School & District Management

N.Y.C. Mayor Gains Control Over Schools

By Catherine Gewertz — June 19, 2002 6 min read
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In a high-stakes political victory, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has secured near- total control over New York City’s vast public school system. A new state law, signed by the governor last week, represents the most profound governance change for the city’s schools in 30 years.

In a historic reversal, the law abolishes the boards that govern the city’s 32 community school districts, bodies set up during the civil rights movement to give New Yorkers a say in running their schools.

Months of negotiation between the Republican mayor and state legislative leaders from both parties produced a bill whose passage was all but guaranteed. It sailed through the Assembly on June 10, passed the Senate on June 11, and picked up Republican Gov. George E. Pataki’s signature on June 12.

With the new law, the nation’s largest school system joins Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, and Detroit on the growing list of big cities that have put mayors in charge of their schools.

“I commit to you today that I will make the schools better,” Mayor Bloomberg said at an elementary school in Spanish Harlem, where the governor and top lawmakers joined him for a bill-signing ceremony.

“I can’t promise that it will be easy, and I can’t promise it will happen overnight,” he said. “But I can promise you [that] you will see, in the very near future, that we are going in the right direction.”

The law, most of which takes effect on July 1, shifts power from the appointed and elected boards that currently control the city’s 1,200 schools to the financial-media mogul who was elected mayor last November.

Expanded Board

The seven-member city board of education will expand to 13 members. The mayor’s appointments will increase from two to eight, including the schools chancellor, who now will chair the board. The chancellor’s selection had previously been made by the board. The presidents of New York’s five boroughs will continue to appoint one member each, but their appointees must be parents of New York City public school students.

The board of education, which now has expansive powers over the 1.1 million-student system, also will have a narrower role. It will retain approval of the school budget and capital-spending plan and will set citywide education policy. But it will be barred from daily management, in a nod to the widespread frustration over its perceived micromanagement.

Under the new law, New York’s 32 elected community school boards, long criticized as being ineffective and rife with corruption, are to be abolished by June 2003. Those boards had chosen the local superintendents who manage the city’s 900 elementary and middle schools; instead, the chancellor will make those appointments.

Elimination of the community school boards can occur only with the approval of the U.S. Department of Justice, which must determine that the voting power of minority groups will not be weakened. Experts said the likelihood of that approval would hinge on what mechanisms a new legislative task force will recommend to ensure that community voices are heard.

Mr. Bloomberg’s new authority drew support for its potential to foster the conditions necessary for school improvement. Hugh B. Price, the president of the National Urban League, which is based in New York City, said the arrangement could “clear away the underbrush” that has for too long stood in the way of real improvement in the classroom.

But the governance change also prompted some observers to recall the adage that it’s wise to be careful what one wishes for. How Mr. Bloomberg uses his power will likely define his legacy as mayor—for better or worse.

Now that the mayor has the power he so ardently sought, observers say, he can no longer argue—as some of his predecessors did—that the city schools’ convoluted governance structure made it impossible to improve education.

“He has no excuse anymore that he doesn’t control the classroom. He has as many or more levers at his disposal than anyone heading an urban system,” said Robert Berne, the senior vice president for academic and health affairs at New York University and an expert on the city’s schools.

“Education will become for Mr. Bloomberg what crime was for [former Mayor Rudolph W.] Giuliani: a litmus test of his success,” Mr. Berne said.

Governance Cycles

The changes in New York represent yet another turn in the cycle of centralizing and decentralizing that has churned the city’s school system for 150 years. In the mid-1800s, the schools were run by 17 elected local boards and a weak central board. But by the 1890s, those bodies were under attack for corruption and inefficiency, so the state legislature centralized school authority under one mayorally appointed board, according to the education historian Diane Ravitch.

The social tumult of the 1960s turned the wheel yet again, Ms. Ravitch said. Black and Hispanic activists pressed for more community control of schools, resulting in a 1969 state law that created the 32 local elected boards and a central board of five members appointed by the borough presidents. In 1973, the mayor was allowed to add two appointees to that board, expanding it to seven.

That hybrid system made it difficult for an education leader to advance an agenda and for residents to establish a clear line of responsibility for educational failure, Ms. Ravitch argued. The disillusionment and frustration mounted, creating a consensus that produced this latest cycle of change, she said.

“There was little opposition to this [mayoral control] because the status quo has no defenders,” said Ms. Ravitch, a professor at New York University who has written a history of the city’s public schools. “Whether it will lead to real school reform, who knows?”

First Step

Education analysts cautioned last week that even such a profound governance change must be viewed as the vehicle, rather than the substance, of school improvement.

Larry Cuban, a professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, said that a governance change can provide the political stability necessary for reform, but that a sound educational strategy, backed by enough money, is crucial. He offered the contrasting cases of Boston, where the mayor controls the schools and has seen substantial improvement, and Baltimore, where the mayor was responsible for the schools until a state takeover in 1997 and saw little such improvement.

Given such examples, experts say the jury is out on whether mayoral control leads to better schools.

“There is no clear picture to prove the theory that if you have an elected official take over, it will necessarily lead to academic improvement,” Mr. Cuban said.

While proponents of the governance change point out that the inclusion of five parent members on the New York City board gives parents a high-visibility role in city schools, many in New York still are concerned about the impact of eliminating the community school boards.

Marilyn Gittell, a political science professor at the City University of New York, was a staunch advocate of decentralizing schools 30 years ago to strengthen residents’ input. The boards provided fertile ground for minority leadership development, Ms. Gittell said, noting that some former board members went on to elected city and state posts.

Advocates of greater community control of New York schools believe the city should establish elected school-based panels, such as Chicago’s local school councils, made up of parents, teachers, and community members. Some, including Mr. Berne, believe a second tier of elected groups should be formed to manage interschool issues such as transportation.

Giving such groups real decisionmaking power and ensuring that they are elected is critical, said Alexander Betancourt, the deputy executive director of Aspira, a New York-based Hispanic youth- development organization that works to improve schools.

“There has been a sense of disenfranchisement among African-American and Latino parents,” Mr. Betancourt said. “Ultimately, the impact has to be a restoration of the faith of parents and the belief the system can work for their children.”

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A version of this article appeared in the June 19, 2002 edition of Education Week as N.Y.C. Mayor Gains Control Over Schools

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