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Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics


Improving The Schools

In 1842, New York City created its first board of education. In 2002, Mayor Michael Bloomberg got it abolished. He then appointed seven members to a new educational policy panel, which replaces the board, and in an effort to stamp out the politics that has pervaded education in New York, declared, "I do not expect to see their names -- ever -- in the press answering a question either on the record or off the record."

In seven months in office, Bloomberg already has succeeded in doing what his three predecessors tried and failed to do: He gained control of the school system. He did the same thing with the School Construction Authority and also negotiated a new contract with the city's teachers. The ride has seemed so smooth that a member of his administration, Alan Gartner, could crow about it at a forum in June on education, joking that maybe we could "declare victory and go home."

Several hours after he made that quip, a New York State appeals court overturned what had been considered a clear victory for New York City education. A lower court had found that the state illegally deprives city students of their right to a sound education and so should give New York City more money for its schools. Now Judge Alfred Lerner wrote that the state does not have "to guarantee some higher, largely unspecified level of education." The equivalent of an eighth-grade education is sufficient, he said, adding, "society needs workers in all levels of jobs, the majority of which may be very low level."

The court's reversal was only the most dramatic sign that it is way too early to declare victory. The others are more routine: low test scores, concern about students never graduating from high school, and a long difficult road ahead for yet another schools chancellor, Joel Klein, appointed this week. Meanwhile, the budget crunch and Albany's power limit the mayor's ability to address these issues and many others confronting the city's 1.1 million public school students. Will the mayor's accomplishments so far make a difference to city school children? And, if not, is there anything he can do that will?


The litany of failure is familiar. Although the New York City school system boasts some excellent schools and outstanding teachers, three out of four city schools do not perform adequately, according to one report by the state Education Department. Seven out of ten eighth graders failed this year's state required reading exam, indicating they will find it difficult if not impossible to do high school work. Even though math scores have improved, about two thirds of youngsters in grade 3, 5, 6 and 7 fail to meet city standards.

Only half of New York City high school students graduate in four years and, after seven years, 30 percent still have not received a diploma. And that figure could rise with the state tightening the requirements for graduation.

Currently, 17 percent of the city's 80,000 teachers are not certified. The system needs 8,000 new teachers to be on the job by September. Of those, about 4,300 have already been hired, and outgoing Schools Chancellor Harold Levy said he expects the system to fill the remaining slots before school opens.

The problem gets worse farther up the ladder. Last spring, principals at about half the city's 1,100 schools had less than three years experience at that job, and more than 260 principals were eligible to retire in June. Finding replacements could be complicated. "There are not a lot of people who want to do this job," Hunter education professor Janet Patti told Education Week.

"So much of public life in New York City has improved in the last decade, but the public schools have not participated in the improvement," said a Manhattan Institute report this spring.

"Perhaps New York City is really two cities rather than one," Joseph Viteritti of New York University wrote last year. "There is one small city populated by the fortunate, who manage to send their children to the best public and private schools available. Then there is the larger city of the unfortunate whose children are routinely assigned to failing schools, frozen into a life of low expectations and meager opportunity."

The mayor vowed to change that. He has called education "the number one focus of my administration." "There are districts in our city where only 20 percent of the children do math and English at grade level. That is so unacceptable," he said.

Some 71 percent of New Yorkers are dissatisfied with the school system, according to a recent Quinnipiac University survey. But 64 percent of voters think Bloomberg will make "substantial progress" in improving schools in the next three years.


The mayor's chief remedy is that he be held accountable for the schools' success - or failure. "President Harry Truman had a sign on his desk that read: 'The Buck Stops Here," Bloomberg wrote earlier this year. "And I'll send exactly the same message by relocating the administration of the city's school system right next door to the mayor's office. Putting the city's new Department of Education close to the mayor . . . will demonstrate how important education really is to all New Yorkers.

The mayor has taken some concrete steps.

When he took office, negotiations between the city and the teachers, who had been without a contract since November, 2000, seemed acrimonious and unproductive. The new contract gives them a 16 percent pay hike, which the teachers union says will make the city more competitive with surrounding suburban districts. Chancellor Levy and the union say the contract has already helped ease the shortage of experienced, licensed teachers, making it easier for the system to fill vacancies this year than in past summers.

In return for the pay hike, the work week for teachers will increase by 100 minutes. But Bloomberg did not win other changes in work rules, including in so-called "Circular 6," which bars principals from putting teachers on lunchroom duty or performing other noninstructional tasks unless 75 percent of the teachers in the school approve. Principals believe this provision severely restricts their autonomy.

And the contract presents only a temporary respite. It expires on May 31, 2003, and Ron Davis, a spokesman for the United Federation of Teachers, said the union will want to begin negotiating prior to that.

In gaining control of the system and winning the right to appoint the chancellor, the mayor solved some problems and created new ones. First parts of the state law making the changes in governance are murky. Contrary to Bloomberg's wishes, it preserves a sort of board of education, called an educational policy panel, though it is unclear what it can do. "I don't think the legislation gives us a clear directive other than that the board should be less engaged and less engaging," Gartner said.

After the mayor, the real power lies with the chancellor. Originally Bloomberg reportedly wanted a corporate chief executive officer to fill the post. By mid July, the spotlight was on people who had run large government agencies or nonprofit organizations.

Every few days, a new name surfaced, only to be replaced by a new purported front runner a few days later. Retired AOL-Time Warner chief executive Gerald Levin. Onetime Deputy Mayor Nathan Leventhal. Barbara Byrd-Bennett, superintendent of the Cleveland schools. Stanley Brezenoff, another onetime deputy mayor. Even Yankee manager Joe Torre was floated.

In the end Bloomberg named someone who was largely absent from all the speculation: Joel Klein, who headed the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Justice Department for four years during the Clinton administration and launched the case that sought to break up Microsoft. More recently, Klein, a New York native, was in charge of U.S. operations for the German media conglomerate Bertlesmann A.G.

Klein has virtually no education experience -- he taught briefly -- but that did not appear to faze the mayor who said, ãThe real issue is can he manage people. He managed six or seven hundred lawyers. That's probably like herding cats, and if he can do that, he can certainly do this.ä

The four chancellors since 1990 all became enmeshed in political fights and unexpected controversies, ranging from the book "Heather Has Two Mommies" to school vouchers. "In order to take this job, you need fire in the belly," education consultant Beth Lief told the New York Times. "You get skewered by newspapers all over the place."

The law will eliminate the community school boards. Those who think many of the boards became "mini Tammany Halls" hail that move. But after they are gone, how can parents and community members be involved in the education system. Dennis Walcott, the deputy mayor with responsibility for education, says the administration is reviewing several ideas to make sure the voices of parents and community members are heard. No specific plan has been announced.

This worries some critics. "Parents are not going to have a say in their children's education now that Mayor Bloomberg has taken over the school board," one parent who was attending a Working Families Party demonstration to demand a parental role told the Daily News.

Despite all the debate how who control what, some experts say it does not matter much. Now-former Board of Education member Irving Hamer wrote in Gotham Gazette, that mayoral control "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."

Bloomberg aide Gartner acknowledged, "Governance was a beginning and maybe a necessary condition but not the answer" to the schools‰ problems. He noted that after the mayor took control in Chicago, for example, the system saved money but saw no increase in the high school graduation rate.


Bloomberg and his aides have provided few clues to what he plans to do with the control he fought so hard to get. He may figure that in education, as in other areas, he has appointed someone he believes can do the job -- and will now let him do it.

Gartner said that the mayor will soon lay out a series of goals focusing on what goes on in the classroom, such as the need to have qualified teachers and the work rules affecting teachers and principals.

The key issue, says Deputy Mayor Walcott, is not administrative issues, but what goes on in the classroom, particularly in failing schools.

Some 90 percent of the schools placed on the state's Schools Under Registration Review list for failing schools have been in New York City, even though the city accounts for only about one fifth of the total schools in the state. And that ignores the many failing city schools that do not make it on to the list.

If the mayor has a magic bullet for improving those schools, he has not revealed it. Common prescriptions include hiring and retaining strong teachers, giving principals more authority, allowing parents free choice of public schools to create a constructive competition. Ironically, one the few concrete moves the mayor has made so far in improving instruction focuses not on the poorly performing students, but on the top ones. Last spring, he announced plans for three new elite high schools on City University of New York campuses.


The system's problems can be at least partly traced to a money shortage, many school advocates argue. Although most concede the system could spend its money more wisely, they believe there simply is not enough to serve more than a million children, many of whom do not speak English or come from troubled families.

That is why, for example, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity filed suit seeking more funding for schools from the state.

Some observers think the city should come up with more money itself. "New Yorkers are going to have to look at the local share of the school budget," Ernest Tollerson of the New York City Partnership said. "Our argument for more state funding would be stronger if our local tax effort were greater."

It is on the issue of funding that Bloomberg has come in for the most criticism. In his budget, he initially called for cuts in spending on schools, although reductions in classroom programs were eventually averted partly because of state aid.

Throughout the budget debate, education advocates questioned how Bloomberg could call education his number one priority and not provide more money for it. At a June rally on school spending sponsored by the United Federation of Teachers and the Hip Hop Summit Action Network, rapper Chuck D told thousands of students, "You've got a mayor who's a billionaire who wants to take the opportunity away from you to become the same kind of person."

Most members of the City Council supported a tax surcharge to preserve education programs, particularly school construction, but Bloomberg staunchly opposed it. And while Bloomberg says he supports the Campaign for Fiscal Equity suit, many of its backers fault him for not trying to use his influence with Governor George Pataki to get the state to abandon its appeal of the trial court decision.

Meanwhile, the Independent Budget Office predicts that more cuts may be necessary as the year progresses.


Whatever plans Bloomberg has, Albany will exert powerful influence over what he can and cannot do.

The first conflict could come over Klein's appointment. The state commissioner of education must approve any candidate for chancellor who does not have a formal background in education. This derailed former Mayor Ed Koch's attempt to appoint his deputy mayor, Bobby Wagner, to run the city schools. City officials told the New York Times that Education Commissioner Richard Mills has indicated the state will respond quickly to the city's request to waive the requirement for education credentials in Klein's case.

New York state has been among the leaders in the country in setting standards for its curriculum and in testing to see how well students are learning that curriculum. City students take state mandated reading and math exams in fourth and eighth grade, as well as an array of less significant tests like a technology exam and a social studies assessment for eighth graders. For better or worse, these tests have become a high stakes game with students spending hours preparing for them, teachers altering their instruction to address them, and students, teachers and administrators worrying how scores will affect their futures.

For high school students, tests loom even larger. In 2000, the state began requiring that all students pass Regents exams in order to graduate. By 2005, students will have to pass five such tests. Since fewer than 50 percent of students now pass even one, some observers fear graduation rates will fall in the coming years - unless teaching improves or the tests get easier.

The state also oversees failing schools by identifying them and giving them special help. And it controls who can teach. In September 2003, all New York state teachers must have passed a licensing exam. Some 17 percent of city teachers are not certified, although about 90 percent of the teachers hired this summer do have their licenses.

However much the state controls education, the mayor has declared himself accountable, and it is he to whom New Yorkers will look to have improved the ailing system.


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