The dog that didn’t bark during Albany’s recently concluded budget negotiations was the question of who is to run New York City’s $34 billion public education cartel, a.k.a. the Department of Education. The perennially contentious matter of mayoral control of city schools slipped barely noticed through the process, and Bill de Blasio quietly retained custody of the sprawling system for the remainder of his term.
So the education of New York City’s 1.1 million children remains in the hands of the distracted and increasingly bewildered de Blasio and his schools chancellor Richard Carranza, now beginning his second year in the job. This is as it should be: the schools are properly under the mayor’s purview, and just because the incumbent is ineffective doesn’t mean that his successor will be, too. Still, de Blasio has certainly been ineffective, in part because he has ceded so much power to the special interests that mayoral control was meant to marginalize—the United Federation of Teachers, so-called community-empowerment groups, and numberless bureaucrats, both in the city and in Albany. All are deeply committed to goals that only coincidentally involve children.
When former mayor Michael Bloomberg moved in 2002 to pry the schools away from the unaccountable bureaucracy that had controlled them for generations, the UFT and its allies were high-decibel opponents of the proposal. Bloomberg won control, though the enabling legislation contained sunset clauses that required periodic renewals of the law; in the event, these proved equally contentious. This year, the usual suspects were mute. Why? Largely because there was no point in fighting. Opponents may not have regained effective direct control of the schools, but they have long enjoyed inordinate influence over de Blasio—and that’s basically the same thing.
De Blasio’s predecessor invested enormous time, energy, and political capital in persuading the Albany legislature to approve mayoral control. He tapped the estimable Joel Klein as his first chancellor, and together they fought to rededicate the schools to the needs of children, not adults. Progress was real, if slow, and they certainly made mistakes—but the UFT and its allies hated City Hall, for good reason. The new regime was breaking rice bowls by imposing administrative and logistical accountability on the Department of Education, by demanding higher classroom-performance standards for both teachers and students, and by supporting charter schools as laboratories for innovation and reform. In short, Bloomberg and Klein fought hard to extract reasonable value for the billions that taxpayers lavish on the nation’s largest public school system. But the campaign against mayoral control never really ended—it rose up again every time that renewal was on the table in Albany.
Enter de Blasio. He dropped a multibillion-dollar contract on the UFT, asking for no work-rule concessions in return. He appointed Carmen Fariña, an old school unionist, as his first chancellor, draining energy from that office. He not only withdrew City Hall support from charter schools but also became an active opponent of the experiment. He squandered hundreds of millions on a spectacularly unsuccessful effort to keep failing schools open, a key UFT objective. He acquiesced in the downgrading of objective classroom and teacher-accountability standards. And he erected all manner of shields to divert attention from the classrooms, chief among them the race obsessions of Carranza, who succeeded Fariña as chancellor. Happy days were back again—and the unions, et al., suddenly were fond of mayoral control. Or, at least, they quit fighting it.
There will be consequences, of course. Carranza’s presence and New York’s shifting political circumstances seem likely to obliterate what remain of traditional student-performance benchmarks—to be replaced by race- and ethnicity-driven quota outcomes. (The city’s famous specialized high schools are on the chopping block, and it’s not likely to stop there.) Any meaningful teacher-accountability standards are gone for the duration. And classrooms are demonstrably less safe; even UFT president Michael Mulgrew is complaining about that.
Rays of sunshine are hard to find here, but for the knowledge that de Blasio isn’t forever. New York’s next mayor may give children the priority they deserve and exercise the authority of the office on their behalf. You’ll know that’s happening if the sound of anti-mayoral control protests gets loud again. Continued silence, on the other hand, will be equally instructive.
Photo: NYC Mayor’s Office