Under Control: How Mayoral Control Became Inevitable

Under Control: How Mayoral Control Became Inevitable

Under Control: How Mayoral Control Became Inevitable
June 12, 2015

With three weeks left in the state legislative session, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio convened Real Estate Board of New York Chairman Rob Speyer, Association for a Better New York Chairman Bill Rudin and other business leaders in City Hall. He beckoned the head of the Partnership for New York City, a consortium of corporate executives, and the former CEO of Time Warner up to a podium to make the case for his continued control of the city’s public schools.

The speeches subsided. The mayor’s face reddened as the Blue Room began to buzz with questions about what alliances were shaping the future governance of city schools: Did he have any leverage with the Republican-led state Senate? Had business executives called the governor and pressured him on this? Wasn’t it a reflection of the GOP’s disdain for the downstate progressive?

The mayor fielded one question about what academic indicators or other barometers led him to deem mayoral control a success—or at least an improvement over the decentralized school system it replaced in 2002, in which a Board of Education composed of two mayoral appointees and five borough president picks made pedagogical choices and managed high schools while local school boards oversaw administrative and budget moves for elementary and middle schools. De Blasio mentioned that test scores had risen. He described his universal prekindergarten rollout as evidence that education initiatives could be rapidly implemented. But mostly, de Blasio said mayoral control has helped the city dodge the pitfalls that dogged the decentralized system.

“It’s very fair in public policy, sometimes, to say you know when something is working because it’s not the other thing. The other thing did not work,” de Blasio said. “We had corruption. We had nepotism. We had an extraordinary inability to move reform. We’re not going back.”

Academic performance was not discussed much more when city Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña and the mayor traveled to Albany to request that the Legislature and Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo permanently renew mayoral control. State Sen. John Flanagan, then the chairman of the Education Committee, asked whether Fariña sought any adjustments to the system’s structure. A few legislators posed similar queries to the mayor. And state Sen. Simcha Felder of Brooklyn said he would keep his remarks brief because his committee was going to hold a hearing on the matter.

Felder’s hearing never happened. Rather, politicians simply extolled the model’s clear line of accountability. The GOP-led state Senate backed a bill continuing mayoral control for one year, while the Democrat-dominated Assembly ditched its initial call for seven more years in favor of Cuomo’s proposed three-year extension.

But when it comes to accountability, legislators and city officials do not appear to be too concerned with evaluating how successful schools may be in terms of the emerging research on mayoral control. It is as if they view mayoral control as inevitable.

“You can never guarantee anything in life, but we will have mayoral control next year and the year after and the year after that,” said state Sen. Andrew Lanza, a Republican from Staten Island. “At what interval are we going to review and revisit the efficacy of whatever system is in place? I wont speak to that, but we are going to have mayoral control. … It’s the best chance we have to ensure that there is accountability and transparency.”

Despite his push for permanent control of the school system, de Blasio’s inequality-vanquishing, citizen-steered progressive agenda does not inherently mesh with mayoral control. Although New York City schools improved in many ways under mayoral control and the stewardship of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the achievement gap did not retreat. And it is unclear whether de Blasio can expect it to—national research suggests that achievement tends to rise in executive-led districts, but the distance between their poorest and best-performing schools does, too. De Blasio can argue mayoral control replaced a system stewing with corruption and patronage, yet critics argue malfeasance continues, just concentrated in the hands of a cadre of consultants and executives rather than community school boards. Parents are clamoring for more influence. And polls suggest the black and Latino base de Blasio depends on has not yet forgotten what inspired the push for community control of schools during the civil rights movement. But when de Blasio and his peers see only two options—maintaining mayoral control or returning to what he described as “the bad old days”—there appears to be little pressure to undertake a more rigorous review.

(Source: National Center for Education Statistics)

Gaps persist

Beneath a towering image of Martin Luther King Jr. at the Urban League’s January 2003 symposium, Bloomberg outlined his education vision at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. He noted that more than three-quarters of the elementary and middle school students enrolled in the Central and West Harlem district could not read, write or do math at grade level. Bloomberg then pledged to liberate youth from the consequences of a failed education system. “The right to a quality education is just as much a God-given and American right as the right to vote or be treated equally,” he said. “This movement to fix our public school system is another link on the civil rights railroad to equality.”

Academic experts say schools advanced under Bloomberg. But no evidence suggests the achievement gap narrowed between black and Latino students and their white and Asian peers. National studies show mayoral control can be effective in improving education. However, it may also widen disparities between the poorest and highest-performing schools. Any demographic divergence is relevant in New York City, where the public school body is 68 percent black and Latino—and it is particularly pertinent for de Blasio, who was propelled into City Hall in part by minority support.

Under Bloomberg, the city’s average scores improved on all Trial Urban District Assessments, a national exam often considered the best measure of educational progress because it is given to randomly selected students and has remained relatively stable over the years. The city’s progress, however, looks uninspiring when compared with the nine other city districts that have been taking the tests since 2003. All of the cities except Cleveland saw their average eighth-grade reading and math scores rise more than New York City’s between 2003 and 2013. Every district except Cleveland and Houston had more growth on their average fourth-grade reading score. And all but Cleveland, Houston and Charlotte posted larger increases on their average fourth-grade math score during that period. Mayors controlled at least half of those urban districts for all or part of the decade in question, according to a Center for American Progress report. New York City’s relative mediocrity does not amount to a convincing argument for or against mayoral control, according to Norm Fruchter, principal associate at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University.

“We have very small gains, and a number of districts have much more significant gains,” said Fruchter, whom de Blasio appointed to the New York City Panel for Educational Policy. “Aside from a rise in graduation rates—which I think is less than the previous regime has trumpeted, but it is still real—I think the system has not moved significantly under mayoral control.”

Bloomberg made a production of announcing annual spurts in four-year graduation rates, which went from 46.5 percent of pupils in 2005 to 66 percent by 2013. The rate rose another 2.4 percent to 68.4 percent in de Blasio’s first year. Still, some have questioned the quality of a city public school diploma, particularly after the City University of New York noted that 77.6 percent of its community college pupils matriculating from public schools required remediation in reading, writing or math in fall 2013. State statistics confirm this concern. In 2014, 26 percent of public school pupils graduated within four years and scored high enough to have met “aspirational performance measures,” a term the state uses to indicate students are prepared for college or careers. That proportion jumped to 55 percent for Asian students and 43 percent for white students, but dropped to 16 percent for black students and 14 percent for Latino students.

Disparities persist when studying national and state exam scores. Comparing how much progress the city’s black and Latino students made on the national TUDA tests with gains made by their counterparts in other urban districts between 2003 and 2013 shows New York City beat out other districts by a statistically significant amount only four out of 80 times. And those gains—blacks’ progress on fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math—only surpassed two districts also under the purview of their mayor: Cleveland and Washington, D.C.

Although Bloomberg and de Blasio have attempted to grapple with New York City’s education inequities, recent research suggests mayoral control may not be the best route to reducing rifts in the school system. Kenneth Wong, chairman of Brown University’s education policy, and Francis Shen, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota Law School, have studied mayoral control over the past two decades and determined it can improve academic achievement and encourage strategic allocation of resources. But in their 2013 Center for American Progress report, they found mayoral control appears “ineffective” in narrowing the achievement gap between schools in the highest and lowest 25th percentiles. What’s more, Columbia University Teachers College education policy chairman Jeffrey Henig said Wong and Shen found evidence that mayoral control is associated with an expansion of the divide between the worst- and best-performing schools. They hypothesized this may occur when mayors face competition from suburban districts and private schools, and consequently prioritize investing in high-performing schools to prevent a “brain drain.”

“The story, I would say, is complicated and mixed,” Henig said. “Governance systems alone don’t have the kinds of impacts that people imagine.” He believes the transition to mayoral control may be effective because it tends to be accompanied by various officials, unions, charter school organizations and other constituencies lining up behind one agenda. “They want to talk about New York, they want to talk about Chicago, they want to talk about Boston,” he said. “They don’t want to talk about Trenton; they don’t want to talk about Yonkers; they don’t want to talk about these places that never moved away from mayoral control going back into the early 20th century because they are not happy success stories.”

Rudy Giuliani was able to stage a political comeback through the Board of Ed. in 1989. (Photo: Joseph Mehling '69)

Decentralized disarray

As counsel to the Board of Education in the 1990s, David Bloomfield said he watched Rudy Giuliani use the board to pave the way for a comeback from his 1989 mayoral loss to David Dinkins. The Staten Island borough president appointed Giuliani’s old campaign manager, Michael Petrides, to the board. And Petrides proceeded to get other borough president appointees—Carol Gresser from Queens, Irene Impellizzeri from Brooklyn, and Ninfa Segarra from the Bronx—to align with him. This gave the so-called gang of four the numbers needed to vote down Dinkins’ three nominees—one as borough president and two as mayor—and doom his policy priorities. Not that the talk tended to focus on education policy, according to Bloomfield, now a professor of education leadership, law and policy at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.

Petrides’ tactics appealed to more conservative board members, Bloomfield said, such as approaching the Brooklyn representative, a white Catholic, and attacking the Dinkins administration’s policy of handing out condoms in schools. Petrides also built support by criticizing a curriculum meant to teach tolerance that contained books with lesbian and gay characters. “If you Google ‘Heather has Two Mommies,’ you’re going to see article after article about how David Dinkins was going to foist lesbianism on our children,” Bloomfield said. “This guy (Petrides) proceeded to make trouble so that the board fell into disarray, benefitting Giuliani. Next time, he (Giuliani) could say, ‘Look at the Board of Ed. It’s in disarray.’ ”

Before the current incarnation of mayoral control, the seven-member Board of Education selected a chancellor, set policy, oversaw high schools and signed off on fiscal and capital plans. Roughly 30 neighborhood school boards, staffed with elected members, hired superintendents, played a role in administrative picks and approved budgets for primary and middle schools. But many say Board of Education factions stalled policy moves and that limited oversight of community school boards invited patronage and embezzlement. When the state granted Bloomberg control of the schools in 2002, he assumed the power to install a majority of the members of the Board of Education—which he renamed the Panel for Educational Policy—and to appoint a chancellor. Community education councils with predominately advisory roles replaced the school boards. Under this centralized system, few question whether the mayor has the muscle to test out his ideas and back them up with funding.

The latitude community school boards used to enjoy did prove problematic. For instance, William Rogers, the superintendent of Williamsburg and Greenpoint schools for nearly 20 years, schemed to deliver some $6 million in government funding to a girls yeshiva by creating nearly 60 no-show jobs, according to The New York Times. The ploy helped Rogers earn support from three Hasidic members of the local school board and, consequently, cling to his position in a district divided by ethnic loyalties. Political affiliation became a prerequisite for administrative positions in some districts, where voter turnout was so low political clubs could dominate school boards and select loyal principals. Dueling Democratic clubs doled out administrative positions in School District 10, The Riverdale Press reported in 1986. The Bronx newspaper also reported that 25 of 48 principals and assistant principals appointed between 1982 and 1986 had an affiliation with one of the clubs or was related to a politician.

The mismanagement also created hurdles at the central Board of Education. Schools were perpetually underfunded because the mayor was responsible for the education budget but had no operational control over it, Bloomfield said. Executives were reluctant to surrender money to boards beleaguered by patronage and corruption. Board members, in turn, blamed City Hall, saying they could not improve schools with such slim budgets. The situation was so dire in 1990 that Dinkins got the United Federation of Teachers to defer money from teachers’ paychecks and agreed to pay it back with interest. In exchange, the union won extra vacation days, which are now permanently on the calendar as mid-winter recess.

Education funding increased with Bloomberg at the helm of schools. The city Independent Budget Office reported funds committed to the city Department of Education went from $18.76 million in 2002 to $24.24 million in 2014, with all figures adjusted to reflect the 2014 value of a dollar. During that period, the city took on a larger share of the department’s budget, committing 45.4 percent to the state’s 43.6 percent in 2002, and 57.2 percent to the state’s 35.2 percent in 2014, according to the IBO.

Critics, however, say the budget’s growth has not been accompanied by an increase in measures to curb corruption. The Panel for Educational Policy is not subject to all of the city procurement policies that apply to other agencies because it remains fundamentally a state entity. When the Legislature renewed Bloomberg’s control over schools in 2009, lawmakers added a provision requiring the city Department of Education to subject contracts costing $1 million or more annually to a PEP vote. The move came after an audit by the state comptroller found that the city awarded $342.5 million in non-competitively bid contracts between 2005 and 2008. Nearly 60 percent of these agreements listed start dates prior to the committee meetings during which they were approved. The comptroller’s team said that in several circumstances, education officials were unable to provide the cost-price analyses that must be prepared to prove that not putting a contract out for bid was fiscally prudent.

Some advocates, such as Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters, said the mayor’s PEP majority rubber-stamps contracts and has failed to filter out wrongdoing and waste. “Corruption on the school boards did exist … but it’s Little League corruption compared to the Major League corruption,” she said. “I’ve seen hundreds of millions of dollars literally thrown down the drain.”

Shortly after the new rules were enacted in 2009, the PEP authorized a $54 million, four-year contract extension with Future Technology Associates, an arrangement that had been questioned in the press. Two years later, the special commissioner of investigation for city schools announced that the co-owner of Future Technology Associates and a department financial division executive had bilked the Department of Education out of $6.5 million.

The PEP has approved deals with businesses previously found to have fleeced city schools, too. This February, the department proposed a contract with Custom Computer Specialists for up to nine years that could have cost up to $1.14 billion. The tech firm was named in a 2011 report by the special investigator that determined a consultant skimmed $3.6 million from the department by using pass-through companies to mask the fact that he hired five consultants employed by his private business. As part of the arrangement, Verizon agreed to subcontract with Custom Computer Specialists in order to receive a multimillion-dollar contract with the department. This time around, the Department of Education encountered backlash after the PEP vote, rescinded the agreement and said it would issue new requests for proposals.

The city Independent Budget Office reported funds committed to the city Department of Education went from $18.76 million to $24.24 million under mayoral control, with all figures adjusted to reflect the 2014 value of a dollar. (Source: New York City Independent Budget Office)

The parental participation problem

When the Rev. C. Herbert Oliver moved with his family from Birmingham to New York City in 1966, his youngest son went from taking math courses three grade levels above his own to flunking the subject. Oliver sought help from his child’s homeroom teacher, and said the instructor reported the boy was doing “great.” Convinced that the problem was a lack of minority educators concerned about black students, Oliver joined those campaigning for community control of schools.

Mounting pressure led then-Mayor John Lindsay and the city Board of Education to authorize an “experiment” in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, a Brooklyn neighborhood where residents elected a board headed by Oliver to run the local schools. Attendance at parent-teacher association meetings mushroomed from two or three adults to hundreds, according to Oliver. He said the Brooklyn district instituted a more Afro-centric curriculum, which UFT boss Albert Shanker opposed. When Ocean Hill-Brownsville teachers did not embrace the changes, Oliver said several were sent to the central Department of Education office for reassignment. Shanker railed against the move and characterized it as anti-Semitic because many of the reassigned teachers were Jewish. The union contended the district had violated educators’ due process rights. And Shanker spurred the teachers union to strike in September 1968. Schools were paralyzed until mid-November, when the state education commissioner assumed control of the Brooklyn district and reinstated the original staff. With tensions still seething, Oliver attended a school board meeting and was arrested.

“I had never been arrested before in my life, not even down in Birmingham. But here I was put in a paddy wagon by a black man,” Oliver said. “It still lingers in the mind for many. But we do not see the improvements that we had tried to make.”

Parents across the socioeconomic spectrum have remained vocal about their discontent with how infrequently community feedback guides Department of Education decisions. Historically, polls show that mayoral control has rarely received the backing of a large majority of New Yorkers. Blacks and Latinos have consistently expressed more dissatisfaction with it in polls. And while the de Blasio administration has stressed its commitment to collaborating with parents, some observers say the system of mayoral control can give communities only so much input before it devolves into something else entirely.

Centralized authority is a tough sell for many parents, who are envious of their counterparts across the country who can elect representatives to school boards, Class Size Matters’ Haimson said. Because New York City parents lack this ability, Haimson argued they should have that right funneled through their City Council representative—and the Council should be permitted to set education policy. “The City Council can make laws and policy when it comes to police, when it comes to housing, when it comes to all sorts of different areas, but not when it comes to schools,” she said. “Do we want kings? Do we say kings and autocrats and dictators are more accountable? It’s an argument that makes no sense.”

The criticism is not isolated. Quinnipiac University released a poll this month showing 48 percent of city residents thought mayoral control should continue, while 44 percent thought it should end. The breakdown did not come with demographic specifics. But Quinnipiac’s prior polls demonstrated stronger opposition to the centralized structure among blacks and Latinos. When asked in July 2007, 35 percent of whites, 19 percent of blacks and 26 percent of Hispanics indicated they believed Bloomberg’s successor should have complete control of schools. Nearly five years later, 22 percent of whites, 20 percent of blacks and 26 percent of Hispanics agreed.

Despite that 2012 poll showing stronger support among Hispanics, the National Institute for Latino Policy President Angelo Falcón said a recent poll of those who subscribe to an NILP publication indicated just 21.6 percent believe the mayor should remain at the helm of city schools. The sentiment that drove some Latino communities to push for community control of schools decades ago lingers, since 41 percent of the public school body is Latino, but Latinos constitute about 14 percent of teaching staff, according to Falcón. He said de Blasio did not appoint any Latinos to the PEP until pressured to do so.

“The so-called progressive mayor, who is supposedly representing grass roots in these communities, just basically took a top-down approach in asking for permanent control without any real discussion,” Falcón said. “I just find a tremendous disconnect between what the mayor is proposing and what the public wants.”

Fariña and her predecessor, Bloomberg’s Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott, said the Department of Education was diligent about discussing education with parents. Walcott said the earlier, decentralized school system failed to fully engage parents, noting that for several years school board members were elected by 3 percent or less of eligible voters. “People, in a very sad way, voiced their displeasure with the old system by not participating at all and walked away from it because they didn’t know who was responsible,” Walcott said. “They didn’t know who was accountable. And the performance wasn’t there. And again, that should not be, and that’s what we changed in 2002.”

A series of Quinnipiac polls between 2007 and 2013 asked voters whether then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s successor should retain complete control of public schools, share control with an independent school board or give up control.

This argument resonated with Bertha Lewis, president of The Black Institute, who described Albany’s strategy of requiring periodic renewal of mayoral control as “racist” because she contends it destabilizes a system that educates mostly minority children. Lewis prefers mayoral control because she says it provides her and other advocates with a “clear target.”

Debates aside, there have been few alternatives for school governance put forward. After a series of public forums in each of the five boroughs over the past year, New York City Public Advocate Letitia James suggested the PEP expand to 17 members, and the mayor’s share of appointees drop to seven. She also called for the community education councils to be endowed with approval power over co-locations, school closures and new campus locations within their districts. Her plan did not gain traction in the Capitol. In Albany, state Senate Independent Democratic Conference Leader Jeffrey Klein unveiled a five-year extension plan that would add two members to the PEP, mandate that one representative be a charter school parent and require a community education council for every community board. His chamber ultimately backed a bill that would extend the current mayoral control structure for one year and provide Albany with more oversight of the city Department of Education budget. Even Democratic Assemblyman Charles Barron, one of the more independent-minded lawmakers in his chamber, did not suggest a substitute for the system. Rather, he submitted a bill that would empanel a commission and give it a year to study and craft a new school governance system for implementation in September 2016.

Bloomberg’s Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott (top)
and current Chancellor Carmen Fariña.

The Legislature proceeded without such a commission, a public hearing or any acknowledgement that research was inconclusive on mayoral control’s impact on academics, financial efficiency and community support. Rather, Democrats lined up behind Cuomo’s proposal to extend the arrangement another three years. And Republicans, who once wrestled Democrats into delivering control of schools to Bloomberg, signed on to a one-year extension. Legislators were quick to say the importance of education trumped partisan politics. But they were equally eager to tiptoe around questions about why they sought the authority to revisit mayoral control while not exercising that review power to discuss potential reforms. For now, legislators seem comfortable clinging to mayoral control as a buffer between them and constituents’ concerns.

Multiple state lawmakers said they were convinced voters cared enough about education to oust any mayor who failed the city’s students. But they were not confident enough to commit to permanently granting City Hall control over schools. And some, including GOP state Sen. Martin Golden, said too many parents feel relatively powerless when it comes to their children’s education. But when asked if he had suggestions for improving parent involvement, Golden said that’s for de Blasio to decide: “That’s why we gave him mayoral control.”

Sarina Trangle