Commentary

Looking Beyond Legal Problems in New York: Recentralizing Would Pose Threat to Schools' Success

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Manhattan's Community District 4, until recently one of the nation's most admired school districts, has within a matter of weeks become one of its most suspect. Once held up as a model for urban schools, the district is now being assailed from all sides.

While casual observers following press accounts will be convinced that where there is all that smoke there has got to be fire, the involved parties understandably insist that the central issue of the onslaught is fairness. Items from an investigative report have been leaked but not substantiated, and in fact, the report has not yet been released. The district superintendent, Carlos Medina, has been suspended for 60 days and is preparing his defense.

But of at least equal import for most educators is the question of whether the exposes serve the interests of New York's children or--by undercutting local control of schools--tragically sabotage them.

As the old saying goes, a prophet is always without honor in his home territory. Even today, many New Yorkers are unaware of the accomplishments of the schools of East Harlem--the beleaguered district 4. Yet its success in bringing youngsters from the very bottom of the heap to highly respectable performance has earned accolades from policy analysts and researchers in the United States and abroad.

Indeed, whatever may be the flaws in the system, this district's educational triumphs have been astounding, given the odds it has fought. Its Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics, for example, has enjoyed the highest attendance and graduation rates in the city of New York: In one recent school year, it graduated 100 percent of its students, and 100 percent of those seeking college admission obtained it. The East Harlem Performing Arts School has also been a major success for the district's youngsters: Prior to its creation, only one student from district 4 had ever gained admission to the city's specialized high schools in the arts; since, hundreds of the school's former students have done so, and many have then gone on to successful careers as performers.

And district 4's most well-known programs--those begun with Central Park East Elementary School--have since grown into three separate elementary schools and one junior-senior high school. The new secondary school may be the nation's single most celebrated educational institution at this moment, when so many are looking for successful inner-city programs to emulate.

But accomplishments notwithstanding, the survival of district 4--and indeed of all 32 of New York's community school districts--is now at stake. The current exposes coincide with a press to recentralize the control of the city's schools. Although Mayor Edward I. Koch has explicitly denied such an intent, for months rumors have circulated that he and Robert Wagner, president of the board of education, were going to the state capital to request modification of the laws governing school-board elections.

Now the Mayor has asked for a commission to investigate school corruption and recommend governance changes. This development is not surprising--but it could prove disastrous to the city's schoolchildren.

I am in no position to vouch for the ways in which the city's 32 school districts have used their separation from the central board. But as an independent researcher, I have had enough contact with city schools to conclude that the separation--and whatever formal independence the districts have achieved--is essential to positive educational changes.

And events in New York could also adversely affect other cities--Chicago, Boston, and Milwaukee, for example--currently implementing or considering decentralization of schools: Influenced by developments in New York, such districts might conclude that central control is necessary to protect the public interest in school integrity.

A recent study concluded that effective programs in urban schools require their administrators constantly to practice "creative insubordination." School leaders must continually choose, that is, between effective education and compliance with the bureaucracy's regulations.

New York City school administrators unavoidably face such a choice in many of the situations they must confront daily. In fact, even with ''decentralization," district officials are constantly torn between conformity with rules and the very survival of their schools. For instance, public indignation is understandably aroused by reports that a superintendent maintains a slush fund. But the sad truth is that every superintendent who is seriously committed to school improvement must do so--or figure out some other extra-legal means for paying vendors. Otherwise, nobody will do business with the district.

Vendors are well aware that bills duly submitted to the board's central offices at 110 Livingston Street may not be paid for a year or more. An administrator responsible for the education of thousands of children simply can't wait a year. But it is standard operating procedure in New York--unless district officials manage to create a slush fund or some equivalent.

Under the "decentralized" system, the city's 32 community school districts remain shackled by four sets of controls: state education law, the city charter, the chancellor's regulations, and the procedures streaming steadily from the central board. Together they create situations that can resemble a nightmare of Franz Kafka.

For example, city schools cannot legally purchase used books instead of new ones--even though such a practice would help stretch scant funds. Nor can any New York City school official spend district money to provide so much as a cup of coffee for parents attending a school meeting. Removing an incompetent teacher takes years, and evidently no one--not even a district superintendent--can force a custodian to do the job he is paid for.

And some of the obstacles pose dilemmas, not just difficulties. For example, the process that must precede hiring cannot begin until an official job opening has been declared. But regulations govern such a declaration: Irrespective of knowledge that someone is leaving, there is no vacancy until he is gone. The catch is that according to the board's procedures, no one can be hired nor services provided without 110 Livingston Street's authorization--and the fingerprinting process required for authorization takes two to three months. Thus, a third of a school year can easily elapse before an opening can be filled, and the only legal way to proceed during the interim is to make do with substitutes.

Under such circumstances, it is frightening to think what school recentralization might bring. Yet that is precisely the solution to which city officials are pointing--perhaps not in the guise of abolishing the 32 separate districts, but rather of regulating and monitoring their operation more closely.

The final irony, of course, is that central control is the problem, not the solution. Each of these strangulating regulations originated as a reform--a way to prevent one possible abuse or another. But under the current system, the sole alternative to "creative insubordination'' is often ineffectiveness.

The former option poses serious risks for educators at the hands of the Inspector General--the official who, with a staff of 60, is charged with ferreting out irregularities in community districts. Constantly looking for the sort of evidence that will require it to launch investigations and hold hearings, this office maintains a hot line for tips from anonymous callers. (Even it is now being investigated by the state for its failure to uncover local district scandals sooner. Perhaps the monitors are soon to be monitored.)

The improvement of urban education must begin with a search for viable approaches to governing schools and monitoring leaders' performance. Two considerations should loom foremost in this process. First, schools must be left sufficient flexibility to operate successfully; officials must have the freedom to operate defensibly, rather than just defensively. If we continue to force them constantly to make this choice, we cannot feign surprise when they respond with either the bureaucrat's first impulse--to protect himself--or a cavalier attitude about regulations.

Second, until we provide urban educators with minimal freedom from restrictions, we must acknowledge responsibility for the sort of moral climate our misguided zeal is now producing. Using a phrase less euphemistic than "creative insubordination" to describe the moral dilemma facing school officials, another recent book says they must act as "canny outlaws" to fulfill their charge.

Indeed, we envelope them in the necessity for moral compromise. For according to the Socratic tradition we venerate, morality compels obedience to all laws--even those with which one cannot agree.

Can we allow the current form of school governance to continue without ourselves becoming accomplices in the immorality we encourage? There must be more honest ways to run schools, and we are obligated to find them.

Vol. 08, Issue 19, Pages 26, 36

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