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21st September

First Published in The New York Sun, September 21, 2007

By Andrew Wolf

It hasn’t escaped the notice of the city’s politicians that in less than two years, unless mayoral control of the public schools is affirmatively ratified by the state legislature, the old Board of Education will rise like a phoenix from the ashes, along with the much-maligned 32 community school boards.

Two commissions have been appointed this week to study the future governance of the schools, one by the City Council, the other by the public advocate, Betsy Gotbaum.

The Council panel has apparently been meeting since July. Called the Council Working Group on Mayoral Control and School Governance, it boasts no fewer than three chairs, Councilman James Vacca of the Bronx, David Yassky of Brooklyn, and Robert Jackson of Manhattan, who nominally chairs the Education Committee.

The group is charged with presenting Speaker Quinn with a list of “unofficial recommendations” to help “direct Council policy.” This will be a change, since at the present time the council has no educational policy, other than permitting students to carry cellular telephones and prohibiting them from using metal baseball bats. Mr. Jackson has become the invisible man, hardly weighing in as the mayor has exercised control over the schools.

Mr. Jackson was named chairman of the Education Committee because of his activism as an original plaintiff in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit. He took over from Councilwoman Eva Moskowitz, who was an activist in the chair with whom Mr. Jackson’s conduct contrasts sharply. In the Council the tone is set by Ms. Quinn, who has been relatively solicitous of the mayor, whose seat she hopes to inherit after both officials are forced to move on by term limits.

The betting in education circles is that Ms. Quinn will not be in the vanguard of any serious movement to change the law. Sol Stern of the Manhattan Institute suggests that as a person who sees herself as mayor, “Why would Christine Quinn seek to encumber herself with new limitations on her power? What I fear is seeing the Bloomberg public relations juggernaut replaced by non-stop ‘spin by Quinn.’”

The other education panel has greater potential. Using privately raised funds, Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum yesterday announced the formation of a Commission on School Governance “to independently make recommendations” about the future of the schools.

Nearly alone among city officials, Ms. Gotbaum has been a constant critic of the Bloomberg reforms. She took the mayor to task over deteriorating special education services, criticized the controversial Leadership Academy that trains new principals, and blew the whistle over a no-bid contract to the consulting firm Alvarez & Marsal. When the firm’s restructuring of the city’s school bus routes ignited a backlash in the winter, Ms. Gotbaum’s stock soared, especially among parents.

Though her panel has more octane than its City Council counterpart, there is reason to doubt that a critical, independent assessment of the Bloomberg reforms will be forthcoming. Much of the clout of Ms. Gotbaum’s panel comes from its chairman, Stephen Berger.

He served as director of the Emergency Control Board that monitored city finances during the fiscal crisis, worked to unravel the state’s social services bureaucracy, and most recently headed the State Commission on Health Care Facilities in the 21st Century. He has been called to serve by top officials of both parties, going back to the Rockefeller years.

The vice chairman is a former congressman and deputy mayor, Herman Badillo, who was also president of the Bronx. One of the greatest accomplishments of his career was the restoration of academic standards at the City University, resulting from his service as a university trustee.

The executive director is Joseph P. Viteritti, a professor of public policy and the director of the graduate program in urban affairs at Hunter College, CUNY. He is the author of nine books and previously served as an advisor to the school superintendents in New York, Boston, and San Francisco.

A former chancellor, Frank Macchiarola, is on the Gotbaum commission, though he has been strangely silent as the current reforms unfolded. At least three other members have ties to Advocates for Children, a group that has vigorously lobbied against the end of social promotion, opposing what they characterize as “high stakes testing,” as well as a summer school requirement for failing students.

Three others are tied to social services organizations, groups that have ties to the Bloomberg administration either through city contracts or through the mayor’s personal philanthropy.

Kathryn Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City, is also on the commission; she has been a cheerleader for the mayor’s program.

Absent from the panel are any of the well-known critics of the current reforms. If these people are “too controversial,” resulting from their informed and respected criticism, then what is the point of all this?

If there cannot be a vigorous debate within the Gotbaum/Berger Commission, then where will New Yorkers be able to look for a complete dialogue? If there is room for a Kathryn Wylde to boost the mayor’s program, then why isn’t their room for, say, the aforementioned Mr. Stern of the Manhattan Institute, who has sought to deflate the public relations driven exuberance from the Tweed Courthouse and whose critique will be important as the vote on renewing mayoral control of schools grows near?

© 2007 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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