The nation’s largest school district is engaged in a fierce debate over the merits and drawbacks of mayoral control as a legislative deadline looms for renewing the governance arrangement.
The 2002 law that gave New York City’s mayor authority over the school system will “sunset” on June 30 unless state lawmakers step in, as they are widely expected to do. They will have no shortage of suggestions from parents, politicians, academics, and educators who are arguing over the results of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s seven years of control.
“One of the things we’ve heard over and over and over again is that parents and the community feel left out of the system,” Betsy Gotbaum, New York City’s elected public advocate, said at a recent public hearing on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Her independent agency, charged with helping residents with the city’s bureaucracy, has spearheaded discussions on school governance.
The question now, Ms. Gotbaum said, is “how do you best assure some kind of community input without creating paralysis in the system?”
Few here say they want to return to the days of a politically fractious board of education and a decentralized system of 32 community school boards. Those bodies were wiped out by the state law, which created a 13-member Panel for Education Policy and eliminated the community districts. The mayor appoints seven of the members, while the city’s five borough presidents each appoint a member. The schools chancellor, selected by the mayor, is the chairman of the board.
The New York City Department of Education is now housed at Tweed Hall in Manhattan with the rest of the city government, rather than in the borough of Brooklyn.
Mayor Bloomberg, a billionaire businessman who last year successfully sought a change in city law to allow him to run for a third term, declined to be interviewed. But he and his chancellor, Joel I. Klein, a former U.S. Department of Justice antitrust chief, say their leadership of the 1 million-student system has been a success.
Mayoral control, Mr. Klein said in an interview earlier this month, aligns accountability and authority for schools.
“I think the basic structure is sound, but there’s no question that any structure can be improved,” he said. “It’s not about whether it’s a perfect law; it’s about whether the law provides the right governance structure.”
Mr. Bloomberg, in a videotaped interview last month with the ThinkProgress blog, a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, reeled off what he sees as accomplishments under the current structure, including improved teacher recruitment and higher test scores.
“Before we had mayoral control, it was a disaster,” Mr. Bloomberg said. “I know of no thing that we’ve done that would have been remotely possible under the old system.”
Video of Joel Klein from Education Week‘s live event Powering Through the Recession
The theme of the mayorally controlled school system has been “Children First,” reflecting the view of critics of the former system that it had put adults’ needs ahead of those of students. Under a plan by the same name, the city’s department of education created new academic standards, including a core curriculum in reading and mathematics, and streamlined the management structure of the district.
Video of Mayor Michael Bloomberg from thinkprogress.org
With what district leaders call “stability and coherence” in place, the school system then moved to empower schools by giving principals more autonomy, but holding them accountable for results. In the past seven years, the city also has opened more than 350 new district-run and charter schools, bringing the city’s total number of schools to 1,500.
Mayoral control “has given principals and assistant principals a greater voice in what happens at their local school,” said Ernest A. Logan, the president of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, the principals’ union.
“Right now, the principal and his or her cabinet is responsible for all aspects of a school,” he said. “In New York City, we never used to do this.”
The United Federation of Teachers, whose members have received 43 percent in salary increases under Mr. Bloomberg’s administration, praises the additional resources and attention that have flowed into the district. Since 2002, for instance, more than $230 million in outside funding has been raised.
But the 200,000-member teachers’ union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, faults management for what it sees as a preoccupation with changing the organizational structure of the system, “following the pattern of a hostile corporate takeover and restructuring,” according to a UFT task force report issued in February.
The report says that on a host of issues—social promotion, students’ use of cellphones in schools, bus routes, policies for gifted and talented instruction, and the use of no-bid contracts—school officials have ignored the public’s views.
Mr. Bloomberg and Mr. Klein “think that accountability means complete dictatorial control,” said Leonie Haimson, the executive director of Class Size Matters, a parental advocacy group. “They have to shift.”
Said Mr. Klein: “That’s a work in progress—finding ways to make sure that parents can get their questions answered and their concerns addressed. The parents who didn’t get what they wanted, they say they want more checks and balances. But they really just want what they want.”
A poll conducted by Quinnipiac University, in Hamden, Conn., suggests that mayoral control is supported by New Yorkers. In March, the poll asked city voters if mayoral control should continue. Fifty-two percent said yes, 37 percent said no, and 12 percent said they didn’t know or couldn’t answer the question.
But the poll also suggests New Yorkers wouldn’t mind if the mayor had some checks on his power over the schools. In separate questions, voters said 53 percent to 37 percent that the mayor should share control with the City Council, and 50 percent to 41 percent that he should share control with the borough presidents.
No issue has been more contested than whether students are doing better academically under mayoral government.
Mr. Bloomberg and Mr. Klein have touted what they say are increases in students’ scores on state tests since 2002.
(Answers may not add up to 100 percent because of rounding.)
Do you approve or disapprove of the way Mayor Bloomberg is handling the public schools?
Don’t know/No answer: 13%
Do you think Mayor Bloomberg’s takeover of the public schools has been a success or failure?
Don’t Know/No answer: 22%
Mayoral control of the public schools expires this year, unless the state legislature renews it. Do you think mayoral control of the public schools should continue or not?
Don’t Know/No answer: 12%
Do you think the mayor should share control of the public schools with the City Council or not?
Don’t know/No answer: 11%
Do you think the mayor should share control of the public schools with the borough presidents or not?
Don’t know/No answer: 8%
Source: The Quinnipiac University Poll surveyed 1,142 registered voters from March 17-22 with a margin of error of 2.9 percentage points.
On May 7, the city education department released its latest reading scores: The report showed 68.9 percent of 4th graders and 57 percent of 8th graders met or exceeded state standards in 2009. In 2002, those proportions were 46.5 percent and 29.5 percent, respectively. The gap between black and Hispanic students’ scores and those of white students is also narrowing, city education officials reported.
But skeptics say those test results are illusory. Foremost among them is Diane Ravitch, a research professor of education at New York University and noted historian of New York City education. Ms. Ravitch, who co-writes the Bridging Differences blog on edweek.org, has emerged as the Bloomberg administration’s most prominent and persistent critic.
A better measure of what students know are the scores on the federal National Assessment of Educational Progress, she argues. And on that measure, New York City students’ scores were flat between 2003 and 2007, except in 4th grade math. The NAEP tests measure reading, writing, math, and science for 4th and 8th grade students. The city education department counters by saying NAEP tests are not aligned with state standards and that the New York state tests are a more meaningful gauge of progress.
Ms. Ravitch says she believes mayoral control is an appropriate governance structure for the New York City schools, with the right checks and balances.
“That’s not being against mayor control, that’s being against autocracy,” she said of her position. “There’s no magic to mayoral control. It can be good or not be good. It’s not a causal factor to student achievement.”
Graduation rates are another point of contention. The city says the share of students graduating from high school in four years is rising. According to the education department, the graduation rate for the class of 2005, which started high school before mayoral control, was 46.5 percent. The graduation rate for the class of 2007, which started high school in 2003, was 52.2 percent.
But the public advocate’s office released a report this month suggesting that the city’s practice of “discharging” some high school students was artificially inflating graduation rates. The report was written by Ms. Haimson, of Class Size Matters, and Jennifer L. Jennings, a doctoral student at Columbia University who formerly wrote a blog, eduwonkette, hosted by edweek.org.
Students who leave school in New York without graduating are assigned one of 23 codes that describe why they left. Those who transfer to other schools, are expelled, or withdraw because of pregnancy, for example, are counted as “discharges.” Some of the students considered discharges by the school system would be dropouts under federal standards, the report says. There also is no auditing to make sure that students who are listed as enrolling in another school actually do so, it says.
The city has responded that the report reflects the system’s high student-mobility rates.
Joseph P. Viteritti, the executive director of the Commission on School Governance, an advisory panel created by Ms. Gotbaum’s office, said public hearings revealed support for an independent agency that would report school data. The panel recommended giving the city’s Independent Budget Office authority to release data on schools to help eliminate “spin” surrounding test scores.
Mr. Viteritti, a professor of public policy at Hunter College, part of the City University of New York system, said the commission also called for more oversight of large contracts. The chancellor has used his authority to award contracts to outside organizations without competitive bidding, according to the city comptroller.
“There have been hundreds of millions of no-bid contracts. Even in New York, that’s a lot of money,” Mr. Viteritti said, noting that the commission believes the school system should follow the same procurement processes as other city agencies, with the city comptroller having audit authority.
Sheldon Silver, the speaker of the New York State Assembly and one of the main architects of the mayoral-control law, is talking with his fellow New York City representatives about the law, said Dan Weiller, his press secretary.
“The speaker’s basic position is he certainly doesn’t believe we want to go back to what we had in 2002,” Mr. Weiller said, “but there could be some tweaks to the current system.”
Some “tweaking” is a goal some mayoral-control supporters can understand. Geoffrey Canada is the president and chief executive officer of the Harlem Children’s Zone, which provides comprehensive medical, educational, and social services in Central Harlem. He is also a founding board member of Learn NY, an umbrella lobbying group that supports mayoral control, and he said he’s sympathetic to calls for modifications.
“But the way to do that is not to change the structure so that the mayor can be tied up by politics where the accountability disappears,” he said. “We can’t allow that to happen to the schools again.”
Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org.
A version of this article appeared in the May 20, 2009 edition of Education Week as Bloomberg’s Way