The New York State Legislature has chosen to gut mayoral control of the city’s public school system, modifying, for dubious reasons, what has been an effective system.
Enacted in 2002, mayoral control has led to documented improvement in city schools. Achievement on state tests improved in the city between 2002 through 2019, the last pre-Covid year of testing, pushing the city’s levels above the state average for the first time in memory. The city’s high school graduation rate, which had been stuck at 50 percent since the early 1980s, rose dramatically during the Michael Bloomberg years and kept rising under Bill de Blasio, reaching 77 percent by 2019. Some question those numbers, but they are controlled by the New York State Board of Regents, which is appointed by the state legislature. If something is wrong with the metrics, it is the legislature’s responsibility.
For the first 12 years of mayoral control, Mayor Bloomberg and his schools chancellors, Joel Klein and Dennis Walcott, engineered a complete overhaul of the city’s public high schools. They streamlined the central bureaucracy, largely eliminated the power of the many corrupt local school boards, and ushered in a well-functioning system based on local control, innovation, and accountability. Those changes would not have been possible under the old Board of Education, where powerful interest groups controlled the purse, and parents and students had no voice. Bloomberg’s team took the extraordinary step of closing many schools for low performance, while replacing them with both teacher/community-designed district schools and public charter schools. Bloomberg’s initiatives were sometimes harsh and may have alienated the teachers’ union, as they displaced many senior teachers, but they brought improvement.
Mayor de Blasio shut down many of his predecessor’s initiatives, but the schools created under Bloomberg lived on. City schools maintained their steady improvement under de Blasio’s first chancellor, Carmen Fariña. It was only in his second term (and after Fariña’s departure) that de Blasio implemented his worst ideas: attacking the city’s selective high schools and gifted programs and alienating the system’s large and growing Asian constituency.
Mayor Eric Adams inherited a school system that had largely stopped functioning under Covid restrictions and was experiencing declining enrollments. Families were voting with their feet, as Chancellor David Banks has noted. Adams also inherited lots of angry parents, some directing their ire at de Blasio and others still resentful from the Bloomberg years. (Some in the city were happy with de Blasio’s efforts, which, in the area of gifted-and-talented education, were abetted by locally appointed parent members of some community education councils.) De Blasio’s supporters could not have been happy with the Adams team’s suggestion that it would retreat from some of de Blasio’s efforts and perhaps reembrace some of Bloomberg’s.
In this context, the legislature’s decision to reduce mayoral control smacks of cynicism. Faced with some constituents wary of mayoral control, the legislature has created a mishmash that will bring only paralysis to a system that badly needs strong leadership. Adams and Banks will have to deal with a 23-member Panel for Educational Policy (formerly called the Board of Education), even as they keep their eyes on the legislature itself, from which they will need to secure an extension of mayoral control in two years. Moreover, the legislature is placing an elected official—City Comptroller Brad Lander—on the panel as a nonvoting member. Lander has a large staff and may well have the inclination to organize opposition to the mayor’s initiatives. Yet Mayor Adams was elected by the people to control the school system; Lander was not.
Few will be happy with the legislature’s changes. Parents concerned with high achievement and accelerated learning may have been excited by the Adams plan to increase access to gifted-and-talented programs, but Lander has already spoken out against the expansion of those programs. Last year, the panel for education policy voted down the contract for tests used to place children in gifted programs; the newly empowered panel will revisit it. Meantime, parents with opposing views will find that control by committee tends to be less responsive than direct control by a single entity. One can never be quite sure whose interests a 23-member body is protecting.
Finally, the legislature mandates lower class sizes over the next five years. If this policy is enforced, it will prove incredibly expensive and needlessly hamstring the school’s administration at a time when flexibility is crucial. But five years is a long time, and the wording appears to contain loopholes that will give the administration some leeway to work around the mandate—though it will have to spend time and energy fighting these battles at a time when the needs of the city’s schoolchildren are great.
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