2009-05-21 / This Week's Attitude

This Week's Attitude

Don't Meddle With Schools Progress Under Mayoral Control
By Neil S. Friedman

While skeptics are reluctant to admit it, mayoral control of public schools is a work in progress that, so far, has been a minor success.

Yet, even after recent statewide reading test scores demonstrated that city students made bigger gains than the rest of the state, there are those who blatantly refuse to acknowledge credit for Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, who orchestrated the encouraging reforms seven years ago.

After years of a bloated Board of Education, mismanaged by a bunch of bureaucratic buffoons, the only way to go was up, so they insist, improvements were to be expected. Still, opponents and doubters disagree with the one-man rule policy, claiming overall academic achievement has been inadequate and would like nothing better than to end or weaken City's Hall power over the schools. The doubters also argue the test results may be distorted and the policy has locked parents and others out of key decisions.

Until the mayor and schools chancellor were granted the authority to run the city's public schools in 2002, no one offered a practical solution. But the perennial dilemma about the dreadful quality of education in the Big Apple that everyone freely passed judgment on was indefensible. Nevertheless, public education in city schools seems to have finally turned a corner and is headed in the right direction.

Now that the state legislature must decide whether or not to renew mayoral control before it expires at the end of June, the opposition is eagerly pursuing its agenda. Opponents are protesting and lobbying New York's politicians not to "rubber stamp" the policy. But, to reiterate, unless there's a proverbial better mousetrap let's stick with the work-in-progress initiated by Bloomberg and Klein.

Mayoral control, by the way, is slowly becoming a national urban trend. After starting in Chicago in 2000, it has gained hold and functions productively in Boston, Cleveland, Detroit and Washington D.C., as well as New York. President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan are so convinced of its success that they are making an effort to establish mayoral control nationwide.

When Bloomberg eliminated the 32 school boards in 2002, a hue and cry of protest quickly snowballed across the city from parents and community activists upset that they would lose what little input they had over decisions in their respective school districts. While activism may have been evident in other districts, here in Canarsie, School District 18 had become dormant for quite some time. Even after the mayor conceded and created Community Education Councils in each district — which are merely reconfigured school boards — for whatever legitimate reasons or excuses there is still insufficient parental participation in the Canarsie/East Flatbush schools, which is substantiated by the lack of attendance at CEC 18 meetings.

You can't force hectic families with two working parents to attend every get-together, but if they want a voice about what happens in local schools their children attend, they must make the time to participate in such civic activities.

Opponents argue that with schools under the mayor's control, it can lead to abuse and undermines accountability. Under mayoral control the Department of Education and the School Construction Authority haven't been squeaky clean, however it's a far sight better than its forerunner, which was rife with a recurring embarrassment of misdeeds in a sullied system of patronage, where nepotism and occasional corruption prevailed.

The union, particularly United Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, is always clamoring for more — particularly salary increases and benefits — but refuses to accept some of the responsibility for years of poorly educated students. Teachers got their well-deserved raise four years ago and, under mayoral control, have been more accountable, resulting in improved education for the city's 1.1 million students. As a result, they should be acknowledged and commended, along with the mayor and chancellor. (Hmmm, ya think the advances can be tied to the teachers' 43 percent salary increase since 2002?)

Much to my surprise, and I'm sure to those who want the mayor's policy rescinded, Weingarten is essentially supportive of continuing mayoral control in New York City. Naturally, she wants some minor fine-tuning for her minions, including more checks and balances, as well as a reduction of the flexibility principals have over educators under mayoral control. However, under mayoral control teacher performance is tied to student achievement, which can expose the mediocrity of some teachers in the system. (She is also head of the National American Federation of Teachers, but disagrees with Obama's call for mayoral control nationwide.)

When you're dealing with a system that was as dysfunctional as the old Board of Education was for decades, patience is not only a virtue but also a vital prerequisite. That's why the legislature in Albany, which has never been a yardstick for efficiency and honesty, should keep control of the city's public schools in Mayor Bloomberg's hands where it slowly has transformed from an abysmal failure into a moderate triumph.

Among the world's industrialized nations, sadly, American students rank near the bottom in math and science. If academic standards can be raised under mayoral control, it is critical that politicians and educators keep the agenda in place — UNTIL SOMEONE ELSE HAS A BETTER CONCEPT.

After all, no system is perfect, but when something's working and showing sustained progress — even with glitches now and then — there's absolutely no sensible rationale to meddle with it.

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