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Shortcomings of Decentralized Decisionmaking in N.Y.C. Detailed

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The introduction of school-based management and shared decisionmaking has neither freed New York City schools from bureaucratic constraints nor provided a vehicle for involving parents in schools, a study concludes.

The report by the Parents Coalition for Education in New York City calls the system's experiences with decentralized decisionmaking, which began in 1990, a "major disappointment.''

"The rhetoric is absolutely superb,'' said John Fager, a co-chairman of the advocacy group and the director of the study. "Yet when you look at it, there are so many, many rules and regulations, and when you talk to principals, teachers, and parents at the school level, they tell you their hands are tied.''

The study was completed last spring but was not released widely until last month.

Although the reforms held out the promise that parents could have a significant voice in their children's educations, parents' participation on the school committees has been limited, the report says.

"The established habits, mindsets and interest groups that dominate the schools continue in place basically unaffected'' by the school committees, it concludes.

Then-Chancellor Joseph A. Fernandez, in inviting schools to participate in the voluntary program, mandated that teachers hold the majority of seats on the school councils. The committees also were to have "meaningful parent representation,'' but the study asserts that in many schools only one parent serves on the committee.

To date, 280 of the city's 1,000 schools have formed decisionmaking committees.

'Sensitive' to Parents

The requirement that a majority of committee members be teachers was incorporated into the United Federation of Teachers' contract, a move that prompted protests by parents' groups.

The union has been "sensitive'' to the complaints by parents, Susan Amlung, a spokeswoman for the union, said last week.

The teachers' new contract gives schools just entering school-based management and shared decisionmaking more flexibility in determining the makeup of their committees, she noted. In addition, schools that have already created committees have the opportunity to change their composition once a year.

But even when schools have created workable governance councils, they find themselves blocked by the district's bureaucracy, the report by the parents' coalition contends.

Although schools were told the reforms would allow them greater flexibility in organizing instruction, deploying their staffs, and spending their money, that has not occurred in any widespread fashion, the report concludes.

One Manhattan school, for example, requested waivers to be able to select its own staff, decide what classes teachers would teach, and allow teachers who did not agree with the school's program to transfer out, according to the report. But the waivers, even though approved by the teachers at the school, were denied by the union and the board of education.

The coalition suggests that the board of education give parents a majority of the seats on the council, as was done in Chicago. It also calls for more authority to be delegated to schools over personnel, budget, curricula, and scheduling, and recommends that parents and students be provided with training in shared decisionmaking.

Copies of the report, "The Rules Still Rule,'' are available at no charge from the Parents Coalition for Education in New York City, 24-16 Bridge Plaza South, Long Island City, N.Y. 11101; (708) 937-1119.

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