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Public Schools, Minus the Public

Publication Date: 2004-03-18

Since the mayoral takeover, the school system has been reorganized along the lines of a corporate business model, as though educating children was no different from selling toothpaste.


from the New York Times, March 18, 2004
http://query.nytimes.com/mem/tnt.html?tntget=2004/03/18/opinion/18WEIN.html&tntemail0

Two years ago, the State Legislature gave Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg nearly unlimited control of New York City's public schools. It abolished the central Board of Education and created a Panel on Education Policy (with eight members appointed by the mayor, five by the borough presidents) that is largely advisory. The move was a sharp departure from the American tradition of placing education policy in the hands of an independent public board that is not directly controlled by elected officials.

Hoping that this change would reduce bureaucratic inertia, we were among those who supported the measure in Albany. And we certainly commend Mayor Bloomberg for his willingness to take responsibility for improving the public schools. In recent days, however, many of us have realized that the legislation went too far by consolidating all power in the hands of one elected official.

This issue was crystallized for us on Monday, when the panel ? which was widely expected to rubber-stamp the mayor's policies ? resisted his plan to end the "social promotion" of third-grade students who fail standardized tests. Facing defeat, the mayor summarily removed two of his appointees and engineered the firing of a third to get the vote he wanted.

Mayor Bloomberg's action was only the latest example of the problems created by the present form of mayoral control. With the Legislature's imprimatur, every board ? central and local ? in which citizens had expressed their concerns about schools has been dismantled. The only check on the mayor's power over the school system was intended to be the Panel on Education Policy, but the events of this week emasculated even this small vestige of democratic governance.

We agree that the mayor should have a larger role in running the school system than in the recent past, but he should not have unchecked power to hire personnel, make contracts and set policy. The time has come, then, for a mid-course correction by the Legislature to restore transparency, public engagement and accountability to the school system.

Since the mayoral takeover, the school system has been reorganized along the lines of a corporate business model, as though educating children was no different from selling toothpaste. The Department of Education is today a tightly centralized, top-down structure of regional and local officials who relay instructions from the department's headquarters to the schools. Not only does the reorganization leave out any role for public involvement, it has also led to serious malfunctioning of school services.

The reorganization, for example, caused the disruption of school discipline and the near collapse of school safety during the past six months. The department wiped out the old disciplinary system, leading to long delays in dealing with suspended students ? who were quickly returned to their schools and got into more trouble. And Mr. Bloomberg's solution of putting armed police officers into the schools is not a long-term answer to the deeper problem, which is the erosion of the authority of teachers and principals in schools. In addition, the reorganization left thousands of children who have disabilities without access to the services they need.

Complicating matters, the mayor appointed Joel I. Klein, who has no educational background, as his chancellor. Reflecting his lack of experience in the field, Mr. Klein selected a controversial deputy for instruction who imposed curricular mandates and micromanagement on the system's 1,200 schools. She chose the city's curriculum, and there was no public discussion about her choices. The Department of Education now requires hundreds of elementary schools to use a little-known reading program that has not been proven successful in any other urban school district; as a result, state and federal education officials refused to finance it.

The Department of Education now operates in a secretive manner that denies the right of the public to have a say in important decisions or even to know what policy is being considered. Even the once customary practice of announcing contracts at regular public hearings has stopped, thus removing transparency from the operations of the department. It has also now become routine for journalists and other public officials to have to file Freedom of Information demands to obtain the most basic information about the Department of Education's decisions and practices.

The debate over social promotion, then, is just the latest flash point for the new regime. We are strong supporters of academic standards. We oppose social promotion. But we do not agree that the mayor's approach is the best or only one for ending it or helping low-performing students. The mayor announced his plan only two months ago. The administration's rush to fail third graders, and only third graders, seems political. If the lowest-scoring third-grade students are held back this year, as the new policy states, then next year the fourth-grade results will soar in the spring of 2005, just in time for the mayoral campaign.

For all these reasons, the State Legislature needs to re-establish an independent board of respected citizens to set policy for the schools. Those who serve on this board should do so for set terms, rather than "at the pleasure of" the mayor or borough presidents. There is a good historical reason for having a wall between schools and electoral politics.

The public schools do not belong to this mayor or future mayors. They belong to the public, who place their children in them and who support them with their tax dollars. It is now imperative for the Legislature to re-establish the role of the public in public education.


Diane Ravitch is a historian of education at New York University and Randi Weingarten is the president of the United Federation of Teachers.


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