As an elected official or an ordinary citizen, suppose someone presented you the following figures on an education initiative and asked your opinion: graduation rates improved from 51 percent to 66 percent, crime rates within schools dropped 44 percent, and state test scores jumped 20 percent. Oh, and because the initiative takes place in a large urban center, you are also concerned with the minority achievement gap, which, incidentally, narrowed significantly. You would be certifiably insane if you were to oppose this initiative or threaten to hold it hostage as a means of furthering your own pet projects.
Or, as the case would be, you would have to be one of the eight New York State Senators voting against this initiative – mayoral control of New York City’s education system. Numerous other legislators threatened to derail mayoral control unless their demands, which ultimately amounted to giveaways to community activists, were met. Fortunately, cooler and wiser heads prevailed as the senate overwhelmingly approved the renewal of mayoral control. While touching upon the intricacies of New York’s education policy, the intent of this column is to demonstrate the failures of supposed public officials and racial leaders and an example of one of the most notable failings of urban politics: the tendency of elected officials to placate powerful political interests rather than pursue what is best for their community – and their ability to get away with it (Sharpton, Rangel, we are looking at you!).
In 2002, after intense lobbying by Mayor Bloomberg, the state of New York did something revolutionary: they handed control of the New York City school system to the mayor. Institutionally, the mayor already possessed vast control over public safety, public health, and social services. Why, supporters of mayoral control asked, was education any different? Not only did it inherently overlap with the aforementioned fields, but education had deteriorated and accountability had grown disjointed.
Prior to 2002, if I were a disgruntled parent, angry over the inconsequential such as a poor lunch or even the relevant such as violence in my child’s school, the chain of command was confusing-at-best and non-existent at worst. Who is my school board member? What kind of power did he or she have on a multi-person board? Who is my child’s principal…my child’s superintendent, and what can I do to these appointed individuals? Wait, the state runs our education system, ok…do I turn to the education commissioner, the board of regents, or one of thousands of others comprising the state education bureaucracy. What about the governor? Education officials often evaded responsibility for poor education outcomes – and they WERE poor judging by New York City’s consistent designation as one of the worst city school systems in the country – by pointing to a myriad of other officials or institutions.
Bloomberg sought to transfer accountability to one man – himself – through one institution – the New York City Department of Education. The hierarchy became clear-cut and cutting-edge policies were introduced. Poorly-performing schools were reorganized or shut down. Charter schools became models of innovation (Disclaimer: this author serves as Secretary to the Board of the best charter school in the state). Teacher, principal, and superintendent salaries were raised and they were granted more flexibility in exchange for increased expectations. Social promotion, the policy of promoting students based on age rather than performance, was discontinued.
The result was an education system that drastically improved by all quantifiable indicators over the course of Bloomberg’s two terms. However, despite the advances, opponents mounted. Any policy that consolidates power empowers one at the expense of another. In New York, like many American cities, a public education death spiral had developed. Schools consistently failed, leading to voter apathy. As public discontent grew, unions and community organizers strengthened their grasp on public schools. School board elections would frequently get voter turnout as low as 10 percent, with special interests dominating the electoral process. School boards, as dysfunctional as they were, often served as a springboard to higher office for public officials.
Thus, few were surprised to see community organizers, deprived of their power, cry foul over their loss of control (It should be noted, despite their relative loss of power, New York City’s teachers union initially supported mayoral control as well as its renewal – it arguably would have been dead on arrival at the legislature in both instances with union opposition). They spun their own selfish grievance, the loss of control over local elections and school patronage, as a fight on behalf of the city’s parents whose voice was lost in the school restructuring.
Keen observers will simply note the high approval ratings the mayor garners on education and a public acknowledgement that schools are significantly better off than under the previous system.
Digging deeper into opposition of mayoral control, varying motivations surfaced. First, there are those posturing on behalf of the city’s racial minorities. Their spokesman is Manhattan Democrat Senator Bill Perkins. Nothing is more offensive to Perkins’ minority constituents than increased test scores, improved graduation rates, and safer schools. Thankfully, Perkins spotted the elephant in the room: race and class. Realizing nothing inspires compromise or brings communities together like a few good racial bomb throws, Perkins likened Bloomberg to a plantation owner.
Then, we have opposition emblematic of the old guard: wishing to empower local political – ahem, community – interests. This role is embodied by Queens Democrat Senator Shirley Huntley, who bears a striking resemblance to Lynne Thigpen’s character in “Lean on Me” – inflated self ego, bullying tactics, imposing hair…Huntley was thrilled to bang her chest and declare Mayor Bloomberg stay out of Albany’s business – Albany’s business in this case, of course, was New York City’s schoolchildren. Nothing rallies the troops like standing up to rich, white mayor Bloomberg. She even declared she was “afraid of no one” as she accused the mayor of stoking fear. Ah yes, because her ally Perkin’s plantation rhetoric was so incredibly soothing. Showing she is a pragmatic compromiser, Huntley did offer to support mayoral control…if Bloomberg fired the principal at the school where Huntley’s daughter was parent coordinator.
Finally, there is the hilariously unique position of Gotham Comptroller and mayoral candidate William Thompson. Thompson was a member of the old defective board of education and a vocal critic of mayoral control’s implementation. Strike one. As comptroller/candidate for mayor, he used all the tools at his disposal to knock mayoral control and one of his opponent’s primary platforms. Frighteningly, a man whose job was to assiduously analyze numbers, failed to comprehend (or lied about) the basic figures surrounding the city’s education turnaround. Strike two. Perhaps Thompson realized the paradox he faced if he ultimately ascended to the position of mayor: he would have campaigned himself into a position he vowed to weaken. So for good measure, Thompson has contorted himself along the way, boldly declaring he was against mayoral control before he was for it before I was against it. Strike three.
The ultimate compromise on mayoral control included revisions in contract oversight, school shutdowns, parental dialogue and the establishment of an arts council and parent training institute. The stakes were high enough where even pet projects like arts funding and a school for the community organizers of tomorrow were not allowed to dampen its passage for supporters.
The positive lesson from mayoral control in New York City, thus far, has been the degree to which disparate political and structural parties have collaborated for the betterment of the district’s 1.1 million school children. What is frightening, however, is the surprisingly small but vocal group fallaciously claiming to fight racial disparities, that threatened to hijack a very initiative whose continued success represents the best hope of overcoming actual racial inequities. The Huntleys, Perkins, and Thompsons of the world either willfully disregarded or ignorantly failed to comprehend what had manifested itself as a success.