United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew thinks the time has come to strip control of New York’s public schools from City Hall. Last week, he proposed that the legislature in Albany vest responsibility for the schools in a recreated Board of Education. No surprise there—the union always hated mayoral control of the schools. With the law establishing that control set to expire in 2015, the union sees a chance to prevent its renewal. If successful, the union effort would not only be unfortunate for the city’s school kids; it would also bring an end to the school-reform debate about teacher quality, tenure, and related matters—much to the relief of Mulgrew’s constituency.
Mulgrew proposes that control of the current Panel for Educational Policy, at present firmly in the mayor’s portfolio, be diffused among elected municipal officials, who would constitute the new board—the five borough presidents, the comptroller, the public advocate, and the city council speaker. And he would substantially restrict the mayor’s authority to appoint a schools chancellor. In fact, under Mulgrew’s plan, the city’s chief executive would have little education-policy input, even though he would retain responsibility for school results—a dog’s-breakfast arrangement barely distinguishable from the city’s late, wholly dysfunctional Board of Education. And therein lies the beauty of the Mulgrew scheme, from his perspective. Back in the day, schools chancellors came and went, but the union was forever, filling the schools’ leadership vacuum to suit its purposes. This isn’t to say that the union played no positive role in school administration. While it did little to bolster instructional standards, its political muscle meant that teachers had the freedom (more or less) to keep order in their classrooms, no mean feat. Still, the need for reform was obvious. By the time Rudy Giuliani was elected mayor in 1993, New York’s schools were a national embarrassment and getting worse.
Giuliani was a strong proponent of mayoral control. He once suggested, semi-seriously, that the Board of Education’s headquarters be blown up. But he had more pressing issues to address, above all rampant crime and public disorder. And so it wasn’t until Bloomberg took office that mayoral control became achievable. By that time, the dysfunction in city schools had become so profound that it was impossible to make an honest defense of the status quo. Bloomberg campaigned on a mayoral-control plank in 2001. Finally persuaded, Albany decided to hand the school mess to the new mayor in 2003—though not without a caveat. The enabling legislation included a 2009 sunset clause, which subsequently was extended until 2015.
That left Bloomberg plenty of time, and under mayoral control, city schools have made classroom progress. But reform efforts have also suffered from serious operational mistakes. Bloomberg’s legislative staff paid insufficient attention to critical detail when it mattered. And even under the best circumstances, changing the direction of any multibillion-dollar bureaucracy is daunting.
The reform effort also met lots of predictable resistance, with the UFT at the forefront of it. The union marshaled its Albany allies to hamper the mayor’s ability to close failing schools, create local charter schools, and effectively evaluate teachers. Indeed, since assuming the UFT presidency three years ago, Mulgrew has fought an effective guerrilla campaign against true mayoral control. He has used the union’s multimillion-dollar political-action accounts to reinforce its influence in Albany and on the city council, while marshaling self-styled education activists and grassroots groups to create an impression of widespread opposition to mayoral control.
Mulgrew’s repeal demand, then, should be seen as an extension of longstanding UFT political policy. The UFT opposed mayoral control then and opposes it now; the difference is, the union now senses an opportunity to do something about it. New Yorkers should see in the union’s efforts a vision of what city schools might look like if permanent accountability for their performance is once again scattered to the winds.