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New York City: Winning the Sprint, Losing the Marathon?

By Sarah Reckhow — October 18, 2012 5 min read
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Note: Sarah Reckhow, assistant professor of political science at Michigan State University, is guest posting this week.

Some large urban school districts receive millions of dollars in foundation grants, while others get none. In my book, Follow the Money, I show that the districts receiving the most funding had mayoral or state control, instead of an elected school board. In 2005, New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Oakland, and Boston got the most grant dollars (all districts with mayoral or state control at the time, except for LA). More recently, districts like Washington, DC and New Orleans have come under mayoral or state control and received large infusions of philanthropic dollars.

Why do foundations appear to favor districts with mayoral or state control? My analysis of foundation reports and interviews with foundation staff highlighted two explanations--change and continuity.

Change: In districts where foundations hope to catalyze dramatic reform, the disruption provided by a change in governance offers a window of opportunity to shape new policies. Following the state takeover of Oakland’s public schools, philanthropists commented that conditions were “ripe to try something big.” The divided powers and numerous veto points in American government often frustrate reformers. A shift to mayoral or state control of schools can allow reformers to bypass the roadblocks often posed by school board politics.

Continuity: Foundations prefer mayoral or state control because they assume that centralized leadership offers greater security for their investment. A few prominent examples of mayoral control in cities with well-known multi-term mayors (Daley in Chicago, Menino in Boston, and Bloomberg in New York City) may have reinforced this idea. Yet even a “mayor for life” eventually moves on, and mayoral control does not guarantee leadership stability. Bloomberg is currently serving his final term in office. Daley did not run for re-election in 2011, and under Mayor Emanuel, Chicago’s school leadership is in a state of flux. Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard resigned after 17 months following the teachers’ strike.

The track record of foundation-funded reform efforts in districts with mayoral or state control suggests that there is better support for change than there is for continuity. My research on education reform in New York City shows that change happened and it happened fast, but the prospects for continuity are shaky. The strategies that helped Boardroom Progressive reformers in New York City win the sprint could backfire in the long run.

Beginning in 2003, after Mayor Bloomberg appointed Chancellor Klein, New York City developed the Children First reform agenda. Philanthropic funding (particularly from Gates, Broad, Carnegie, and Wallace) supported many elements of the Children First agenda, including small schools, charter schools, data and accountability systems for the district, and principal training. Although New York City has been touted as a national success story--winning the Broad Prize in 2007 and national recognition for former Chancellor Joel Klein--I found that the national story glossed over three important signs of trouble at the local level.

1. A Closed Network: I surveyed 40 education leaders and stakeholders in NYC, and I tracked how they share information with one another using social network analysis. I found that the exchange of information about NYC education policy is divided: foundations and education nonprofits are closely connected to the district administration and share lots of information, but parents groups and neighborhood-based advocacy organizations are largely left out of this exchange. Potential supporters of reforms have found themselves alienated by the process.

2. Lack of Political Accountability: New York City lacks a legitimate venue for public input on education policy. An appointed board known as the Panel for Educational Policy (PEP) is the designated “board of education” for the city, but it is not treated as a serious policy-making body. When three members opposed a policy supported by the Mayor and Chancellor, they were replaced. The PEP has existed for 10 years, and no policy has ever been voted down.

3. Losing Touch: The institutions that gave Bloomberg considerable power over education policy also enabled a disastrous decision. Joel Klein resigned as Chancellor in 2010, and Mayor Bloomberg had the opportunity to select someone new. He chose someone with no experience in education or government--the chairman of Hearst Magazines, Cathie Black. Black’s brief tenure as Chancellor involved multiple blunders and little substance. According to a Marist poll, Black’s job approval rating was 17 percent. Bloomberg requested her resignation, and Black left her post after 95 days on the job. Bloomberg’s approval ratings on education have remained low since this debacle.

In 2013, New York City will elect a new mayor who will gain all the powers that Bloomberg now has over the public schools. Already, groups are mobilizing for the election. Some are likely to support the continuation of Bloomberg’s policies (Students FirstNY, Democrats for Education Reform), while others (United Federation of Teachers, NYC Parents Union, New Yorkers for Great Public Schools, A+ NYC) are opposed or skeptical. The election will have significant policy implications--particularly for charter school expansion and revamping teacher evaluation. A Bloomberg ally could continue these policies. But a mayor who opposes these reforms would have significant power at his or her disposal to change course. The lack of public involvement and input during the 10-year history of Children First will also shape political conditions for the new mayor. Even a mayor who supports Bloomberg’s policies would likely make adjustments to respond to 10 years of simmering public frustration.

Tomorrow, I will wrap up my posts for the week with a very different story--philanthropy and education reform in Los Angeles.

--Sarah Reckhow

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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