I have been studying and writing about the New York City public schools since the late 1960s. My first book was a history of the school system. I have followed the changes of the past several years with more than ordinary interest.
When Mayor Bloomberg first proposed to take control of the school system, I thought it was a fine idea. From my own studies, I knew that the mayor had always played an important role in education. From 1873 until 1969, the mayor appointed every member of the city's Board of Education. Then came decentralization in 1969, and the mayor was limited to selecting only two of the seven members of the central board.
I didn't realize, I don't think anyone realized, how sweeping the transformation of the school system would be when the State Legislature voted to give control to the mayor in 2002.
Like most people, I assumed that the new arrangement would restore much of the system that had been in place prior to decentralization. In those days, the mayor relied on a blue-ribbon panel composed of good government groups to recommend potential members of the central board. The local school boards were advisory, with few if any opportunities for corruption or patronage. Once appointed by the mayor, the Board of Education selected a professional educator to head up the nation's largest school district. The mayor kept his distance, exercising his authority via his control of the budget.
All that changed in 2002. Mayor Bloomberg converted the Board of Education into a city department, though it was not subject to the same budgetary rules and oversight as other city departments. Mayor Bloomberg personally selected the Chancellor and chose a non-educator, prosecutor Joel Klein, to run the school system.
Meanwhile the law abolished the local school boards. The law retained the central board, but the mayor renamed it the Panel on Education Policy. The mayor got to appoint eight of its 13 members, the others were appointed by the borough presidents. All served at the pleasure of the appointing authority. When the mayor summarily removed two of his appointees who threatened to oppose one of his decisions, the PEP was widely recognized as a rubber-stamp, lacking any independence.
For the past seven years, the mayor has exercised a degree of control over the school system that has never been seen in any other school district in the United States, certainly not in New York City. There are no checks and balances. The mayor and his chancellor do as they wish, with no one to review their decisions, and no institution with the power to say no. They do not have to persuade anyone when they change policies, reorganize the structure, or award no-bid contracts.
The State Legislature is about to renew the mayor's control of the public schools. The Assembly has fallen into line.
All that is now required to continue this unusual governmental structure is for the State Senate to take action. As of this writing, the State Senate is paralyzed because neither party has enough votes to form a majority. First there was Democratic control and the balance was 32 Democrats to 30 Republicans. Then two Democrats threw their support to the Republicans, and the Republicans were briefly in charge until one of the party switchers returned to the Democratic fold. So, the upper house is temporarily deadlocked, 31-31.
At some point the deadlock will end and the Legislature will act.
In the meanwhile, two parent activists compiled and edited a collection of critical essays by journalists, academics, and advocates about these past seven years of mayoral control without checks and balances: NYC Schools Under Bloomberg and Klein: What Parents, Teachers, and Policymakers Need to Know. The book can be found at lulu.com. (Full disclosure: I wrote the introduction and one of the essays.) It is an informative book that raises important issues.