What was supposed to be a formality to continue mayoral control of New York City's schools turned into a racially charged debate in the Senate over how fairly city children are educated.
The Senate's action today also resulted in a surprise: A new Democrat-led committee with subpoena power that will investigate Mayor Michael Bloomberg's operation of city schools.
Democratic Sen. Bill Perkins of Manhattan says the committee will be a check on what he called "mayoral dictatorship'' of the schools.
"The elephant in the room is race and class,'' said Perkins, who is black. "We obviously are in a tale of two cities. Part of our city is suffering, failing, public schools ... mayoral control is failing our children and creating a racially segregated school system.''
Sen. Shirley Huntley, a Queens Democrat, criticized one of the bill's prime sponsors, 29-year-old Democratic Sen. Daniel Squadron of Brooklyn, for pushing through education policy when he is "barely an adult himself.'' She noted the freshman's wife works in Bloomberg's Office of Operations, which she said gives him a vested interest in the bill.
Sen. Ruben Diaz, a Bronx Democrat, accused Bloomberg of "playing with the numbers'' to erroneously show that student performance improved faster than other urban school districts during the seven years of mayoral control.
Diaz said schools remain overcrowded and too many students are dropping out, while Democratic Sen. Eric Adams of Brooklyn said over zealous policing in schools is hurting good kids.
"I'm telling you today, the mayor has failed. He failed our children,'' Diaz saidSen. Martin Golden, a Brooklyn Republican, said he was amazed Squadron was attacked during the debate. Golden then noted that under mayoral control, standardized test scores rose 20 to 30 percentage points and crime in schools dropped 44 percent.
Democratic Sen. Carl Kruger of Brooklyn responded: "That was a paid political announcement by the Friends of Mike Bloomberg.''
Kruger was referring to the political and campaign financing alliance between the billionaire mayor and Republicans. His remarks reflected lingering animosity after the political struggle that gridlocked the chamber for a month, delaying action on measures including mayoral control until well into the summer break.
Kruger said the new committee will investigate operation of the schools "armed for hand-to-hand combat.''
"We are going to take information supplied to us and we will even, if necessary, hire our own investigators and auditors,'' Kruger said. "We will do what has to be done in order to expose what's happening in the department of education.''
The bill, approved 47-8 with seven absences, continues to make the mayor accountable for school performance, instead of school boards. The Assembly already passed the bill, and Gov. David Paterson supports it.
Bloomberg said the Senate "preserved a system of clear accountability for our schools that has produced clear and dramatic results for our students. With the governance question resolved, we can now move full steam ahead with efforts to ensure that this school year is marked by more great progress.''