When New York City students return to classes today, it ought to be the last time under the schools’ current form of mayoral control. The legislation that gave Mayor Michael Bloomberg total power over the schools expires on June 30, 2009. If Albany fails to reauthorize the law by that date, the school system automatically reverts to the previous governance structure. It seems inconceivable, though, that legislators would restore the discredited Board of Education. So the choice is between continuing the present arrangement unchanged—as Bloomberg is urging—or amending the law to correct some of its glaring flaws.
In campaigning for mayoral control in 2002, Bloomberg made New Yorkers an offer they couldn’t refuse: Give me the sole authority to improve the schools, and then hold me accountable for the results. The mayor promised to give taxpayers a bigger bang for their education buck. If he failed to deliver on that promise, the public would at least know that it was his failure and could vote him out of office. Mayoral control seemed a sure improvement over a balkanized governing board of seven members appointed by six politicians.
The problem was that the legislation failed to ensure that voters would have access to unimpeachable information about student achievement, a prerequisite to any reasoned judgment about how well the schools were doing under the new regime. Greater accountability was the theoretical argument for mayoral control, but it has been turned on its head in practice. An ambitious mayor—first running for reelection, then flirting with running for president, and now contemplating a change in the term-limits law so that he can run for mayor again—gained extraordinary power to control the flow of data on how the schools were performing under his administration. Those of us who supported mayoral control (including me) forgot James Madison’s point in Federalist 51 that, since men are not angels, every new power given to politicians should come with at least some institutional checks and balances.
Too often, the Bloomberg administration has made claims about student achievement gains that no independent agency has vetted and that in light of other evidence appear unjustified. As for the spectacularly higher graduation rates that the Bloomberg administration has advertised as its greatest accomplishment, we have no way of knowing whether they are legitimate or whether they are the result of dumbed-down Regents exams—five of which the city’s high school students must pass in order to graduate. Nor do we know if the graduation numbers might be up because of the schools’ use of “credit recovery” to give students credit for courses that they actually failed. The practice is colloquially known as “seat time,” and sometimes merely requires a student who failed a course to show up for a few Saturday sessions—a form of “social promotion” that pushes up graduation rates. “Maybe it’s time to take a long, hard look at whether graduation gains are as much a function of dumbed-down state tests as progress in the schools,” the New York Post observed last week, noting the decline in SAT scores for the city’s graduating seniors.
Recent news reports suggest buyer’s remorse about mayoral control among key Albany legislators, particularly New York City members who feel shut out of any input into the school system that they fund so lavishly. There will surely be proposals to provide more community and parental input into school policies as part of an amended school governance law. But the single most important change that our city legislators should insist on—and without which they should not vote for reauthorization of mayoral control—is the creation of an independent agency, removed from all political influence, to monitor the data about test scores and graduation rates, to do research about which school programs are working and which are not, and then to make all that information available to the public on a regular, timely basis. We need something like a General Accounting Office (the federal government’s chief accountability agency) for the school system. Without such an institution, we can’t have a fair democratic debate about the city’s education policies.
Even Mayor Bloomberg ought to support this change. After all, if his administration’s claims about steadily improving student achievement are accurate, then such an independent agency would be able to verify them and powerfully boost his legacy. If, on the other hand, the claims are exaggerated, then the sooner the public finds out about it, the sooner we can all stop fooling ourselves.