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The issue of mayoral control of the schools in New York City is now before the State Legislature, as its authorization expires in 2016. The current form of mayoral control was established in 2002, when the Legislature responded to newly elected Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s request for complete control of the sprawling school system. Mayoral control was renewed by the Legislature in 2009. Bloomberg promised to bring efficiency to the system and managerial expertise. Now the Legislature must decide whether to renew mayoral control or to tweak it or to substitute some other form of management.
I have written about mayoral control on many occasions over the years. My first book, published in 1974, was a history of the New York City public schools, and a large part of the story consists of the search for a competent way to govern the schools of a huge city. The city as we now know it was created by popular vote in 1898 (many people in Brooklyn, who opposed consolidation, thought the vote was rigged). In the nineteenth century, New York City consisted only of what is now Manhattan. Brooklyn was a separate city, and the other regions were towns and villages in what are now the boroughs of Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island.
I won’t recapitulate the history of governance here; I wrote a paper on the subject a few years ago. It is not necessary to go into the twists and turns of the nineteenth century other than to point out that there was only one time in the past when the Mayor took total control of the previously independent New York City Board of Education and turned it into a department of the city government. That was during the heyday of the Tweed Ring. William Marcy Tweed (Boss Tweed), then in the legislature, steered through “reform” legislation in 1869 that gave over the entire school system of New York to his crony, who packed the board with allies and steered contracts to favorites of the Tweed Ring. The Tweed board canceled all book contracts with Harper Brothers as punishment for its publication of Thomas Nast cartoons ridiculing Boss Tweed. In 1871, the Tweed Ring was exposed, and its members eventually prosecuted. In 1873. the legislature restored the independent Board of Education.
For most of the history of New York City’s public schools, the members of the central board were appointed by the mayor. Mayoral control was typical, not atypical. In addition, there were local boards where citizens could participate in the governance of their community public schools and make their views known. For a time in the nineteenth century, the central board and the local boards were elected. After the debacle of the Tweed takeover, both boards were appointed, not elected, in an attempt to insulate them from politics. It is clear, however, that politics can intrude on any arrangement, whether appointed or elected.
When the city was consolidated as the Greater Metropolitan New York City in 1898, each borough had its own school board. However, there were frequent conflicts over money, curriculum, hiring policy, and other issues. The city leaders agreed that uniformity was needed, so in 1902, the legislature established the New York City Board of Education as a single governing body for the large school system. The new board consisted of 46 members, all appointed by the Mayor, representing all the boroughs. The city was divided into 46 local school districts, each of which had its own appointed local school board.
True power in the new, consolidated system rested in the hands of the professional Superintendent of Schools and his Board of Deputy Superintendents. As it happened, New York City had an outstanding educator as its first Superintendent, William Henry Maxwell. He was a superb administrator and a visionary, who saw the responsibilities of the schools as extending beyond academics to the health and well-being of children. He served for 20 years in that post, setting academic standards, opening schools for children with disabilities, creating adult education centers, and producing a host of innovative reforms that benefited the city. The city also had a Board of Examiners, which tested those who wanted to teach in the system.
Over the course of the twentieth century, the size of the school board was reduced from 46 to 7 and then expanded to 9, but it continued to be appointed by the mayor. The system was highly centralized until 1969.
From the mid-60s until 1969, black and Hispanic activists engaged in demonstrations and protests to demand desegregation. When their demands were ignored, they sought community control of the schools. The Ford Foundation subsidized an experiment in community control in three districts. In 1968, the city’s teachers went on strike for two months to protest the firing of union teachers without due process in one of those districts, Ocean Hill-Brownsville in Brooklyn. Mayor John Lindsay sided with the black community leaders. In 1969, the Legislature passed a new decentralization law, establishing a seven-member central board and local community boards (which for a time were elected). The seven-member board consisted of five members appointed by the five borough presidents and only two members appointed by the mayor. This was most certainly a rebuke to Mayor Lindsay. Even under this new form of decentralization, the mayor still exerted considerable control, both through his control over the budget and his alliances with at least two of the borough presidents.
Almost every mayor subsequently asked for a larger role in the running of the schools but was ignored by the Legislature. When Michael Bloomberg was elected in 2001, one of his major campaign promises was to gain control of the schools and reform them. The Legislature complied and granted him full control in mid-2002. What was once the New York City Board of Education is now the New York City Department of Education, just another city agency, akin to the Police Department, the Fire Department, the Sanitation Department. The legislation kept a central board of 13, but the majority (8) was appointed by the mayor and serve at his pleasure (Mayor Bloomberg called it the Panel on Educational Policy, to signify its powerlessness). Local school boards were replaced by powerless community education councils. Mayor Bloomberg appointed attorney Joel Klein as his first chancellor (and subsequently replaced him with publisher Cathie Black, who had a brief and stormy three-month tenure, then replaced her with Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott). The system went through several reorganizations. The Bloomberg administration relied on test scores to close low-performing schools and to open many new small schools and more than 100 charter schools.
What should be done now? Mayor Bill de Blasio and former Mayor Rudy Guiliani have appealed to the state legislature to retain mayoral control and to make it permanent.
Here is what I think, based on what I know: I agree that there should be mayoral control. But it should be modified to add checks and balances. No one chief executive should have total control of the public’s schools. No one chief executive should have the unlimited power to change the schools without referring to anyone else. No one mayor should be able to ignore the views of public school parents.
The mayor should continue to appoint the members of the New York City Board of Education. Those who wish to serve should be vetted by a review panel composed of representatives of civic and educational organizations (this was the practice in the early 1960s). This prevents the mayor from stacking the board with campaign donors and friends.
Members of the Board of Education should serve for a set term of three or four or five years, to ensure their independence. At present, they serve at the pleasure of the mayor, making the Board a rubber-stamp.
The Board of Education, not the mayor, should select the Chancellor. The Chancellor should report to the Board of Education and seek their approval for his/her proposals and budget.
Local school boards should be elected by parent associations, with the approval of the borough presidents.
Mayor Bloomberg was right to restore mayoral control, but it should now be improved upon by inserting checks and balances. The mayor should appoint the Board of Education, and this board should serve set terms and be responsible for the appointment and replacement of the chancellor.
No one should imagine that mayoral control is a panacea. It is not. Cleveland has had mayoral control for many years, and it continues to be one of the nation’s lowest-performing cities (and also a city with extreme poverty). Detroit had mayoral control for a few years, until voters eliminated it (one of the city’s mayors went to jail a few years ago). Chicago has mayoral control, and this enabled the mayor to close 50 public schools and to ignore the outcry from the affected communities; no one (except perhaps Arne Duncan) would consider Chicago to be a national model. Boston has mayoral control, and performance varies with economics, as it does everywhere. The District of Columbia has mayoral control, and it also has the largest black-white, Hispanic-white achievement gaps of any urban district tested by NAEP. The highest performing districts on NAEP (Charlotte and Austin) do not have mayoral control.
Mayoral control, with the checks and balances I described, makes sense organizationally. By itself, it solves no problems. It still requires the hard work of school improvement, the hard work of creating good schools and a good working environment for students, teachers, and principals. And schools in urban districts still require the resources to meet the needs of the children they enroll, regardless of who appoints the central board.