School & District Management

Mayor’s Firm Hand Over N.Y.C. Schools Sparks New Debate

By Jeff Archer — March 24, 2004 6 min read
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Leading for Learning

Mayoral control of the New York City schools was at the center of renewed debate last week, after Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg replaced two members of the city’s education policymaking board to ensure enough votes for a controversial plan he backed to end social promotion.

Mr. Bloomberg ordered the changes on the Panel for Educational Policy after some of his own appointees said they opposed the proposal to have students repeat 3rd grade if they fail key tests. The mayor appoints eight of the 13 members of the panel, which replaced the city’s board of education when he gained control of the school system in 2002.

The shakeup, which took place just hours before the panel considered the student-retention policy on March 15, prompted immediate sparring within the city and in the state capital over whether the mayor had overstepped his authority. The policy passed 8-5.

“How is this different from what a military junta does?” said Eva S. Moskowitz, who heads the New York City Council’s education committee. “This was a coup.”

Critics accused Mr. Bloomberg of using the policy panel as a rubber stamp, and in doing so, violating the spirit of the state law that put him in charge of the nation’s largest school system. Some are now calling for new legislation to give the panel more independence.

Others, though, lauded Mr. Bloomberg for his decisiveness. His willingness to shuffle personnel to achieve what some saw as an important policy change drew praise from business groups and from New York Gov. George E. Pataki, who, like the mayor, is a Republican.

Mayor Bloomberg himself offered no apologies, telling the local press: “Mayoral control means mayoral control.”

The brouhaha came on the heels of nepotism charges that cost the mayor two senior education officials. Diana Lam, the district’s deputy chancellor for teaching and learning, was forced to resign this month following accusations that she had sought to get her husband a job with the 1.1 million-student system. The city school department’s top lawyer also quit amid questions about his handling of the issue. (“Key N.Y.C. School Official Forced to Resign,” March 17, 2004.)

The turmoil of the past month raises the already-high political stakes for Mr. Bloomberg. The mayor, who is up for re-election next year, has repeatedly urged voters to judge him based on his leadership of the school system.

Paper Nameplates

The Panel for Educational Policy is the linchpin of mayoral control in New York City. Under the 2002 state law that changed the governance of the system, the mayor appoints eight members of the panel, including the schools chancellor, compared with two on the old board of education. Each of the five borough presidents also appoints a member, as was the case with the previous board.

Mr. Bloomberg’s appointees have overwhelmingly backed his policy proposals. But that deference broke down after he announced plans to hold back students who haven’t mastered basic skills, rather than send them to the next grade with their peers. Specifically, the strategy is to have students repeat 3rd grade if they score a 1 out of a possible 4 on tests the city uses in reading and mathematics.

“We’re putting an end to the discredited practice of social promotion,” the mayor said in his State of the City Address in January. “We’re not just saying that this time. We’re going to do it.”

The new policy, which takes effect this year, gives students two chances to achieve passing scores: once in April, and again in August, after they’ve had a chance to attend a special summer school program. It also includes an appeals process for pupils who score a 1 if their teachers can demonstrate in other ways that those children have mastered the needed skills.

Despite such provisions, many members of the education policy panel worried the plan might do more harm that good. In behind-the-scenes discussions leading up to last week’s vote, they cited research that they said showed similar policies elsewhere had little long-term effect on improving student performance. Some panel members wanted to delay making a decision on the plan.

“No one is for social promotion,” said Susana Torruella Leval, one of the mayoral appointees who were replaced and the former head of El Museo del Barrio, a museum of Latin American art and culture in the city. “But the issue is what to do with failing students. It was clear to us on the panel that the overwhelming amount of expert opinion on this subject is that retention is not the answer either.”

Debate quickly shifted from the policy to the mayor himself last week when he dismissed both Ms. Leval and Ramona Hernandez, another of his appointees, just before the crucial vote. In their places, he installed two city officials. At the same time, the Staten Island borough president also replaced his designee with a new member who supported Mr. Bloomberg’s plan.

Joel I. Klein, the mayor’s hand-picked schools chancellor, drew angry shouts in the packed hall when he announced the changes at the start of the meeting. Underscoring how last-minute their appointments were, the new members had to use handwritten nameplates.

Ms. Hernandez said she might have expected to be removed after the vote, but her dismissal before it surprised her. “I understood from the very beginning that I served at the pleasure of the person who appointed me,” said Ms. Hernandez, who directs the Dominican Studies Institute at the City College of New York. “What I did not know was that I had to vote and think the same way as the person who appointed me.”

Challenges Eyed

A City Hall spokesman said the issue was clear-cut. “Those representatives were not representing the views of the mayor,” said Robert Lawson, a press aide to Mr. Bloomberg.

But reaction to the changes suggested the matter was far from settled. A group of black, Latino, and Asian-American members of the City Council said they were considering a legal challenge to the mayor’s new appointments to the panel.

The head of the state Assembly’s education committee has said Mr. Bloomberg’s replacement of the two panel members with city officials represents a conflict.

Others are calling for amendments to the state law that brought mayoral control to the city. Among them are the education scholar Diane Ravitch and Randi Weingarten, the president of the United Federation of Teachers, the city’s affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.

In a joint op-ed essay in TheNew York Times last week, the two argued that members of the educational policy panel should be given fixed terms, during which the mayor couldn’t remove them.

Ms. Moskowitz, the chairwoman of the City Council’s education committee, agreed that the school system’s policy panel serves little purpose without some independence. “The city of New York spent 10 years talking about mayoral control, and it was a very delicate balance that was reached,” she said. “It was clear what the panel was supposed to do.”

But Mr. Bloomberg’s supporters said he was within his rights to make changes in his appointments, and that the move reflected the kind of assertiveness that many New Yorkers want.

A media mogul with an avowed disdain for politics who was elected in 2001, Mr. Bloomberg has shaken up the school system in the 21 months that he has held its reins. He replaced the city’s 32 elected community school boards with an organizational structure that consolidates authority over instructional issues at the city department of education.

The agency launched a leadership academy to groom principals, pledges to open 200 small secondary schools, and plans to overhaul middle- grades education.

Such major change was only possible because Mr. Bloomberg is willing to use his authority, said Kathryn S. Wylde, the president of the Partnership for New York City, a business umbrella group.

“In the past, chancellors and mayors who have taken conciliatory attitudes towards change have ended up not accomplishing much,” Ms. Wylde said. “I think the mayor has made a decision, and is going forward based on what he considers is the only way to achieve change in his political lifetime.”

Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation.

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