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12th December

First Published in The New York Sun, December 12, 2003

By Andrew Wolf

  It appears increasingly likely that the plans for parent councils, the result of the settlement of a lawsuit between Mayor Bloomberg, Chancellor Klein, and legislative leaders last spring, may not be approved by the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice on the grounds that it violates the Voting Rights Act. The rejection of this insane structure would be a good thing for the students, the parents, the community at large, and the concept of democracy, even though the decision could be arrived at for the wrong reasons. 

    Under the plan, parent councils would replace elected community school boards.These councils would be composed of nine parents elected by the officers of parents’ associations of all the schools in each of the 32 community school districts. This would make New York City voters perhaps the least empowered on school matters anywhere in the nation.That serves the interests of the New Tweed Ring, which seems to believe that less democracy is better than more.This is in the great totalitarian tradition, the model that much of our “reformed” education system seems to follow. 
    It is no secret that there had been, with a few exceptions, little enthusiasm for the old community school board elections.There was good reason for this.The elections were held in May for three-year terms using an interesting, but very complex methodology known as proportional representation. As a result, turnout was often light, sometimes even less than 5%. 

    May elections were chosen to mirror school board elections in other areas of the state, also held in May. Turnout is usually much higher outside of the city, but with good reason. Along with the vote on the board comes the vote on the school district budget, which directly affects local property taxes. That’s why those elections must be held in May, before the beginning of the new fiscal year. New York City schools are paid for out of general revenue. For financial purposes, the entire city is lumped together as one district, so there is no budget on which to vote. 

    Since there is no rationale for a May election, why limit interest by holding it then? There is no question in my mind that had the school board election been put on the November general election ballot, there would have been far greater participation. 

    The choice of proportional representation as the method of election was, from an intellectual viewpoint, inspired. Voters rank their preferences on a paper ballot, and votes are tallied in such a way to ensure that when a voter’s first choice is eliminated, the ballot is then applied to the second choice. If there is a significant voter turnout, this method can ensure that many groups with competing interests 
are represented on a board. However, the theoretical purity of the method did not translate into real voters understanding just how the system worked.The use of this method has depressed the turnout, and, with low turnouts, the complexity of the system gave advantage to those who knew how to work it. 

    In 1998, an effort was made to change the voting procedure to a simpler one: Everyone would get one vote for one candidate and the top nine finishers in each district declared winners. This was rejected by the Justice Department as potentially discriminatory to minorities. That’s why it would amaze me if the Justice Department were to approve the removal of the franchise from the voter altogether. That current public school parents alone be empowered is an amazingly wrong-headed concept. 

    What about parents of children not yet of school age? Don’t they have an interest? Or the parents of private and parochial school students who may have abandoned the public system, but can return at any time. 

    Most importantly, what of the ordinary citizen concerned about public education, and paying the bill to finance it? Doesn’t everyone have a stake in the schools? Didn’t we once fight a war over “taxation without representation?” 

    Messrs. Bloomberg and Klein would raise the specter of corruption in the decentralized system.There is no question that there was indeed a systemic problem, but that was addressed by a reformed governance law that took effect in 1997. That revision totally removed the community school boards from personnel matters. This ended the patronage concerns that undermined the boards from the start. 

    The positive impact of the local boards was demonstrated in 1999 when voters in the northwest Bronx defeated a sitting board that was standing in the way of significant improvements to the local schools, replacing it with a blue-ribbon slate of parent and community leaders. With educational issues clearly defined, more voters in District 10 turned out for that election than came out the previous year in the primary contest won by now-Senator Schumer. 

    Even if you accept the questionable premise that only current public school parents should have a right to vote, the Bloomberg/Klein plan falls far short of even that goal. Rather than elect the parent council members directly, only the president, secretary, and treasurer of each parents association will have two votes each. So the smallest boutique “theme park” school will have the same voting power as a large high school. 

    Beyond that, some are questioning the fact that the parent association leadership in the schools that still boast a “diverse” student population is often disproportionately white. One white P.A. president even went so far as to question her right to vote on behalf of minority parents. In addition, in hundreds of New York City schools, P.A.’s either don’t exist at all, exist only marginally or are hotbeds of theft and corruption. The answer to low voterparticipation is not to toss out the elected body. The answer to the ills of democracy is not less of it, but more.

© 2003 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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