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Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics


Time to Reform Mayoral Control

BDB classroom

Mayor de Blasio visits a classeoom (photo: AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

On May 12, a Quinnipiac poll was released showing that two to one, New York City voters believe that the mayor should share control over our public schools with other elected officials. On Tuesday, Public Advocate Letitia James issued a report, calling for improvements to ensure sufficient checks and balances and more parent input in school governance. We agree.

We belong to NYC Kids PAC, an organization of experienced parent leaders and advocates that recently released an education report card for Mayor Bill de Blasio. Despite numerous pledges made during his campaign to be more transparent , more accountable, and to empower parents, we found that the mayor has not fulfilled many of his promises in these areas. Our findings provide convincing evidence that the current system of mayoral control needs to be reformed.

The grades the Mayor received were decidedly mixed, ranging from “A” and “A-“ on cell phones, school closings, and arts education; to a “B” on testing; and a “D” on co-locations, parent engagement and special education. He received an “F” on class size, transparency and accountability, and diversity.

Mayoral control has also led to little actual progress in student learning. Class Size Matters analyzed the change in student test scores on the NAEPs, the most reliable of all standardized exams, given by the federal government to a random sample of students in the ten largest school districts. When gains in student test scores since mayoral control are disaggregated by race, ethnicity, and economic status, it is apparent that New York City schools come out second to last in improved performance.

While it is often argued that under the previous system there was waste and corruption, in February the Department of Education proposed a $650 million contract be given to Computer Consultant Services, a company that had been involved in a kick-back scheme just a few years ago. A special investigator had found that the company defrauded the DOE of millions of dollars by inflating its billing. Only after the Panel for Educational Policy approved this new contract and the media raised a ruckus did City Hall cancel it.  

The city’s education budget is no more transparent than under Bloomberg, according to the Independent Budget Office. Freedom of Information requests are responded to no more quickly, and the DOE still refuses to provide accurate figures on how many kids are housed in trailers, including thousands of high school students and hundreds of students with disabilities who attend classes in these substandard structures. A task force appointed by the DOE made recommendations in December to improve the accuracy of the school utilization formula used to assess overcrowding, but these proposals have still not been released.

In January, the DOE claimed in court that School Leadership Teams, composed of half parents and half staff at every school, had only advisory powers, and therefore their meetings could be closed to the public. After the Public Advocate and Class Size Matters intervened on behalf of a retired teacher who had been excluded from one of these meetings, a New York State Supreme Court judge concluded that the city’s position was wrong on both counts. Yet the DOE is now appealing this decision.

As in the previous administration, parents continue to have little input. Systemic issues raised by parent leaders are often dismissed or go unanswered. The views of elected Community Education Councils and School Leadership Teams are not consulted before important decisions are made.

One CEC president said, “CECs still lack a seat at the table in planning what happens in their respective districts. The new engagement is additional phone calls…We're still toothless lions when it comes down to any real power.” Another concluded, “As it stands, CECs are largely ignored by the DOE.  When we write resolutions they go unanswered. When we give input at hearings our input is ignored.”

More checks and balances are desperately needed. Community Education Councils and School Leadership Teams must have more voice when it comes to space planning, co-locations, and school closings. The legal authority of SLTs should be recognized and they should be further empowered to develop the school-based budget.

In addition, there needs to be a truly independent Board of Education which is not dominated by mayoral appointees as the PEP is. Optimally, their members should be elected, as occurs in more than 95 percent of the school districts across the country.  

Alternatively, the City Council should be provided with more authority over education policies. Currently the Council has the ability to make law for every other city agency except for the Department of Education.  Absolute power does not work at the federal, state, or local level. It leads to poor policies and encourages corruption. It certainly does not work when it comes to our public schools.

Leonie Haimson is Executive Director of Class Size Matters and Shino Tanikawa is President of NYC Kids PAC