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Inching Toward School Reform

from the magazine

Inching Toward School Reform

Winter 1997
Economy, finance, and budgets
New York

Last month the State Legislature stripped New York City's community school boards of their power to hire district superintendents. With this act, the Legislature essentially gutted the 1969 decentralization law that originally created the local boards, leaving it unclear why these now-powerless bodies should even continue to exist. Some of the boards had become swamps of corruption and patronage; the last board election attracted only 5 percent of eligible voters.

Albany made an essential reform, but it certainly isn't a solution to the legendary inefficiency and ineffectiveness of the New York City school system. The return of centralization is not likely to reverse the educational failure that still plagues the city's schools.

A curious fact about the past 28 years is that despite decentralization, the central Board of Education has kept control of virtually all functions, including personnel, security, supplies, school lunches, transportation, and maintenance. With all the focus on the local school boards, we seem to have forgotten the many scandals that have stained the central bureaus in the past five years. The city's schools have suffered simultaneously the worst effects of decentralization (politicization) and centralization (inefficiency).

The reform legislation did not touch the central board, which consists of seven people appointed by six different elected officials (one by each of the five borough presidents, and two by the mayor). This dispersion of authority guarantees a lack of accountability, allowing the central board to provide virtually no oversight of the mammoth bureaucracy at central headquarters.

The bottom line for the school system must be the performance of students, and on this count it is in desperate trouble. Only 50 percent of the city's high school students graduate within four years. In Washington, D.C., an emergency financial control board divested the elected school board of its powers in part because only 60 percent of its high school students graduate in four years.

The school system also continues to waste resources. Chancellor Rudy Crew recently released a budget showing that only 42 percent of the Board of Education's spending actually reaches the classroom. "Only" 4.4 percent of the system's $8.8 billion budget is spent at central headquarters, but that amounts to a staggering $380 million.

The State Legislature took an important step in the right direction by revoking the most fundamental power of the local boards. But it is only a single step and still leaves New York City very far from having a school system that demands high performance and accountability and refuses to tolerate persistent failure.

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