Mayor Bill de Blasio doesn’t deserve control of New York City’s public schools, not personally. In fact, he doesn’t have it. Mike Mulgrew, the president of the United Federation of Teachers, does. But, nominally or otherwise, the mayor of New York City should have control of its school system, the largest public school district in the United States. The law vesting control of the city’s schools in City Hall was hard-won by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2002. It expires June 30.
The state legislature in Albany must either extend the statute, modify it in some neither-fish-nor-fowl manner, or simply let it lapse. Nobody really knows what will happen if it lapses. If the mayoral-control statute goes away, the multibillion-dollar bureaucracy that now struggles to provide schooling to more than 1.1 million children—the New York City Department of Education—presumably will morph back into the leaderless, barely functional, essentially unaccountable money pit that existed before Bloomberg. The Board of Education will be back, or something scarily like it.
The big winners? The UFT, Mulgrew, and the American Federation of Teachers, the national teachers’ union headed by former UFT boss Randi Weingarten. (That would be the organization that kicked $350,000 into de Blasio’s scandal-wracked political kitty, the Campaign for One New York, in apparent appreciation of a lush labor contract the mayor gifted to its local affiliate.) The losers? Those who seek accountability in public education, which is, in the end, the key to real reform. And those 1.1 million children, of course.
True, as a practical matter there’s not much space between the way things were before Bloomberg’s reforms and the de Blasio regression. Unaudited statistics compiled by interested parties are always suspect. But while public school performance numbers rose statewide after 2002—perhaps occasioned at least in part by lowered standards—New York City’s results outpaced other urban school districts in the state. The relative gains strongly suggest that Bloomberg’s reforms—school restructuring and instructional accountability chief among them—were paying off.
Nevertheless, language arts, math, and graduation rates are embarrassingly low; the practical value of a high school diploma remains, at best, problematic. For those who demanded more, well, urban public-education reform is always going to be a heavy lift, even when it’s approached in good faith. And good faith ended with de Blasio’s arrival, sad to say. Evidence of that abounds, among the most telling being his appointment of Carmen Fariña as schools chancellor. She’s a Board of Education relic whose grandmotherly demeanor masks a steely dedication to undoing the Bloomberg reforms—especially those that bear on the restructuring of failing schools, classroom safety, and teacher accountability. She’s also an implacable opponent of charter schools—on the whole, the most promising of urban-education experiments.
All in all, then, it’s a dismal picture. Why should Albany extend mayoral control? What difference would it make? Well, one day New York may once again elect a mayor who truly cares about the city’s future. That is, someone who believes that the principal function of the Department of Education should be to educate children, and only secondarily to provide teachers and staff with paychecks, pensions, and health insurance. Such a mayor is going to need help. And absent the nuts-and-bolts infrastructure embodied in the current law, that person would be pretty much where Bloomberg was when he took office in 2002—dedicated to deep and lasting public-education reform, but without the tools to make it happen. In a very real sense, he was where Mayor Rudy Giuliani would have been in 1994 had he lacked direct and effective control of the NYPD—running a city wracked by murder and mayhem but powerless to do much about it.
Giuliani’s epic success in bringing crime under control extended through the Bloomberg years and, however tentatively, to the present, because the NYPD was given clear policy instructions grounded in coherent policing philosophies. Its commanders were held strictly accountable for their subordinates and for outcomes. It’s been a controversial process, and small dogs have been nipping at current NYPD commissioner Bill Bratton’s heels since he took the job. (Between de Blasio’s instincts and the city council’s continuing mischief, effective mayoral control of the NYPD may be an issue in the not-too-distant future.) But, generally speaking, no serious questions have been raised about the legitimacy of the mayor’s command of the NYPD.
So why should there be questions about the mayor’s control of the public schools? In theory, there shouldn’t be. In practice, they abound. Most are meant to deflect attention from the central fact at issue: With a $29.6 billion budget and some 135,000 employees spread across 1,700 schools, the Department of Education is the fattest public school patronage pot in America. The key is accountability.
The most promising, albeit short-lived, trend of the Bloomberg era was a pursuit of teacher accountability. It was a somewhat misleading term, in that what really was at issue was classroom accountability—indeed, schoolhouse accountability. All the system’s players from district superintendents to principals to teachers themselves were brought to heel, and they didn’t much like it. They pushed back. And they seem to have won, at least for the time being.
There’s no question that the majority of New York’s educators are, or were, fully dedicated to their profession. No doubt even Carmen Fariña once cared more about classroom outcomes than she now does about protecting an all-but- bullet-proof bureaucracy. Perhaps even Mulgrew and Weingarten cared about kids, back in their own youth. But while the “caring teacher” trope is the most common and effective deflector presented when school reform is sought, the fact is that the issue isn’t about individuals.
Of course “teachers care.” Of course everybody has encountered that one special teacher who made a difference (though somehow the bad ones faded quickly from memory.) No, what’s at issue is a malign institution that consistently places its own narrow interests ahead of all others—the city and its children, especially—and is powerful enough to get away with it. It doesn’t help that the city’s current mayor has embraced it. Indeed, he has done all in his power to strengthen its grasp. But this doesn’t mean that the next mayor will do the same. It doesn’t mean that the next mayor won’t need the considerable authority embedded in the current mayoral-control law to redeem the school system’s faded promise. He or she should have it, which is reason enough for the legislature to renew the statute before leaving Albany later this month.
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