governance structure deals with the department's refusal to meet state standards.

Contracting Excellence

Back in 1991, when Michael Rebell and I started the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, overcrowded schools and large classes were characteristic of New York City, particularly in Community School District 6 where I was the school board president. I now represent parts of the same area in the City Council.

Fifteen years later, the lawsuit at last produced something tangible: the Contract for Excellence. In this historic agreement the state requires that the city's five-year capital plans be aligned with the standards specified in the Contract for Excellence.

But currently, the five-year capital plan is not aligned with the Contract for Excellence Standards. For example, the Contract for Excellence agreement calls for classes of 23 students in middle schools and high schools; the capital plan provides for classes of 28 as its benchmark for upper elementary and middle schools and sets 30 as the high school cap, falling far short of the contract standard and way below the recommendations put forth by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity. The department consistently puts two teachers in one classroom and calls it "class size reduction."

Now, I have what I consider to be a sound, basic education. I didn't go to Harvard, and I don't have a graduate degree, but I am educated enough to know that "reducing teacher-student ratio through team teaching strategies" is NOT the same thing as reducing class size.

When the Council is asked to approve a plan that violates state law, we are between a rock and a hard place: a NO vote stops all capital work; a YES vote approves a plan that violates state law. Clearly this is not only an inadequate capital plan, but an inadequate governance structure that encourages the Council to be a rubber stamp for mayoral failure to adhere to state law. But how many council members have the political will to completely stop all school repairs and construction in order to force the mayor to comply with state law?

Governance should not be dependent on the popularity or personality of an individual office holder. The quality of governance should not be judged solely by the test results or graduation rates it produces (and there is some evidence that these numbers are suspect). It needs to be a system that also produces excellent, motivated teachers and supervisors; a system that produces engaged students; it must endure changes in demographics and weather dips in the economy -- what's going to happen to all the basics that are being funded by private contributions now? And most importantly, it must answer to the constituents it serves and not the single vision or political fortunes of the mayor of the city of New York.

I urge the state to move toward a governance system that rests on the broadest possible base with the greatest degree of accountability, transparency and community involvement.

Councilmember Robert Jackson has represented the neighborhoods of West Harlem; parts of Washington Heights, Inwood, Central Harlem and Morningside Heights since 2002. He is the chair of the council's Education Committee and co-founder of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity. He is also the parent of three daughters, all of who attended PS/IS 187 in Community School District 6, where he served on the Community School Board for fifteen years.

Making Joel Klein Behave


When I was an assistant principal a teacher often would send a kid into my office when he was misbehaving. I'd threaten to bring his mother up to school, and he'd promise not to be "bad" anymore.

For six years the Joel Klein administration at the Department of Education has been promising not to be "bad" anymore.

Last November a constituent came into my community office. Her son had a disability and had been in special ed classes his whole school career. When he started high school, he was not put into a Special Education class. So, he was failing all his classes and getting into increasing difficulties. When she complained to the school she was told there was "no room in the special ed classes." She called the city's "311" non-emergency hotline and was told the same thing.

After three decades as a teacher and assistant principal, I knew who to call -- and did -- and the school reluctantly placed the student in the correct class.

Another parent applied to the new small schools housed in what had previously been a large high school across the street from her home, but her child wasn't accepted to any of the schools. "Too bad," said the department. "You can appeal, but we rarely uphold appeals, and, it's only a 45-minute bus ride to the assigned school.'

When my colleague, Linda Rosenthal, who represents the Upper West Side of Manhattan, asked a Klein staffer why the department failed to plan for the sharp increase in kids entering school, the staffer went on and on about demographic studies. Linda responded, "Why didn't you count baby strollers?"

These incidents, and other like them, point to an overall problem with the city's running of its school system.

As a member of the State Assembly, serving on the Education Committee, I should be able to communicate with appropriate department officials in regard to department polices, information, school data -- the information necessary to formulate legislation. My experience has been that the department dissembles, ignores and marginalizes parents; it has been with a department that is simply arrogant. Attempts to get information about schools in our district are shunted to the press office.

The current system isn't working. Klein keeps promising not to be "bad," without changing any behavior. It's time for the legislature to impose changes.

Fixing the Problems

While some of my colleagues call for allowing mayoral control to expire, I believe the mayor should retain control, but with significant changes to the law.

-- Members of the Panel for Educational Policy, a.k.a the central board, should be appointed after vetting by a screening mechanism, similar to how local bar associations screen judicial candidates. They should then be selected by the mayor, borough presidents, the public advocate and the speaker of the City Council. The mayor should appoint five members of the panel for fixed terms, and every borough president and the City Council speaker should each appoint one member. The mayor also should name the chancellor.

-- An independent organization with subpoena powers should be formed. It should release regular reports on student achievement and fiscal data, and be jointly led by the state commissioner of education and the state comptroller. All Department of Education student data, with appropriate protection to ensure confidentiality, should be available to the public for research purposes.

-- Community and high school superintendents should actively monitor student progress, meet regularly with parents and community representatives and supervise all school staff under their purview.

-- Community Education Councils, a.k.a. Community School Boards, should participate in the selection of superintendents and principals. They should evaluate the performance of the superintendents and make recommendations to the chancellor. They also should be consulted in a timely manner on all zoning issues such as the opening and closing of all schools, including charter schools. Each district should maintain a District Leadership Team that complies with state Department of Education regulations. School and district leadership teams should be able to appeal decisions of the chancellor to the state commissioner of education, who would then resolve complaints in an expedited fashion.

While the chancellor likes to call the former Community School Board system a "failed system," he is incorrect. Some schools districts were models of parent and community involvement with superb student achievement while others were dismal failures.

-- An independent Office of Parent and Community Advocacy should be created to resolve parent issues and complaints, train parent school leaders and act as a liaison with community organizations.

It is time to change the law, to remind the mayor and the chancellor that children and families are not widgets. The system must both respond to them and involve them so that Klein can finally uphold his promise not to be "bad" anymore.

 

Alan Maisel, a former schoolteacher and assistant principal, is a Democratic member of the State Assembly, representing District 59 in Brooklyn.

The Limits of Democracy


The vote in Albany deciding whether or not to reauthorize the law giving the mayor control of New York City's public schools is approaching quickly. A vociferous effort by defenders of the old system has recently dampened the support for keeping the power in the mayor's hands.

Opponents of reauthorization -- including the teachers' union and many Bloomberg administration critics -- have won the most ground with their argument that mayoral control is undemocratic. But there is a difference between a democratic political system and a democratically run bureaucracy. New Yorkers shouldn't let such arguments persuade them to return to the bad old days, when no one was responsible for the city's schools.

The Bad Old Days

The old system of an appointed, unaccountable Board of Education bred a culture of inaction and crippled Gotham's schools. Though opponents of reauthorization say that they don't want to go back to that exact system, for all practical purposes their proposed "tweaks" to the law would do that.

Mayoral control broke the stagnation produced by an unaccountable system. While some may still disagree with Mayor Michael Bloomberg's specific reforms, there is little doubt that mayoral control has been essential in moving education reforms forward.

Despite the allegations of those opposed to reauthorization of the current law, there is nothing inherently undemocratic about the mayor controlling a large city bureaucracy like the school system. After all, the mayor controls other city services -- police, fire, sanitation and others -- with little complaint that his power is dictatorial. Of course, public schools have a uniquely democratic purpose in providing children with the knowledge they need to be effective and productive citizens. But that hardly means that day-to-day school operations must be governed democratically.

As in other policy areas, democracy's role in education is to put in place representatives who reflect the will of the people and hold those policymakers accountable for their cumulative decisions. Relying on such democratic processes to decide each individual policy is impractical and only leads to the stagnation and the poor results of Gotham's past.

The Parents' Part

Mayoral control does nothing to deny parents their essential role in education. Parents are in the best position to know what is best for their individual child. But, as with other government agencies on which we rely, the mayor is in the best position to make decisions that affect the broader education system.

That said, parents and communities do have a large stake in schools, and they should be consulted about important policies. But the mayor couldn't avoid communicating with them even if he wanted to. Those opposed to his school policies aren't exactly silent. Dissenting voices have spoken out against just about every policy the Bloomberg administration has pursued. While the mayor has the final word, he pays a political price when he goes against the true will of the people, and doing so takes a toll not only at the voting booth but in his ability to govern. Just because those opposed to recent reforms often have not gotten their way does not mean that they did not participate in the governing process.

Gotham's $18 billion school system, which operates more than 1,400 public schools, is a complex bureaucracy that requires a decision-making entity -- namely, the mayor. Mayoral control should be renewed.

Marcus Winters is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.






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