School & District Management

N.Y.C. Mayor Keeping Firm Hold on Schools

By Lesli A. Maxwell — July 14, 2009 3 min read
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Legally, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s control over the 1.1 million-student public school system in New York City expired last month, caught in the crossfire of an unrelated political battle in the state legislature.

In reality, though, Mr. Bloomberg’s grip on the nation’s largest school system remains tight, even though state lawmakers—who had been feuding for five weeks over leadership of the New York Senate—failed to pass legislation that would have extended his formal control beyond June 30.

New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg speaks July 1 about control over the city’s school system.

Although supporters of mayoral control have feared that management issues would be difficult to handle without clear authority, the chaos that the mayor had predicted if the law wasn’t extended had not come to pass in the week after its expiration.

In fact, one day after the law that gave the mayor control of the schools lapsed, Mr. Bloomberg convened a seven-person board of education whose members include three deputy mayors who work for him and three other appointees who support him. In accordance with previous state law, Mr. Bloomberg himself appointed two members of the re-established board, while the city’s five borough presidents chose the rest. Before mayoral control, the board was the main governing body for the city’s schools, but it was disbanded when Mr. Bloomberg took over the school system in 2002.

In a July 1 meeting that lasted less than 10 minutes, the hours-old board made clear it had no intention of undoing the mayor’s education policies or replacing his choice for schools chancellor, Joel I. Klein. Only one appointee, Dolores M. Fernandez, who was selected to represent the Bronx, showed any sign of dissent when she abstained from voting twice.

‘Rubber-Stamp Board’

“Nothing has changed,” said Diane Ravitch, a research professor of education at New York University and an expert on the history of New York City’s public schools. “All of the parent groups and activists were so excited and hopeful that mayoral control would expire and things would change. Not so.

“This is a rubber-stamp board whose first act was to ask to be abolished and to turn over control to the mayor’s chancellor,” said Ms. Ravitch, who has often criticized the Bloomberg administration in a blog she co-writes for edweek.org.

But one strong supporter of mayoral control said that while the Bloomberg-friendly board is the best possible stop-gap measure, it can’t ensure stability.

“The situation is very unstable and presents a huge threat to the progress that’s been made over the last seven years,” said Kathryn S. Wylde, the president and chief executive officer of the Partnership for New York City, a group of business leaders who have been among the staunchest backers of mayoral control. Threats to progress, Ms. Wylde said, would be “the first action that someone wants to challenge, whether it’s a decision to open or close a school or labor negotiations.

“This presents a whole new world of litigious possibilities,” she said.

Mayor Bloomberg, who is running for election to a third term after succeeding in getting the city’s term-limit rule lifted last fall, didn’t expect to see the law that has given him near-complete authority over the school system expire, despite loud and persistent criticisms of his governance style from some parent groups and education scholars. (“Bloomberg’s Way,” May 20, 2009.)

A measure to preserve mayoral control with some modest changes to check Mr. Bloomberg’s authority—which he had endorsed—had already been approved by the state Assembly, one chamber of the legislature.

‘At a Standstill’

That bill would preserve the mayor’s power to appoint the majority of members to an oversight board known as the Panel for Educational Policy, but would put some limits on what has been his near-unilateral authority to close schools and grant contracts.

But last month, a struggle over power erupted in the state Senate, with 31 Republicans and 31 Democrats deadlocked over who is in charge. That stalemate threw many unresolved legislative issues, including mayoral control, into political limbo. The old law expired before senators could agree to even hold a vote on the Assembly measure. Late last week, lawmakers appeared to have settled the leadership dispute, potentially clearing the way for action on key legislation, including mayoral control.

Mayoral control critics vowed to fight for more parental involvement and other changes.

“There are different organizations that will still fight the good fight,” said Jane Hirschmann, a parent advocate who runs Time Out From Testing, an anti-testing group. “But this is a mayor who was able to get [a change in law to seek] a third term. He has lots of money and chits that he can call in.”

A version of this article appeared in the July 15, 2009 edition of Education Week as N.Y.C. Mayor Keeping Firm Hold on Schools

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