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11th August
2008

First Published in The New York Sun, August 11, 2008

By Andrew Wolf

A third group has begun public hearings on the future of mayoral control of the public schools, due to sunset in less than a year, on July 1, 2009.

This panel, the “New York City School Governance Task Force,” is sponsored by the New York State Senate Democratic minority. It may well be the Democratic majority come January, which would greatly diminish the mayor’s clout in Albany.

Although Mr. Bloomberg abandoned his membership in the Republican Party to become an independent, he left his checkbook, if not his heart, behind. He has continued his financial support of the Republicans and, according to some published reports, is ready to pour as much as $10 million into the campaign to retain the Republican Senate majority. With the mayor offering the only lifeline to the beleaguered G.O.P., the resentment among Democrats, firmly in control of the rest of the Albany establishment, can only grow.

The first hearing sponsored by the Task Force was held in Manhattan Wednesday evening, and hearings will continue at least until early October. The agenda of the group is clear. Its press announcement states that “since the 2002 statute was adopted authorizing the Mayor to have sole control of vital decision making issues, parents have been disgruntled with having little to no input themselves.”

This has been a common thread in the deliberations of the other two panels, one appointed by Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum, at the request of the chairwoman of the Assembly’s Education Committee, Catherine Nolan, the other composed of City Council members.

There will be changes to mayoral control of the schools even if Mr. Bloomberg succeeds in propping up the Senate Republicans. This is because the Legislature designed the 2002 law to sunset. One house of the Legislature may block proposed revisions to the law by not taking it to the floor, as the Assembly Democrats did with congestion pricing. But the effect will be not a continuance of the status quo of mayoral control, but a return to the old system of an independent Board of Education and elected Community School Boards.

This is an advantage for those who seek to modify a system that may give any mayor too much influence. While there are many who are favorably inclined to Mr. Bloomberg, the structure has to take into account the near certainty that someone other than the incumbent mayor will be running City Hall less than a year and half from now.

As things stand now, look for three issues to be on the front burner for reform, starting with the parental input issue. Parents have been removed in any meaningful way from the selection of new principals and have been shut out of zoning decisions.

They are queasy over the centralized selection of neophyte “Stepford Principals” with little teaching experience coming from Tweed’s “Leadership Academy.” There is also concern that a bureaucrat at the Tweed Courthouse can commandeer a floor of one’s child’s elementary school and give it to a new high school. This doesn’t sit well with parents and neighborhood folk who view school buildings as the property of the local community for the use of neighborhood children.

A second proposal for reform is removing control of the administration and analysis of standardized tests from the Department of Education. Reformers want to vest it in an independent agency. The blow-up last week, as reported by my colleague Elizabeth Green, over the “racial gap” in test score analysis underscores the problem of spinning test results. If there ever was an argument against mayoral control this is it.

Chancellor Klein complained that a federal official’s impartial analysis of the results of tests administered by the federal government is “politically motivated” and demanded an apology. But unless there is a free and open exchange of data, analysis, and opinion, children are doomed to be used as political pawns at the expense of their education.

A third reform would be modifying the citywide Panel for Educational Policy. Among the changes being discussed are fixed terms for P.E.P. members and a reconfiguration that will trim the mayor’s members to as few as four of nine from eight of thirteen. This would force the mayor to achieve consensus on policy by winning at least one vote from among the members appointed by the borough presidents. In addition, there is talk of more specific powers allocated to the P.E.P., including approval of all contracts over a threshold amount, following a public hearing.

In other words, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing in terms of mayoral control, a fact that sets the stage for quite a legislative donnybrook in the months ahead.

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

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