John J. Flanagan of Long Island used to chair the New York State senate’s education committee. He appears not to have learned much in the job. Flanagan became senate majority leader last winter, after fellow Republican Dean Skelos was convicted on federal corruption charges. He immediately set about doing what Albany does best these days. That would be tormenting New York City mayor Bill de Blasio—a fellow who, in purely political terms, has earned an occasional thumb in the eye, and more. But sometimes even Albany needs to set aside politics in favor of sound policy, especially when the politics threatens to do substantial damage to the 1.1 million children enrolled in New York City’s public schools.
At issue is a Flanagan bill extending mayoral control of the city’s public schools for another year. Mayoral control is set to expire on June 30. Flanagan’s bill requires the creation of a gubernatorially appointed “district inspector” meant to oversee the nuts-and-bolts operation of the schools. The position would be located not in Manhattan, Brooklyn, or Queens—or any of the five boroughs—but in Albany. Imagine that: a system already paralyzed by bureaucratic oversight, political boondoggling, and self-serving teachers’-union intrigue stands to get more bureaucrats, more boondogglers, and more intriguers. How does that help the kids? It doesn’t, of course—or it won’t, if Flanagan gets his way.
The senator was highly regarded when he led the education committee. He’s smart, resourceful, and open both to innovation and compromise. No doubt he knows very well what a ludicrous notion he’s peddling. If he doesn’t, he should consider this question: Would he support an Albany-based “inspector” for his hometown district of Smithtown, Long Island? Of course he wouldn’t.
The questions—and doubts—raised by de Blasio’s stewardship of the city’s schools are profound. Given his selection of a hidebound, pre-mayoral-control retread as schools chancellor, his rolling back of proven Bloomberg administration reforms, and his unrelenting opposition to innovative winners like charter schools, it seems clear that he will hand over a severely diminished school system to his successor—whomever and whenever that may be. And it doesn’t help that a huge teachers’ union donation to one of his political slush funds appears to be a major part of a federal investigation.
But this does not add up to a reason to deny the elected mayor, ex officio, control of the schools. Or to hobble the system with a political commissar, which is what a gubernatorially designated “inspector” effectively would be. Yes, de Blasio did his level best two years ago to help the Democratic Party take control of the senate. He lost, and he should expect to pay a price for losing. And yes, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s ongoing feud with de Blasio appears to be at issue here. The governor is playing no direct role in the drama, but few in Albany doubt that he’s encouraging Flanagan.
New York governors and mayors never get along, and it would be naïve to demand that they do. But sometimes the price of politics as usual is too high, and the potential for long-term policy damage is too steep, to indulge old traditions. This is such a time. Flanagan needs to come to his senses, now, and if he doesn’t, Cuomo needs unequivocally to put an end to the scheme.
Photo by Mario Tama/iStock