Friday, February 6, 2009

On Mayoral Control

The debate over mayoral control is in full swing. If I were going to testify at today's Assembly hearing on the topic, here's how my testimony would go:

Let me start off by saying that I reject as false any notion that the choice before us is between our current form of autocratic control by the mayor and a chaotic, bureaucratic mess incapable of effectively running the New York City schools. I agree that, on the whole, mayoral control of the schools is a good thing. However, absolute control is unnecessary and even counterproductive.

The goal of any governance structure must be to ensure that all children have the opportunity to obtain an excellent education that prepares them to be successful in their lives. In order to meet this larger goal a governance structure should meet three criteria:
1) There must be the opportunity for high levels of meaningful parental and community involvement.
2) There must be clear lines of accountability across the system.
3) There must be the authority to implement policies and reforms, even if they are not initially popular.

So then how does mayoral control as we currently know it stack up?

Well, it clearly succeeds on the second and third points. There’s no doubt that the lines of authority in the DOE run directly though the Chancellor to the Mayor. And the Mayor and Chancellor have left no doubt that they have the authority and willingness to implement sweeping changes in the schools as they see fit.

What is missing from this formula is the opportunity for parents and community members to have a real say in how their children are educated. People really do want to be involved. But instead of getting that opportunity, they are shut out behind layers of bureaucracy. Decisions are announced as final without any community input. Parents from across the city have told me how frustrating this is for them. I know. I feel the same frustrations myself whenever I try to work with the DOE.

We know that schools succeed when parents are included. Yet too often under mayoral control, parents have been excluded.

Some will say that we need to separate our views of mayoral control from our views of the mayor himself. They say that we shouldn’t let our judgments on the successes or failures of Michael Bloomberg’s time as mayor affect our judgment on the institution of mayoral control. To an extent, this is even correct. But I’m unwilling to ignore the weaknesses in the governance structure simply because they were exposed by the person doing the governing. We now know that it’s possible under the current structure for one person to have absolute control of the schools and to disregard the community’s attempts to offer constructive feedback. True, the next mayor may correct this error. But it may also get worse. Since we simply don’t know who will be in charge or what policies they will pursue, we need to ensure that our governance system protects the roles of parents and communities in making the decisions that affect our schools.

As I said before, I agree with the general framework of mayoral control and think that it should be preserved. But some changes need to be made to ensure that parents are included in a meaningful way.

First, members of the Panel for Educational Policy should be appointed to fixed terms. I agree with continuing the practice of having the mayor appoint a majority of the board. Anything less would not be mayoral control. However, PEP members have to have some measure of independence and be allowed to vote their conscience without fear of removal. As it currently stands, PEP members serve at the pleasure of the Mayor and can be removed at any time – or prior to any vote on which they disagree with the mayor. Allowing them some measure of independence will force the mayor to make his case for proposed policies rather than simply announcing them as a fait accompli. This will require the opening of a dialogue that has been sorely lacking over the previous seven years.

Second, there needs to be an increase in the mid-level authority of the community superintendents and community education councils. Under the current structure, all real decision-making abilities are centralized in Tweed, far away from community input. If we want to allow parents to have a say in how their schools are governed, we need to bring some of that governance closer to the schools and the parents. I am not advocating for a return to the totally decentralized community school board structure, but there should be Community Superintendents with real power and the ability to manage the day to day operations of their districts within the framework set at the city-wide level by the chancellor and PEP.

Third, we should increase community involvement in electing community education council members. Currently, CEC members are elected by select officers in the PTAs of the schools in the Community District. Voting eligibility could be extended to all parents in the school at a special PTA meeting. Expanding eligibility could give more parents a greater voice in the process. This, combined with an increase in community-level authority, will allow the CECs to provide a meaningful forum for community involvement.

If we know that schools succeed when parents are included, why would we allow a school governance structure that can exclude parents? Mayor control should be renewed, but it must be renewed with changes. Provisions must be added to the law that ensure avenues for meaningful parental involvement.

No comments: