Published Online: January 15, 1997

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School Governance Milestones

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School Governance Milestones

  • 1842: New York City--confined to present-day Manhattan--elects its first public board of education. The board oversees a decentralized system of ward-based schools. It eclipses the Public School Society, a quasi-public agency that ran a network of free schools, largely attended by the poor, during the first half of the century. In her 1974 book The Great School Wars: New York City, 1805-1973, Diane Ravitch writes: "Over the next half century, until the next massive reorganization of the city school system in 1896, the central board and the local ward boards engaged in jealous battles over their respective powers.''
  • 1896: A hard-fought campaign by school reformers to centralize the schools culminates in the abolition of the ward-based school boards. Authority for the school system's business operations is vested in the central board, while most educational matters are governed by a cadre of central-office professionals known as the board of superintendents. Two years later, what are now the five boroughs of New York merge to form a single city. The consolidation ushers in a period of instability until the separate borough-based boards are eliminated in 1901 in favor of a central board and bureaucracy.
  • 1969: Nearly seven decades of relative stability in school governance ends when the state legislature splinters the system into 32 community school districts, each with its own elected board. The boards operate the city's elementary, middle, and junior high schools, while the high schools and many systemwide services remain under the direct control of the newly created position of chancellor and the central board of education. Although the new system is a response to pressure for stronger community control, it also reflects demands by the powerful teachers' union and other educators. The arrangement yields countless power struggles between the community boards and the chancellor.
  • 1996: After years of wrangling in Albany over how to improve the 1969 power-sharing scheme, the legislature accedes to demands from Schools Chancellor Rudy F. Crew for greater authority over the far-flung community districts. The chancellor helps his cause by cultivating such influential allies as the mayor, the business community, foundations, and the teachers' union. Agreement comes after the mayor shelves his bid for direct control of the schools and lawmakers put aside the divisive question of whether to alter the central board and, if so, how.

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