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Leave the Schools Under the Mayor: NYC Needs to Have Albany Make It Permanent

Last night in the Bronx was the first of five public hearings giving New Yorkers the chance to weigh in on whether or not mayoral control of the schools is a good idea, building up to June 30, 2024, when the current short-term lease on accountability expires in Albany.

Allow us to short-circuit the conversation by answering the question definitively: Yes, it is wise to let the people hold the city’s top elected official responsible for one of local government’s core duties, the one function where more taxpayer dollars go than any other (and it isn’t even close). It’s not only wise, but necessary.

Alternatives to mayoral control might masquerade as being more responsive to citizen input, but they’re not. They replace something that’s close to a true representative democracy — selection of the city’s chief elected official — with something more diffuse, privileging squeaky wheels and vested interests and petty fiefdoms.

One such model was the old Board of Education, whose seven members were selected by each of the five borough presidents and two by the mayor. Nobody was in charge, so fingers wound up pointed endlessly this way and that whenever anything went wrong, which was often. And the lion’s share of members of the board were picked by officials chosen in low-turnout, low-information elections. Mayoral elections aren’t competitive enough, but they make borough presidents’ races look like perfect-participation democracy.

Another model is devolving far more power to elected community school boards, on the theory that they’re closer to the schools and therefore the kids and families served by them. This too is a big mistake. You can’t rub two voters together at school board elections, which makes the boards themselves a joke of genuine representation. Not so surprisingly, they were also hotbeds of corruption.

Indeed, “mayoral control” is a misnomer. It really ought to be called citizens’ control, as it allows the largest number of people to have a say in choosing the person who makes the most important policy decisions about the schools — including picking a chancellor, who reports directly to him. It would be unthinkable to have a Police Department or Fire Department or Sanitation Department that’s unaccountable to the people, and the same is true of the Education Department.

Some have suggested a modest tweak to mayoral control, to give the City Council advise and consent over the selection of a chancellor. That’s not the worst idea in the world — perhaps it would have saved the city from the mockery of a sham that was the 95-day tenure of out-of-her-depth magazine executive Cathie Black — but it has major downsides.

We’re loath to give the Council, which already abuses the power it has by, for example, blocking worthy real estate development, more freedom to extract concessions and veto bold choices. That’s likely to give additional leverage to the teachers’ union, which already has plenty.

New York City’s schools have lots of problems, but by most measures that count, they’ve become more professional, innovative and responsive since the mayor took over in 2002. Graduation rates have risen, as have test scores.

Legislators in Albany should be ashamed of the way they string along New York City, forcing the people of the city in the person of their mayor to beg for an extension of the power to guide our public schools. It’s especially egregious for Albany, which has just passed a very bad class size bill tying the city’s managerial hands, to threaten to revoke the authority now.

To borrow from Winston Churchill, mayoral control is the worst form of governance, except for all those other forms that have been tried.

Source: Nydailynews