Mayoral Control or an Elected School Board: How Should Education in New York City Be Led?

Why shouldn’t mayors be in charge of schools?  Mayors select the police chief, the head of parks, sanitation, all city agencies and fund schools, why do we need school boards? On the other hand shouldn’t educational decisions be free of politics? Shouldn’t parents and teachers play a role in education decision-making? Shouldn’t educational decisions be made to benefit children not enhance the popularity of the mayor?

Elected school boards give the citizenry a voice in decision-making, a vital part of the democratic process; however dollars drive elections. In Citizens United (2010) the Supreme Court ruled that political contributions are speech and any limit on contributions violates the First Amendment. Millions of dollars poured into Los Angeles school board elections from billionaire charter school supporters and elected a pro-charter school board. New York City could end up with a pro-charter, anti-union elected school board.

The mayoral control law contained a sunset provision, the governance would revert to the system prior to the mayoral control law if not reauthorized, read a detailed discussion of the law here.

An increasing number of large cities have moved to a mayoral control of schools starting with Boston in the 90’s and New York City in 2002. Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit and others have followed suit.

In the early years mayoral control was praised by scholars, The Education Mayor: Improving America’s Schools  (2007) Kenneth Wong and others took a deep dive into mayor control,

• What does school governance look like under mayoral leadership?
• How does mayoral control affect school and student performance?
• What are the key factors for success or failure of integrated governance?
• How does mayoral control effect practical changes in schools and classrooms?

The results of their examination indicate that, although mayoral control of schools may not be appropriate for every district, it can successfully emphasize accountability across the education system, providing more leverage for each school district to strengthen its educational infrastructure and improve student performance

Mayoral control has come under increasing attack from a range of stakeholders, especially parents and teachers, the core constituency of schools.

New York City has never had an elected school board, from the creation of New York City in 1898, “the Great Consolidation,” until the late 60’s a policy board selected through a screening panel process picked a superintendent, an experienced educator from within the system.

In 60’s the system faltered, rising cries for school integration, opposition to the war in Vietnam and back-to-back teacher strikes (67/68). Riots swept across cities, Watts, Detroit, Newark, and cities appeared to be on the cusp of racial warfare. Some sociologists advocated that inner city communities be given power over their own lives, a precursor of the current Defund the Police movement; give communities control over schools in their communities (Read a more detailed discussion on a prior blog post here).

The NYS legislature passed a law decentralizing the system, an appointed seven member salaried, staffed school board, each borough president would appoint a member and mayor appoint two members. The city divided into thirty-two nine-member elected school boards with the authority to hire superintendents and principals and determine curriculum. (The power to hire superintendents was revoked in the mid-nineties). Decentralization became a patronage pool for local electeds and was plagued by corruption, especially in the highest poverty districts; the power structure ignored the corruption. A few districts thrived with deeply involved members and should have been models for the remainder of the city.

In 2001 Michael Bloomberg was elected mayor, and, with widespread support, called for mayoral control of schools and the legislature/governor agreed, mayor control legislation became law.

If the law is not reauthorized by June 30th following the election of a mayor the system reverts to the previous iteration, decentralization. The mayoral system did retain a school board, nine of the fifteen members appointed by the mayor (Panel for Education Priorities) and local school boards (Community Education Councils) made up of parent association leaders with limited authority, very limited authority.

Mayor-elect Adams is about to introduce his selection for chancellor.

The first week in January the state legislature will convene, Governor Hochel will give her State of the State message, later in January release the Executive Budget and some time before mid-June adjournment reauthorize mayoral control, or not.

After Mayor deBlasio’s re-election the Republican controlled State Senate held mayoral control hostage, trying to extract more charter schools. A New York Times ripped the Republicans and at a special session over the summer mayoral control was reauthorized. The teacher union, with a few caveats supported reauthorization.

One would think that with democrats in control of New York State mayoral control would be reauthorized without opposition. Actually dissatisfaction with soon to be ex-mayor has resulted in calls for changes in the law; from a totally new law, creating an elected school board, to changing the representation on the PEP to eliminate the mayoral majority. On the horizon is a bruising primary election to select a democratic gubernatorial candidate as well as a tough election in November. The mayoral control law could easily become a divisive campaign issue.

A few years ago the Assembly Education Committee, acknowledging the sunset provisions in the law, held hearings.

I testified, read my testimony here, Diane Ravitch submitted testimony, read here, as did other advocates, Leonie Haimson (Class Size Matter) here and Kamala Karman (NYC Opt Out) here.

The growing list of candidates for governor will all have their own views, and rubber-stamping a reauthorization may not be so easy. A democratic Governor, Assembly and Senate leaders does not presage an unamended reauthorization.  While the legislative session sits in Albany the candidates in the gubernatorial democratic June primary will duel, Republicans waiting for the November general election and hoping to seize the governorship, mayoral control may emerge as a contentious election issue.

As a history teacher I was reminded of the evils of factions in the political arena, and Madison’s warning to the People of New York should be required reading today.

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.

The valuable improvements made by the American constitutions on the popular models, both ancient and modern, cannot certainly be too much admired; but it would be an unwarrantable partiality, to contend that they have as effectually obviated the danger on this side, as was wished and expected.

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.

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