New York City's public school students can be forgiven if they're not impressed by the work of their government. Over the past weeks, they've been treated to the spectacle of a State Senate on one day turning out the lights in the Senate Chamber, and on another locking the Chamber doors. For the City's students and their families, the consequences of these circus-like proceedings go far beyond a civics lesson in how not to govern: Just days from now, on June 30, 2009, the law authorizing our existing system of public education will expire, and there is no evidence to suggest that the State Senate will wake up in time to avert the crisis.
Without action by the Legislature, control of the schools will return to a seven-member Board of Education comprised of two mayoral appointees and five appointees chosen by the borough presidents, the structure that existed prior to 2002 and the ratification of mayoral control.
Because there is no legal roadmap for making this transition, the expiration of the current law is a recipe for confusion and worse. The biggest threat is that when New Yorkers wake up next Wednesday morning there could be a void at the top of the Department of Education and a breakdown in the day-to-day operation of our school system. Everything from decisions on major contracts to the holding of summer school could be jeopardized. This is an emergency, and it deserves to be treated that way.
If the Legislature cannot act, the mayor and the five borough presidents will have the opportunity and necessity to help New York City students while offering them a much-needed reminder that government can work professionally and in the public interest.
We need to prepare now for the job we may be charged with on July 1, and develop a unified agenda for operating the Department of Education. Yesterday I proposed this five-point plan for transitioning to a newly constituted Board of Education should the existing law expire:
Avoid delay in the appointment of the new Board of Education. The Mayor and Borough Presidents should commit to making appointments to the Board on July 1, 2009, with a full Board meeting to follow immediately.
Determine the leadership at the Department of Education. As soon as the Board is appointed, a vote should be taken on the retention of Joel Klein as Chancellor of the Department of Education. For the sake of stability, I favor keeping Chancellor Klein in his position and preserving the Chancellor's existing authority.
Preserve the successes achieved under Mayoral control. A committee should be formed by the new Board, with a very short reporting deadline, to present a detailed plan for preserving the successes of the past seven years while abiding by the legal requirements binding on the new Board. No one will benefit from unresolved conflicts over school governance or from a return to the discredited practices of the past.
Keep the trains (or in this case the school buses) running on time. Without delay the Board should identify and address the most pressing matters for its consideration. From the very first meeting, Board business should be conducted in an open and transparent manner. Guidance about summer school programs should be a priority.
Communicate extensively with parents. Along with many parents, advocates and elected officials, I have come to believe that the central failing of the existing school governance system was an inadequate inclusion of parents in decision making about their children's schools. Fixing this situation takes on special importance during a time of uncertainty and confusion.
The subject of how best to govern New York City's public schools has long been a source of controversy in this city. For many, the old Board of Education and its decentralized structure came to stand for much of what was wrong about New York City's schools.
But if events have us return to that Board of Education model, we must at all costs avoid paralysis, political infighting, and threatened litigation. That way lies only harm to our schools and our children. The better course is to accept this new reality and its challenges, and then rededicate ourselves to improving New York City's schools.