School & District Management

Effects of Mayoral School Control in N.Y.C. Under Scrutiny

By Catherine Gewertz — June 07, 2005 3 min read

Scholars and activists gathered at a think tank here last week to evaluate how Michael R. Bloomberg, who is running for re-election this year as New York City’s mayor, has wielded his power over its school system. They sounded cautionary notes about the use of such power.

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During a discussion at the Brookings Institution, panelists questioned whether the mayor has improved student achievement. Some contended that the New York model of mayoral control gives Mr. Bloomberg, a Republican, too much power over the schools and the community too little voice.

But panelists stopped short of condemning mayoral control of schools in general.

The discussion reflected the election-year attention being focused on Mr. Bloomberg’s education record. When he secured control of the 1.1 million-student system in 2002, under a state law enacted shortly after his 2001 election, he challenged New Yorkers to judge him on what he could do for the schools.

Diane Ravitch, a historian of the city’s schools and a professor of education at New York University, said Mr. Bloomberg’s three years in office have prompted her to re-evaluate her own advocacy of strong mayoral control.

Much of her concern, Ms. Ravitch said, involves what she views as overly concentrated power that resulted when Mr. Bloomberg eliminated the elected and appointed board of education in favor of an all-appointed panel, a majority of whom are named by the mayor.

“I feel very chastened, because I now see the value of a lay board rather than having the mayor and the chancellor responsible,” she said.

The mayor’s control over the panel majority, combined with what Ms. Ravitch contended was an atmosphere hostile to dissent, has produced an administration that, in her view, “operates with no meaningful public oversight” and “never admits mistakes.”

What Constitutes Success?

Mayor Bloomberg has recently been citing a sharp rise in city test scores as evidence that his education program is working. But Ms. Ravitch asked whether the rise might have been caused by a change in the tests, or a decision that allowed large numbers of students learning English to be excluded from taking them.

She criticized the academic programs the mayor’s schools chancellor, Joel I. Klein, has installed, saying that they fall short of being a true curriculum and lack a solid research base.

In addition, she said, teachers and principals are being “micromanaged” so intensely—down to precise guidelines for their classroom bulletin boards—that morale has plummeted.

In releasing new test scores June 1, the mayor said he has begun to bring “order and accountability to a system that had been dysfunctional for decades.”

Robert P. Strauss, a professor of economics and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, said that his study of the mayor’s role in schools in Pittsburgh suggests that “unbridled control can be counterproductive” and harmful to children.

He proposed that all mayors playing a significant role in education take an oath that they will “allocate school resources and effect education policy solely for the purpose of ensuring that each student learns to his or her intellectual capacity.”

As school governance continues to be debated, it’s important not to see mayoral control either as a cure-all for what ails schools or as a danger to be avoided, said Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute here. Lay boards of education have their own limitations, he said, and shouldn’t be “romanticized.” To improve schools, many aspects of districts’ functions must be improved, he said.

Anne L. Bryant, the executive director of the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va., backed boards—whether elected or appointed—as a key part of good governance. They offer community involvement, transparency in their business, and continuity of leadership when mayors leave office, she said.

Among their most crucial roles, she said, is demanding data from the superintendent or mayor to back up leaders’ policies.

As for the closely watched arrangement in New York, the impact of Mr. Bloomberg’s policies can’t yet be fully assessed, but the issues raised so far deserve public attention, Ms. Ravitch said.

“I’m not saying he’s failed,” she said. “He may have succeeded. But what does success mean? That every teacher in every class has to teach the same way? Is it appropriate to take the public role out of education?”

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