Upcoming Legislative Session: Should the Legislature Renew, Amend or Abandon the Mayoral Control Law?

“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.” (10th Amendment to the Constitution)

Education policy in our nation is set by fifty states and the federal government, and, varies widely from state to state. In California the education leader is elected in a statewide election at the same time as the governor, in other states governors appoint boards of education, governors directly appoint commissioners, in New York State the governor has no role, and members of the board are “elected” by a joint meeting of both houses of the legislature.

In the 14,000 school districts across the nation elected lay school boards hire superintendents, in a handful of urban districts mayors directly appoint superintendents or appoint boards who hire a superintendent.

Our federal system devolves educational decision-making to the states.

How should school systems be governed?

  • superintendents hired by elected school boards
  • superintendents hired by a mayor
  • superintendents hired by school boards appointed by a mayor

These choices lead to other questions:

  • Should education decisions be made outside of the political process? Or, are all decisions “political”?
  • If schools are funded by mayors, shouldn’t the mayor have a voice in the educational process?
  • Has the election process for school boards become too politicized?
  • Will mayors make education decisions to enhance their political resume?
  • And probably dozens of other questions

New York City has run the gamut, prior to 1970 a school board, vetted by a screening panel, hired a superintendent who was always a senior superintendent from within the city. In the 60’s the nation was split apart by urban violence: riots in Los Angeles,  Newark and Detroit were ripped apart by racial violence, while New York tittered on the edge, the city avoided the viral riots that were engulfing the nation.

In the late 60’s the Ford Foundation, a predecessor of the Gates Foundation, funded decentralization pilots in three neighborhoods, Two Bridges (Lower East Side), IS 201 (East Harlem) and Oceanhill-Brownsville (Brooklyn), small clusters of schools were treated as school districts with wide authority. In 1968 the Oceanhill-Brownsville school board “discharged” a group of teachers, the mayor, John Lindsay, failed to intervene and a 40-day strike ensued in the fall of 1968. In the winter/spring of 1969 the state legislature debated a reorganization of the New York City school system. The Ford Foundation released a detailed plan to decentralize the city schools, to basically create  geographic school districts with fiscal, curricula and personnel authority. (See Ford Foundation, Reconnection for Learning report here). After months of debate a decentralized school system was voted into law.

From 1970 until 2002 a decentralized school system was both plagued by outright corruption in the poorest districts and innovative programs designed and implemented by elected local school boards in a few other districts. For example, District 22 (Flatbush, Marine Park, Sheepshead Bay) created and implemented a school integration plan; over 1,000 Afro American children bused from overcrowded segregated schools to underutilized all white schools, and, sadly, in others, supervisory jobs were traded for political favors and/or cash.

In the 90’s the central board, appointed by the borough presidents and the mayor, removed the lowest performing schools from districts and created a Chancellor’s District, with excellent documented results.

Mayor Bloomberg, pointing to significant inadequacies of a decentralized school system, and with support of a wide spectrum of organizations, convinced the legislature to move to a mayoral control management structure, a central school board (Panel for Educational Priorities) with a majority appointed by the mayor and local school boards (Community Education Councils) with an advisory-only role. The Chancellor’s District was abandoned.

Bloomberg hired a lawyer/litigator as chancellor and the mayoral control system structure swayed from ten mega-districts, each with hundreds of schools, to Knowledge Networks, to Empowerment to Affinity Networks.

Mayor de Blasio selected a new chancellor and returned to geographic school districts.

The original mayoral control law has a sunset provision, the law must be renewed by the set date or the system will revert to the decentralization model. Under Bloomberg the renewals of the law were routine, under de Blasio, a democratic mayor, the republican Senate held the law hostage to “givebacks,” the renewal of the law was coupled with pro-charter school items.

With overwhelming democratic majorities in both houses of the legislature and a democratic governor one might assume the law will be renewed without much debate.

The governor could include the renewal in the state budget; obviating any substantive debate, or, not. The speaker of the NY City Council and the chair of the Council Education Committee have both voiced questions: the Council approves the city budget, including school funding, yet has no roll in the creation of policy, they might want to change the law to give the Council a greater role: a seat on the Central Board (PEP), or, oversight responsibility in the statute, or, PEP members appointed for fixed terms,and not serve at the whim of the mayor, or, who knows?

In the last few years the debate has lingered and decided in the last days of the session, called “The Big Ugly,” totally unconnected items are linked to gain passage in the waning hours of the session.

Boston, New York City and Chicago have mayoral control systems, in New York and Boston the plans have been widely accepted, albeit with criticism, in Chicago endless battling between the mayor and school community.

Los Angeles is governed by an elected school board with a pro-charter majority who hired a hedge funder as superintendent; after months and months of acrimonious battling the school system is on the edge of a systemwide strike.

The extension of mayoral control may be totally non-controversial, or, once again, could become part of the “Big Ugly” deal-making in June.

Is a 1.1 million student system manageable? Is the current system “too political?” Should parents/teachers/communities have a greater role?

Should we “rip it down” and start anew?  Or, build a bottom-up system with parents/teachers/colleges and communities playing the major role? In other words, create “little Finlands”? or, tweak around the edges? or, simply, renew the current law?


One response to “Upcoming Legislative Session: Should the Legislature Renew, Amend or Abandon the Mayoral Control Law?

  1. Eric Nadelstern

    Mayor’s of NYC have always controled our schools through the power of the purse. The question at hand once again is whether want our Mayorrs to also be accountable,


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