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Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics


School Control


Everybody in New York seems to be talking about mayoral control of the schools these days, as if it were one of the most pressing issues in public education. In truth, it appears to be little more than a popular fad, with scarce evidence that putting the mayor directly in charge of the public school system will make much of a difference.

Those who are advocating for mayoral control berate school boards, teachers and administrators for failing to do what no society has ever done -- educate all the children. And they expect educators to accomplish this task in a 19th century setting -- the same school year, the same funding strategies, even some of the same physical facilities as a century ago -- as well as a low status profession that does not attract the best and the brightest because of horrible working conditions and unending criticism.

Mayoral control does not address these issues. My own research into school systems that have mayoral control, including Chicago, Cleveland, Washington D.C., and Boston, confirms that it offers little to no benefit to children and schools.

There is no more notable take-over of a school district than the one that occurred in Chicago in 1995. But this move was not dictated primarily by educational concerns. When school opened in September 1995, the Chicago system was literally bankrupt. It had no money in the bank to meet payroll. Frequent pleas to the state legislature for assistance were met with a demand for mayoral control. Indeed, if the Chicago public schools expected assistance from the state legislature, they had to turn control of the system over to the mayor. The Chicago business community echoed the refrain. After some haggling, the mayor gained control, and the infamous reform of the Chicago public schools was launched.

Depending on the data examined and the starting point for the review, some would say Chicago has made progress. To be fair, the fiscal viability of the schools has improved. However, on just about every other indicator, the city's school system remains at the bottom of the barrel.

There have been other important seizures of school systems: Newark, Jersey City, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Cleveland, Detroit, and Boston. The key assumption in each has been that accountability is synonymous with a change in governance and putting elected politicians in charge. But no elected politician has been run out of office because the public schools he or she controls have continued to languish and failed to improve achievement.

In nearly every one of the 19 school districts seized since 1988, a lack of funding has impeded progress. Money alone is not the silver bullet for educational improvement, but it is essential. Mayors in the seized school districts should have used their control to fill schools with high quality, well-paid teachers and counselors. None of the districts controlled by mayors can claim that teachers have become better qualified or better paid as a result of the shift.

In fact, none of these districts has solved the overall problem of funding. The rumble in Philadelphia's education jungle is a case in point. Inadequate funding of the public schools by city hall and the state legislature was at the center of the battle. Superintendent David Hornbeck was forced to resign. But his replacement, a corporate executive installed by the mayor, soon denounced the inadequate support for the system.

In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is clamoring for control of the schools, has actually cut the school operating budget by seven percent and the budget for new construction, equipment and renovations by 20 percent. If school systems do not get more resources with mayoral control what do they get?

Raising achievement occurs in the classroom, in the one-on-one intimate relationship between student and teacher. But administration does play a role. And so, a review of the Board of Education, its membership, function, responsibilities and structure should take place in this time of great debate about public education.

The history of the Board of Education in New York City dates back to the 19th century. Since then, a number of structures -large and small, appointed and elected -- have been tried and failed. The current structure of a board appointed by the borough presidents and mayor was established in the mid 1970s.

We should retain a Board of Education appointed by these officials. But the new board should be more professional, with members carefully screened to insure that they can craft educational policy and be outspoken and effective advocates for public education

From the changes to the board in the wake of the Boss Tweed scandals of the 19th century to the decentralization movement of 1969 and the retreat from that in 1996, school governance has always been reformed in a political context. Consequently, the current structure is a product of backroom politics and deals. Now the time has arrived to reform the board with a view toward what is best for children and for schools.

The people serving on the board, their qualifications and independence should be reviewed. Developing educational policy for a complex, multi-site and multi-billion dollar public education system should be considered an undertaking worthy of eminent and intelligent people. This is not the case today when many members of the part-time board have neither the time nor the expertise to craft policies for our city's schools.

The members of the Board of Education must be able to set the standard for what public education ought to be in the City of New York. They should stimulate and maintain meaningful public involvement by parents, community groups, faith-based organizations, businesses, and colleges. The board would forge alliances to help teachers and administrators improve the performance of students and schools. As part of its duties, the board would hold an annual summit, reporting on the state of education in the city.

Today's board functions all too often as a setting for resolving political disputes. The new board should serve as a professional center of educational excellence, advocacy and pedagogical, moral and intellectual leadership. The members should be respected for their educational acumen and achievements rather than for their political alliances.

To accomplish this, there must be criteria for board membership. Ideally, some of the professional educational policy makers on the Board of Education would be parents with children in the public school system. In addition, they should have at least a master's degree or equivalent experience; have experience in a large organization or as a distinguished activist; be professionally accomplished in their chosen field; and be strong advocates for public education.

A seven-member panel would screen candidates for board membership to ensure that they meet these standards. Mayoral appointees would have to be ratified by the full City Council, and borough presidents' appointments by the council members from their borough. No such process for reviewing appointee exists today. Board members would serve for a maximum of two years, instead of the current four-tear term.

There is no need for another placebo. Education is desperate for champions in City Hall, in the City Council, and in Albany who are willing to attend to the most pressing needs of school districts.

Irving Hamer, Jr. is a member of the New York City Board of Education, appointed by Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields in 1998. He is a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Elect The Board Of Education, by Jill Levy

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