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5th September
2008

Published in The New York Sun. September 5, 2008

By Andrew Wolf

A commission, appointed by Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum, has recommended a revision in the State Education law, putting restrictions on the power of the mayor to run the city’s public schools. Lurking in the background is the 800-pound gorilla in the room, the issue of term limits.

The two issues are intertwined, and indeed the mayor’s inflexibility, rejecting any proposal for change in school governance, suggests that he will indeed move to end or modify term limits, to allow him to run for a third term.

So adamant is the mayor about the governance issue that he convened a meeting of about 100 supporters from the non-profit and philanthropic communities earlier this week to unveil a $20-million dollar initiative to “sell” the public on continuing unfettered mayoral control.

This is nonsense. That the mayor feels compelled to engage in such a public relations effort is in itself an indictment of what he has accomplished. If the mayor’s “success” with education was unequivocal, there would be no need to supplement publicly-funded public relations efforts with this privately-funded campaign. But the “proof” of his results is largely based on New York State standardized testing which has been criticized as inflated when compared with national benchmarks such as NAEP and the SAT.

Ms. Gotbaum’s panel says as much, and thus dismisses the use of test results as the measure of success. Rather it seems to feel that the increase of expenditure of funds on the schools, understated in the report to my reckoning, is a reflection of the success of mayoral control thus far. This is even more preposterous, since the managerial effectiveness of any agency should be measured by achieving the best results for the least expenditure.

The panel does recommend some useful reform here, and the legislature should take heed. There is a recommendation that the city comptroller be given full audit power over the Department of Education, something he does not now have. A quirk in the law that fails to properly define exactly who can oversee this huge expenditure of public funds, has left the department largely to its own devices and has led to a vast increase in expensive no-bid contracts.

Moreover, the panel suggests “the need for an independent source of data concerning the performance of the school system,” noting that “the finding is a pragmatic recognition of the fact that a public official who runs for office on the basis of his or her past performance has built-in institutional incentive to present things in the best possible light.” They propose that the Independent Budget Office be given oversight over school performance.

Changes proposed for the city’s Panel for Education Policy, the entity designed to replace the old Board of Education, would provide a modicum of independence by giving members fixed terms, although the mayor would still appoint a majority. The chancellor would no longer serve as chairman. The panel would be given clear oversight over policy matters, budgets, and approve contracts, much as the old Board of Education did.

Other changes would enhance the Community Education Councils and restore powers to local superintendents to hire and evaluate principals.

All this is the least the legislature should approve to fix a system that has shut out the public and made one of our largest public investments immune from oversight. Students do not benefit from the squandering of precious tax dollars, nor can inflated test scores and graduation rates replace the knowledge and skills that employers and higher education institutions demand.

Which brings us to the term limits question. The zeal to preserve the current system of mayoral control suggests the mayor is indeed prepared to ignore the twice-expressed will of the public and join with the Council in overturning the current two-term limitation. The Council, a majority of which is would otherwise be forced from office, has nothing to lose by going along. Perhaps as incentive to prod everyone to action, the name of Chancellor Klein has been floated as a successor to Mr. Bloomberg.

The just and appropriate response here would be yet a third referendum on the matter, a better place for the mayor and his friends to invest their $20-million to influence the public. If the mayor leaves, the city will go on, as it did after the departure of such celebrated mayors as LaGuardia, Koch, and Giuliani.

© 2008 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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