Shove It and Shove Off, Mayoral Control!

Dec 1, 2020 by

The experiment failed. 

Whether it had been conceived in good faith is a moot point. We need to break away from its legacy. We can argue the merits of mayoral control of our public schools, but the lamentable results are indisputable.

Its effects have directly led to many of our finest and most dedicated educators bailing out of their careers in the system.  Some can’t wait until they are eligible for benefits, as they are too jaded, exasperated, disillusioned and worn down by the DOE’s bad decisions and the onerous professional climate it has caused.

It’s been almost 20 years since the grand misadventure began.  Its main selling point, ironically, had been the imperative of  raising “accountability”. That term carries more buzz than a trillion cicadas in harmony.

Back in the days when broad powers were vested in elected local school boards that by majority block voting had dominion over a wide range of decisions, including the fate of their superintendents, there were degrees of corruption that varied among the districts.

The Board of Education was not the servant of the mayor, whose wishes they sometimes thwarted with good reason.  Chancellors could act, for better or worse, as free agents, able to enact their own “vision” and advance their agenda, as they were beholden neither to a mass electorate nor the mayor, who was.

As it’s turned out, chancellors have never been less held accountable for their performance than they’ve been since daring botch of mayoral control.  They’ve taken an “above it all” attitude to the cries of parents and others, because they no longer need to please anyone except the mayor. They are guaranteed to remain in the good graces of the mayor and maintain their lucrative posts so long as they are unflinching mouthpieces for the mayor.  This loyalty confers immunity from pressures outside of City Hall.

When Michael Bloomberg was mayor, it amounted to a pact with the devil.

The school system has gotten sicker and sicker. Mayoral control must itself be controlled.  What has it wrought since 2002?

Chancellor Joel Klein was a malevolent genius who worked evil wonders as a wrecking machine of public schools.  Dennis Walcott  was a cynical mimic of the mentor who preceded him. Cathie Black was a fleeting laugh. Richard Carranza, our current chancellor is not antagonistic, but neither is he a shining light of competence.  Although he isn’t prone to anaphylactic shock at the mention of the word “collaboration”, he has still proved himself a mediocrity who the mayor foisted upon us, despite Carranza’s track record in similar positions of leadership he held in Texas and elsewhere.

The United Federation of Teachers’ “skin in the game” is the fate of quality of public education and the right of all children to access it.  That’s what’s at stake.  That’s their “dog in the fight.”  They may sway policy but can’t dictate it. 

Nonetheless it is a persuasive force, not because of injudicious flexing of political muscle, as the New York Post alleges, but because it is a repository of expertise and astute advocacy.

Last week, UFT President Michael Mulgrew stated that mayoral control, in its present incarnation, must be changed. He stressed the need for “checks and balances” and an enhanced role for parents and educators. Aspiring candidates in the 2021 election to succeed Mayor DeBlasio will be vetted by the union, which will be active in an informational campaign to keep the voters informed. That is a duty of leadership.

The end of mayoral control would sharply reduce but not eliminate mayoral authority over public education.  The mayor would no longer be its absolute master.

Details of Mulgrew’s proposal, as reported in the Post, include the mayor selecting five members of the Panel for Educational Policy (PEP), and the remaining eight being picked by each of the five borough presidents, the city comptroller, the City Council speaker and the public advocate.  Their three-year terms would be staggered.

The PEP, whose role has been ceremonial and whose members have been been bobbleheads under mayoral control, would gain a substantial responsibility for conducting searches and screening candidates for chancellor. The mayor would choose from the top three finishers, and the successful candidate would serve a renewable term of two years and not be subject to dismissal, except “for cause”, which presumably would need to meet a legal bar. 

The mayor would not be able to fire a chancellor for the sin of not being his lackey, as occurred under former Mayor Giuliani.

The Department of Education is in bad shape right now.  But it is treatable.  Logistical and planning problems subjected to constantly altering circumstances triggered by the pandemic contributed to it handily, but the crisis in public confidence is more complicated and deeper and the DOE has provoked it. 

Now we must prevent a mass exodus from our public schools. The times demand action and persistence. New Yorkers must make known their conviction that the present form of mayoral control is not viable and that a replacement is desperately needed.

Ron Isaac

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