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Spring 1996
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Breaking Free: Public School Lessons and the Imperative of School Choice
by Sol Stern
Breaking Free.
 
  S oundings

Albany’s New Deck Chairs
Sol Stern
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New York State, ranking near the bottom nationally in education measures such as dropout rates and SAT scores, urgently needs to join the national debate about reforms like charter schools, vouchers, and privatization that would challenge the monopoly of the education establishment that has presided over such failure. But legislative leaders from both parties seem determined to protect that establishment's interests.

Not that Albany hasn’t been churning out education bills. So many competing proposals for restructuring New York City’s education system are floating around that the media and the public have trouble keeping track of all of them. The most prominent proposal, the Assembly Democrats’ “bold, comprehensive” plan (as Speaker Sheldon Silver’s press release puts it), merely adds more deck chairs to the school system’s sinking ship. The already unwieldy seven-member Board of Education would give way to a 19-member board, and each school would have a council composed of four teachers, four parents, one administrator, one other school employee, and one member appointed by the borough president. These councils would be powerless to change centrally mandated work rules and regulations that protect bad teachers and constrain good ones.

Senate Republicans, meanwhile, have introduced three bills on city school governance. One, sponsored by Senator Guy Velella of the Bronx, would give the mayor authority over the schools. Senator John Marchi of Staten Island has two bills, one that would essentially allow Staten Island to run its own education system, another that would eliminate the central Board of Education and replace it with five separate boards, one for each borough-achieving Staten Island's independence in another way.

All the proposals claim the mantle of reform, yet all are preoccupied with who runs the monopoly system that controls over 100,000 jobs. Each plan has been shaped by the needs of local political machines and special interests, especially the teachers’ union. Not one fundamentally challenges the dysfunctional system by subjecting it to competitive pressures that would force it to improve.

But another, little noticed education bill languishes in committee. Introduced in January by a small group of conservative legislators led by Republican Senator Serphin Maltese of Queens and Democratic Assemblyman Dov Hikind of Brooklyn, it would offer vouchers redeemable at private or public schools to every child in the city. The bill clearly tries to do too much too fast: starting with an experimental program of vouchers for low-income children trapped in failing schools is a more promising approach, both practically and politically. Yet the Maltese-Hikind bill recognizes a crucial principle: real choice must be part of the education debate. Unless leaders on both sides of the aisle begin thinking about how to serve children rather than special interests, New York’s schools will fall even further behind.

 

 


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