Mayoral Control: A Review of School Governance in New York City

As the clock ticks down on the Bloomberg era and the wannabe candidates scurry to meet the masses forums and committees emerge to suggest policies for the next administration.

Seemingly every day an education issue – this week a teacher evaluation plan and the school bus strike dominate the headlines and op ed pages.

Last week the Democratic candidates gathered at Baruch College to respond to questions at a forum organized by the CSA – the supervisors union.

Over the next few blog posts I’ll examine some of the primary elements of the current educational structure in New York City.

Let’s begin with governance.

The 10th amendment to the Constitution, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people,” has always been interpreted as “reserving” education as a state function. 16,000 elected local school boards and fifty state departments of educations govern education. In New York City the “consolidation,” the combining of the boroughs into one city in 1898 and the creation of a unified board of education, a board appointed by the mayor led the new school system until 1970. School board members came from the elites of the city, a policy board that selected a superintendent from inside the system. Diane Ravitch traces the history of education in New York City in The Great School Wars

By the 1960s the school board was under constant attack: an emerging militant teacher union, attempts to integrate an increasingly segregated system, rising militancy in the civil right movement, an overwhelmingly white teaching and supervisory staff, the Vietnamese war, the system was fraught with conflict. The school board and the school bureaucracy resisted change and fought to maintain the system, an increasingly dysfunctional school system.

David Rogers author of 110 Livingston Street: Politics and Administration in the New York City Schools provides “a rigorous sociological examination of ‘bureaucratic pathology within the school system.'” Rogers saw little hope of positive change,

“”I would conclude, then, that there may be no solution for the failures of big cities and urban education over the short run, and that conditions will probably get worse before they improve.”” But there is a prescription for at least partial cure: decentralization of operations (a principal ought to be able to get the air conditioning repaired) and greater centralization of planning. “”The structure of the school system itself must be changed.’”

A 1967 Ford Foundation report, “Reconnection for Learning,” the lengthy and acrimonious teacher strike in the fall of 1968 and a popular reform-minded mayor with presidential aspirations resulted in a complete overhaul of the governance of the school system.

The new law created thirty-two community school districts elected by a proportional representation system and a seven member appointed central board – one by each borough president and two by the mayor. The school system leader, called a chancellor, would be selected by the board.

The new school board members were salaried (a per diem stipend) and each member had a full time staff member. Esmerelda Simmons, a Dinkins appointee recounts her experiences, a board on which the members spent their time responding to the political needs of their patrons.

Although the mayor only had two appointees he never had a problem finding two additional votes – mayors claimed credit for successes and blamed and fired chancellors for perceived failures. From 1970 until the change in the law in 2002 the tenure of chancellors was about three years. For the twelve years of Ed Koch schools were significantly underfunded. Under union-supported David Dinkins it took almost two years to negotiate an expired contract. Rudy Giuliani was confrontational from day 1, and, the unpopular “double zero” (a five year contract with no increases in the first two years) was reluctantly approved by the union member after initially voting down the contract.

Mayoral control began in Boston in the early nineties with highly touted results; an increasing number of cities have adopted the model. Kenneth Wong, The Education Mayor: Improving America’s Schools reviews 100 school districts in 40 states and concludes that mayoral control has increased student achievement.

The SUNY and CUNY Boards are appointed by the governor and other electeds, the Board of Regents elected by the state legislature. All are policy boards that meet monthly to address policy issues. For example the Board of Regents is currently discussing high school graduation requirements: should the state approve integrated credits in Career and Technical Education (CTE) schools – offering two credits for approved courses combining a CTE course with a basic course such as English, Social Studies or Math; should the Global Studies Regents, currently covering two years of coursework only cover one year, etc. School closing decisions are not considered policy; those decisions are made at the local level.

The specific powers of the current New York City board are specified in the law,

* § 2590-g. Powers and duties of the city board. The city board shall
advise the chancellor on matters of policy affecting the welfare of the
city school district and its pupils. The board shall exercise no
executive power and perform no executive or administrative functions.
Nothing herein contained shall be construed to require or authorize the
day-to-day supervision or the administration of the operations of any
school within the city school district of the city of New York

The law goes to specifically delineate a long list of powers Read here

Whither mayoral control?

1. Mayoral control versus appointed or elected boards.

The Los Angeles Board is elected, and highly politicized, and the school district is low functioning with a weak union. If the mayor is not responsible will the mayor appropriately fund schools? There are no examples of any governance model that has any clear advantages
2. Should the mayor have the authority to appoint and fire school board members at will?

Currently the mayor appoints eight of the thirteen board members and can fire his appointees at will. Most other school boards appoint/elect members for fixed terms.

3. Should potential board members be “approved” by a screening panel, and, if yes, who would be on the panel?

Candidate John Liu calls for a screening panel with wide representation – other candidates are silent. CUNY, SUNY and the Regents have no screening, although the appointees always have substantial resumes. The decisions of the boards are usually unanimous.

4. Should board meetings be forums to discuss major policy issues? Currently board meetings are platforms for opponents to rail against the board – the public has the opportunity to make brief statements before votes – with no impact. Other boards usually have public comment periods before votes and some have sessions for public comment.

Currently the board simply rubber stamps positions of the mayor – the members appointed by the borough presidents occasionally vote “no,” the votes have no impact.

5. One candidate (Quinn) suggests a deputy mayor for education and families. Should educational policy decisions be closely aligned with the mayor?

6. The last four chancellors have not been educators and required waivers from the state commissioner – should the waiver section be removed from the law? The current candidates who have commented all called for a “highly qualified educator.”

7. Should the next mayor lead any changes in the school governance law?

Two members of the state legislature have submitted “repealer” bills to return to the 2002 governance system. The mayor issued a statement strongly opposing the bills.

The current law “sunsets” on 6/30/15, the legislature can repeal or amend the current law at any time although the process requires approval by both houses and the governor.


7 responses to “Mayoral Control: A Review of School Governance in New York City

  1. Mayoral Control is exactly what Guiliani left for Bumbling Mike. While School Decentralization laws are the law of the land, only NYC has seen that law in a state of suspension for the past 10 years. What has this Mayor done to take advantage of the fact that the 32 NYC School Boards were suspended owing to their own greed and corruption? He has done nothing accept to bully and denegrate an entire profession because he couldnt work collaboratively with unions to simply devise a give and take that would have somewhat increased benefits while getting rid of incompetents, deviates and crimnals all numbering less then 1000 in an 85ooo people work force. What else did he do..He started The Mayors Leadership Academy, taught by a bunch of folks from NJ. I have seen these school leaders, talked to them, re-schooled some of them, for the most part they are incompetent, but they do no how to write the letter U, and they proudly point out that they learned how to do that at THe Mayors Leadership Academy. This Mayor for whatever reason chose to make war on an entire profession in his zeal to make change. All of the restructuring models and who knows how many more are in the offing, have brought nothing accept chaos, confusion,and contempt.He did this by the way with the direct knowledge and consent by the UFT as represented by Ms. Weingarten. It was her last contract negotiation that she gave up binding grievable arbitration for top levl and early enterer money. So there is UFT culpability in play here as well. To me the solution to the eternal rubber room patronage is simple. ANyone who is put there should be offered a 2 year buyout contingent upn their signing a waiver prohibiting their re-entry into the Teaching profession in NYC. THe alternative is a 30 day must hearing at one level, no appeals with the decsion of that hearing binding. Thus you have 2 year lump sum buyout vs a possibilty of dismissal with no compensation. 1/2 of the rubber room would be emptied. I would bargain with the UFT that no one with a misdemeanor or felony arrest /record can be allowed to hold any position in a school. For sure however, I would not denegrate an entire profession because I dont like their union!


  2. two of the cities w/ mayoral control made the least progress since 2033 on the NAEPS: Cleveland and NYC


  3. John Liu is ahead of the curve in his public statements on school governance. As I have said before, Diane Ravitch has demonstrated in her history of the NYC school system that either mayoral control or community control can work, depending on the players. The problem with our current system of school governance is not so much that it has mayoral control, but that it lacks an effective set of checks and balances on a hostile mayor. I agree that Panel for Educational policy members should have fixed terms and should not serve solely at the discretion of the mayor, making them nothing but a rubber stamp. I agree that the chancellor of the nation’s largest school system should be an educator! We can fix school governance. I’d be interested to know what the other mayoral candidates have to say about it, too.


  4. Democracy is sloppy! We elect a mayor and the want that individual to improve everything in the city including Education. There are a multiplicity of “oversight” panels that are inevitably produced by the very nature of the divided responsibility our Constitution provides for. However, implementation occurs at the local and neighborhood level. The real judge of the candidates is to indicate the names of leaders she or he would consider, the degree of autonomy the chancellor will have, and the PROVEN AND DEMONSTRATED EXPERIENCE of that person to truly ENGAGE the many stakeholders with a vision and inspiration. If not, plus le change, plus le meme chose!


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