Thursday, January 29, 2009

Mayoral Jiu Jitsu

When the New York Times says it, it must be official. So with that, it appears that the fight over mayoral control of the New York City schools is officially underway.

One thing that seems to be setting up the debate is the assertion from Learn NY and other mayoral control supporters that we shouldn't make this a referendum on what Michael Bloomberg has done while in control of the schools. The argument is essentially that while we don't use the tenure of George W. Bush to argue for abolishing the presidency, we shouldn't use Bloomberg's tenure to abolish mayoral control. The office (or control) is independent of the man (or woman) who holds it.

To me, this is a point well taken, though very hard to follow through on. What Bloomberg has done is not mayoral control. He has used mayoral control. In that light, the various complaints we offer (not enough parent input, manipulating test scores, constant reorganizations) are arguments against letting Bloomberg have another go at it, not necessarily against the system itself.

Where it gets tricky is that Bloomberg is the only one in New York's recent history to have mayoral control. (A Boss Tweed hack had it early in the 20th century, but that's a little distant for useful comparison.) Our image of mayoral control is so linked to Bloomberg that it's hard to see it any other way.

This is, of course, not helped by the fact that Bloomberg, Klein, and Learn NY aren't really even playing by their own rules. They will undoubtedly be highlighting rising test scores and graduation rates as evidence that mayoral control is working. They will point out the major dysfunctions that existed under many of the local school boards that mayoral control replaced. But that isn't playing fair. If we're really supposed to look at a governance system as a governance system, then we shouldn't be looking at the successes under one man (who the system is designed to eventually replace) or the failures of the previous administrators.

What's going on is a very sophisticated kind of mental jiu jitsu where every success under Bloomberg is hailed as proof that the system works while the failures are faults of the man and shouldn't affect our view of the system. We're also being asked to compare the platonic ideal of mayoral control (because we're not looking at the policies Bloomberg implemented through it) to the very messy realities of the previous governance structure.

This isn't exactly up is down thinking, but it certainly makes it hard to get a hold of a clear idea of what the terms of the debate actually are. In the end, I think the reality is that we're going to be looking at this as a referendum on Bloomberg as the mayor in control. And on those terms, things aren't looking so bad for him.

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