The governing structure of the New York City school system is the worst I have ever studied. One observer commented that, at the turn of the century, we went from a decentralized structure to a centralized one, which functioned well for more than fifty years. Then, in 1969, we went to a partially centralized, partially decentralized structure, which gave us the worst of both worlds.
For years, the central Board of Education and its bureaucracy have tried to micromanage the education system. This is natural in a hierarchical structure, where power flows uphill, and multiple layers of bureaucracy overlook those below. School maintenance and repairs in more than a thousand buildings are managed by a central office—with more than forty thousand unprocessed maintenance requests. School safety is the domain of central and borough bureaucrats, and safety officers report to the bureaucracy rather than to school principals.
Schools must order supplies from a central office that is slow and, despite its buying power, often more expensive than local retail stores. Material sits in central warehouses when it should be in the schools. The centrally managed payroll system is so inefficient that some teachers wait for three months or more to get paid. Teachers who are already licensed by the state must also undergo a city licensing process. The central bureaucracy, not principals or schools, hires teachers and other school employees. The Board of Education also manages food services, serving 1.4 million meals a day.
Some central functions are duplicative. For example, there are now five levels of authority over the curriculum, and soon there will be six, once the Federal Government formulates national standards. The state Department of Education, the central Board of Education, and the district boards each has its own standards. That leaves two more standards at the point of delivery—the school’s and the teacher’s. Isn’t one set of standards from above enough?
Too often, bureaucratic imperatives take precedence over children’s needs. Piecemeal reform will not suffice. Stripping away unneeded central functions one by one would take years of struggle, conflict, and infighting, while another one or two generations of students and teachers suffer.
I therefore recommend, Mr. Mayor, that you adhere to the position you took in the campaign and support legislation to eliminate the central board and reassign its functions.
Under my reform plan, the commissioner of education would be appointed by the mayor, with the advice and consent of the City Council. The commissioner would conduct collective bargaining regarding matters of citywide concern, such as wages and benefits, but work rules would be negotiated more locally, either by the boroughs or by the school districts.
Other central functions would include enforcement of mandates and court decrees, administration of pension systems, establishment of tenure standards, and budgeting—but the school, rather than the district or the entire system, would be the principal budgetary unit.
The commissioner would also enforce federal and state standards, measuring how well schools are meeting them and taking remedial action when progress is inadequate. In addition, he would define city standards—but only if the federal and state standards prove insufficient. With the central Board of Education abolished, a qualified commissioner could perform these broad centralized functions without getting entangled in the traditional, counterproductive micromanagement typical of the central board.
Duplicative central functions, such as teacher certification, should be eliminated. The city should contract out payroll processing, turn auditing over to the Comptroller’s Office or to the private sector, and, to insure the integrity of local school districts, turn investigative functions over to the Department of Investigation. Capital budgeting should remain centralized, with the commissioner submitting a budget request to the mayor and City Council.
Each remaining function should ultimately rest with the most local layer of administration that can efficiently perform it. Higher levels should have no authority to micromanage these functions, lest power flow back to the top. At this point, it’s too early to identify the level of government to which each function should ultimately be transferred. Instead, I would recommend an initial transfer of certain central functions to borough-level boards, with a mechanism that would enable a later transfer to districts and schools, once they develop the capacity and public confidence to take on the responsibility.
The idea of a borough-level Board of Cooperative Education Services is central to my proposal. A state-created entity, it is designed to provide services that are more efficiently managed on a regional basis than by individual districts and schools.
Local school boards, and perhaps also city officials, would appoint leaders of the borough boards. The boards would be service providers, charging schools and districts for the services they render—which would vary, depending on the needs of the school districts. Because these boards would have no supervisory role over districts or schools, they would not amount to five versions of the current bureaucracy.
Schools and districts could purchase services from the private sector if available at lower cost or higher quality. For example, a school could contract out teacher training to one of the many colleges or universities in the city. If a school or district wished to take over a function from its borough board, it would simply have to persuade the Comptroller’s Office to certify that it is fiscally prepared to undertake the function, the Department of Investigation to certify that it is free of corruption, and the commissioner to certify that the school or district’s assuming such a function will not interfere with its proper educational roles.
I would recommend that the following functions be initially transferred to the borough boards: central listing of open teaching positions and assistance in recruiting teachers; granting tenure to teachers; collective bargaining on issues of local concern; discipline; training of local school board members (as a condition of taking office); purchasing; transportation; food services; major school maintenance; operating high schools (now under central board control); fingerprinting employees (if the police and Department of Investigation cannot handle this function); special education; and libraries.
Some functions would go to the district level from the outset: hiring a superintendent; transferring personnel within a district; granting leave; professional development and training; extracurricular activities; bilingual education; and determining the use of school facilities during non-school hours.
I am hesitant to recommend that other functions be initially assigned to the school districts, because the present districts lack public confidence. A district-by-district transfer is the soundest approach. Some districts are ready for more independence, while some are not. The process I have suggested would enable the commissioner, comptroller, and Department of Investigation to make precise judgments about each district or school requesting a transfer of power. I would also recommend improving the system of local school board elections, so that those districts that do not qualify for more responsibility are subject to heavy pressure to measure up or be voted out of office.
Even without legislation, the chancellor and the existing Board of Education could undertake one important reform on their own: creating a special district for schools that are capable of managing their own affairs, free of the central board’s interference. At least one such school already exists—the Wildcat Academy (see City Journal, Autumn 1993). A new district could encourage the creation of many more. If the chancellor and the board establish such a district, they should place no cap on the number of schools that can be included.
The requirements of admission to such a district can be established by borrowing from the experience of other independent public schools—the British opt-out schools, Los Angeles’s LEARN Schools, and charter schools in states like Colorado, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Minnesota. Such requirements would include the creation of standards and tests to measure educational results; a vote by the parents and faculty to create a school; the establishment of a board of parents, teachers, and qualified citizens to oversee it; and the creation of a school administrative structure consisting of the principal, a business manager, and other necessary personnel, all of verifiable integrity.
Each independent school should have its own budget and be free to purchase goods and services from the private sector. It should have the autonomy to choose its own teachers and staff, so long as they meet all relevant legal requirements. It should be free to create its own curriculum, within state and city guidelines. Its admission requirements would be the same as those of other schools—open to enrollment by any student within current board regulations.
The chancellor would review each school’s educational results annually, through tests of what its students have learned in the course of the year. If a school’s results were unsatisfactory after a reasonable period of time, it would lose its independent status and revert to its original district. Unlike the present method of testing, the new system should start with a measure of where students are at the beginning of the year and then gauge their progress at the end of the year. It is unfair to penalize a school because its students start below the norm.
Fundamental, citywide decentralization is the most promising way of reforming the school system. But even an experiment in independent schools would be a valuable first step toward a school system of the future, in which school-based management is a reality rather than a motto, and the focus is on the school rather than the bureaucracy.