Mayoral Control of NYC Schools Up for Renewal

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has touted his stewardship of the city's sprawling public school system as a key achievement of his administration -- and a reason to re-elect him to a third term.
But before the November election, state lawmakers must decide whether to reauthorize the 2002 law that gave Bloomberg sweeping powers to reorganize the schools and hire his own chancellor to run them.
That law abolished the Board of Education and put the system's 1.1 million students squarely under the mayor's authority; it will expire June 30 unless the Legislature renews it.
As Bloomberg campaigns for re-election -- after angering rivals by changing the city's term limits law so that he can run -- he is aggressively fighting any attempt to wrest the schools from his control.
He warned in a radio address that there would be “riots in the streets'' if the law weren't renewed. Going back to the old system, he said, “would be a disaster. And hopefully the Legislature, we can convince them.''
Mayoral control of urban school districts has momentum around the country in recent years. Cities with some form of mayoral control include Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.
Few want to return to the chaotic system Bloomberg inherited, in which power was split between the mayor, an appointed Board of Education and 32 locally elected school boards that at their worst were riddled with incompetence and patronage.
A Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday found that New Yorkers support mayoral control of the public schools by a wide margin. Fifty-five percent of registered voters said mayoral control should continue and 35 percent said it should stop.
“No one's giving Mayor Bloomberg straight A's for handling the schools, but they want him or his successor to keep on trying,'' said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
Even critics who call Bloomberg an autocrat do not seek a return to the previous system.
“There was a lot of infighting,'' said Zakiyah Ansari, a Brooklyn public school parent who is active in a group called the Campaign for Better Schools, which is pushing to amend the mayoral control law. “There was corruption. But what we have now is way off the other end of the spectrum of total control with no checks and balances.''
Daniel O'Donnell, a state Assembly member from Manhattan and the brother of the performer Rosie O'Donnell, said reverting to the old system would be “highly unlikely.''
“I think it's a question of tweaking and massaging so that parents have a greater sense that there is accountability,'' O'Donnell said.
Schools Chancellor Joel Klein told an Assembly Education Committee hearing on mayoral control that he and the mayor are accountable. “When you run, you run on your record,'' Klein said.
To critics, that means parents can influence school governance only by voting in mayoral elections every four years.
“People vote for mayor on a host of issues, not just education,'' said April Humphrey, coordinator of the Campaign for Better Schools.
Steven Sanders, who chaired the Assembly Education Committee before retiring from the Legislature in 2005, said the mayoral control law was supposed to allow more community input than Bloomberg has permitted.
“It was never the intention of the Legislature to create a law in which the mayor and the chancellor would be unilateral, that theirs would be the only voices, the only views that would matter, and that virtually everyone else, including communities and parents, would be shut out,'' said Sanders, now a lobbyist working on education issues.
Under the old system, the mayor made two appointments to a seven-member Board of Education that ran the schools. That board was replaced by a 13-member body that Bloomberg renamed the Panel for Educational Policy, and he appoints eight of the 13.
Critics say the panel is powerless and serves only to rubber-stamp Bloomberg's and Klein's decisions. Three Bloomberg appointees were removed in 2004 for questioning a Department of Education plan for holding back struggling students.
“This is certainly not what the Legislature had in mind,'' Sanders said.
Sanders said lawmakers may consider changing the composition of the Panel on Education Policy to give the mayor fewer appointees or establishing set terms so that members don't serve at the pleasure of whoever appointed them.
The teachers' union has proposed that the city comptroller, the public advocate and the City Council speaker each appoint a member, leaving the mayor with five appointees instead of eight.
“The policy board would be a real policy board, which was the original intention,'' said union president Randi Weingarten.
Bloomberg and his team say improved test scores and graduation rates prove that students are flourishing under their watch.
In its report last year, the Department of Education said student performance on statewide standardized tests improved at every grade level compared with 2007 and that the gains built on “substantial, continued progress'' since 2002.
Critics doubt that the gains are real. They say results from U.S. Department of Education's National Assessment of Educational Progress tests show far less progress.
“It's hard to tell what is being spun and what is not being spun,'' said Humphrey.
Her group, the Campaign for Better Schools, wants to empower the city's Independent Budget Office to examine Department of Education data and provide an objective analysis.
Bloomberg and Klein have not said what changes to the mayoral control law they might accept.
Klein told the Assembly Education Committee that the law was not “holy writ'' and he would be open to some adjustments. But he suggested that cutting the mayor's appointments to the Panel on Educational Policy would be disastrous.
Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott said the Bloomberg administration is listening intently to the committee's hearings.
“We're always looking to improve the system,'' Walcott said. But he added, “When it comes to decision making, authority should rest with the mayor.''

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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