Should Mayoral Control in New York City Be Ended, Extended or Amended? Should the City Council/Legislature Sponsor Open Forums? In Other Word: A Transparent, Democratic Process

We commonly hear complaints about our dysfunctional government: Why all the fighting? Why can’t the factions within government get along? What happened to the bi-partisanship?

In reality governing has always been contentious, our founding fathers spent months arguing, threatening, leaving, returning, compromising and eventually creating a governing document: the constitution. The founders included slave holders and antislavery delegates, others from large and small states, plantation owners and New England farmers and traders, interests as varied as the nation. The final document was a patchwork of compromises and the ratification was always in doubt.

Madison, Hamilton and Jay wrote a series of essays published in leading newspapers, what we would call op eds; the 85 essays are called the Federalist Papers and they address the hopes and fears of their fellow citizens.

Perhaps the greatest fear was factions, the self interest of citizens ripping apart any attempt to create a governing framework, a constitution.

Federalist # 10 addresses the question of factions.

To the People of the State of New York:

AMONG the numerous advantages promised by a well-constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction. The friend of popular governments never finds himself so much alarmed for their character and fate, as when he contemplates their propensity to this dangerous vice. He will not fail, therefore, to set a due value on any plan which, without violating the principles to which he is attached, provides a proper cure for it. The instability, injustice, and confusion introduced into the public councils, have, in truth, been the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished; as they continue to be the favorite and fruitful topics from which the adversaries to liberty derive their most specious declamations. … Complaints are everywhere heard from our most considerate and virtuous citizens, equally the friends of public and private faith, and of public and personal liberty, that our governments are too unstable, that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties, and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority. However anxiously we may wish that these complaints had no foundation, the evidence, of known facts will not permit us to deny that they are in some degree true. It will be found, indeed, on a candid review of our situation, that some of the distresses under which we labor have been erroneously charged on the operation of our governments; but it will be found, at the same time, that other causes will not alone account for many of our heaviest misfortunes; and, particularly, for that prevailing and increasing distrust of public engagements, and alarm for private rights, which are echoed from one end of the continent to the other. These must be chiefly, if not wholly, effects of the unsteadiness and injustice with which a factious spirit has tainted our public administrations.

The contentious politics of 1787 has not abated in 2018; the political landscape by its very nature is a contentious landscape.

Another fear was that of self-interest, the branches of government using power for their own self-interest. In the most oft quoted Federalist (# 51) Madison says, “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition,” the division of powers will balance the ambitions of those governing.

It is equally evident, that the members of each department should be as little dependent as possible on those of the others, for the emoluments annexed to their offices. Were the executive magistrate, or the judges, not independent of the legislature in this particular, their independence in every other would be merely nominal. But the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.

 For the past four mayoral terms, sixteen years, New York City has functioned under a mayoral control structure; the executive, the mayor and his designee, the chancellor, make all education decisions; there is no separation of powers Two years ago mayoral control was on the cusp of ending, the Albany legislature adjourned without extending mayoral control and the system appeared to be heading back to the pre-Bloomberg management system, a seven member board, with each borough president appointing a member and the mayor two members with thirty-two elected community boards. The legislature adjourned, and was called back the next day and passed a two-year mayoral control extender.

At the United Federation of Teachers Spring Conference Michael Mulgrew, the union president “chatted” with Cory Johnson, the speaker of the City Council at the early morning session: a wide ranging discussion about schools, integration and eventually about the school management structure, aka, mayoral control. Johnson, surprisingly did not simply rubber stamp extension, he clearly was interested in exploring changes in the current system.

The current law created a 13-member board with eight mayoral appointees who serve at the pleasure of the appointing authority.

The twelve years of Bloomberg were characterized by dramatic changes; the closing of over 100 schools, sharp increases in high school graduation rates, a movement from tight control (ten Regional Superintendents),  through a number of other models to the creation of forty quasi autonomous “affinity” networks and growing antipathy between the mayor and the union.

De Blasio and his chancellor returned to the pre-Bloomberg superintendent system, created Pre-K for All, over 70,000 kids in pre-kindergarten programs, additionally, Pre-K for 3-year olds in the highest poverty districts and struggled mightily attempting to address the lowest achieving schools in the city, called Renewal schools.

Richard Carranza, the new schools chancellor appears to be returning to the early Bloomberg model, he is in the process of hiring nine executive superintendents with geographic responsibility over the 32 school districts and high schools. In addition, a new principal evaluation system is being rolled out, a Danielson-like model for principals.

Should the mayor and chancellor continue to be solely responsible for the 1.1 million, 1800 school New York City education system?

The Panel for Educational Priorities (PEP), the central board serves at the will of the mayor, they are anonymous faces, their meetings pro forma approvals of mayoral/chancellor policies.

The formerly elected local school boards, the Community Education Councils (CECs), are made up of active parents, “councils” that have little authority, only zoning and only advisory and the meetings poorly attended.

Under Bloomberg, without the interference of any elected officials, chancellors made substantial changes, controversial to some, earth-shaking to others.

Some will argue that the pre-Bloomberg education system was marred by factional politics; the salaried central board members represented the interests of the borough presidents, not the interests of the chancellor. The elected school boards were dominated by local politics, too many jobs depended upon political loyalty, and corruption was rampant, especially in the poorest districts.

On the other hand the Chancellor’s District, the lowest achieving schools in the city, made substantial progress, in a number of districts there was a high level of parent engagement, one district (District 22) implemented a massive school integration plan, over 1,000 Afro-American kids bused to formerly all-White schools.

Although the new chancellor appears personable and anxious to work with communities across the city others fear a return to an accountability driven system with little school autonomy.

The mayoral control law sunsets June 30, 2019, the legislature will have to extend the law. De Blasio will ask for a “clean extension,’ Cory Johnson and others may want to change the current law.

Debate would allow factions an opportunity to question: a number of questions come to mind.

  • Should mayoral control be abandoned, and, if so, should we return to the former system or an elected central board?
  • Are there models of elected central boards in other cities that have been effective models?
  • If we retain mayoral control should the term of PEP members be fixed, in other words, should PEP members be free to vote without the implicit threat of being fired by the appointing authority?
  • Should one of the PEP appointees be appointed by the City Council, each borough president under the current law appoints one member; mayoral appointees would still be a majority of the board.
  • Should we return to elected local boards or a combination of elected and parent members?
  • Should the powers of the Community Education Councils be expanded? And, if so, how?
  • Should the teacher union have a non-voting seat on the CECs?
  • Should “major policy decisions (example, hiring of a chancellor)” require the “advice and consent” of the City Council?

Looking across the nation, Los Angeles has an elected school board, many millions of dollars spent in the elections, the current LA board supports charters, hired a businessman with no educational experience as superintendent and the teacher union is on the verge of striking.

Chicago is a mayoral control city with a mayor and a union bitterly opposed, rampant school closings; a teacher strike a few years ago, the mayor has run roughshod over the union and communities.

Boston was the first mayoral control city and has a long history of collaboration between the communities, parent activists and the unions.

A shout out to Council Speaker Johnson: how about running open forums across the city, let’s give the “factions,” from parents to community organizations, to teachers and principals, to think tanks and scholars; let’s give everyone chance, in public forums, to expound.

To quote Madison/Hamilton, Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?

One response to “Should Mayoral Control in New York City Be Ended, Extended or Amended? Should the City Council/Legislature Sponsor Open Forums? In Other Word: A Transparent, Democratic Process

  1. Winston Churchill is reported to have said, “Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…”

    The solution to flawed democracy is not some version of autocracy, but better democracy.

    Governing a system of 1.1 million students is a knotty problem to be sure. I have no doubt that more democracy is part of the solution, but by no means to only one. I lived through the troublesome years of community school boards as a teacher and district science coordinator in CSD 16. However, no governing arrangement will be successful unless we clarify the answers to two questions, “Schools for whom and for what purpose?” The “factionalism” is about different answers to those questions. As long a some kids get what they need to be successful in life, work, and citizenship only because some kids to not, there will be factions. As long as we fail to attack the premise that inequity and scarcity are normal, those that get will seek to protect their privilege and those that don’t will need to fight for a share.


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