Understanding mayoral control

NY Governor Andrew Cuomo and NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio

NY Governor Andrew Cuomo and NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio Alex Law

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Who’s the boss?

Last month, New York City closed its public schools again because coronavirus cases had begun rapidly increasing in the city. Even more frustrating for parents and teachers was how haphazardly the news was announced by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio.

At 2 p.m. on Nov. 18, Cuomo said at a press conference that schools would remain open. Less than 20 minutes later, de Blasio tweeted that the schools would be closed the next day, which he again confirmed at a 3 p.m. press conference. That gave parents, students and educators less than 24 hours to prepare for remote learning. The whole debacle made New Yorkers wonder how decisions were being made about the city’s schools and who was making them.

Under normal circumstances, de Blasio has full control over the city’s public school system, but the state Legislature gave Cuomo expansive emergency powers at the start of the COVID-19 epidemic, including control of the state’s public schools. You may remember in mid-March when Cuomo beat de Blasio to the punch by announcing the city’s schools would be closing? Yeah, that was because of the additional powers granted to Cuomo.

By the numbers

Public school stats

  • 1,866 public schools, as of 2019
  • 31,000 students are estimated to have left the city’s public school system this fall
  • 335,000 students were attending in-person classes before the city closed schools in November
  • 1,126,501 students enrolled in city public schools, as of 2019

Whose idea was this anyway?

How the mayor gained control of the schools

In 2002, newly elected Mayor Michael Bloomberg was granted mayoral control of the city’s schools after making it a central issue to his campaign. This gave Bloomberg the power to appoint the city’s schools chancellor and a majority of the members to the Panel for Educational Policy, which runs the city Department of Education. The mayor isn’t guaranteed control over the school system in perpetuity. It’s up to the state Legislature to renew the mayor’s authority every year or two, and it’s set to expire again in 2022.

Bloomberg wanted control because he believed the schools were being mismanaged. Upon gaining control, Bloomberg closed struggling schools (and opened new and smaller schools in their place), created more charter schools and instituted merit pay for teachers. Bloomberg said these changes led to higher graduation rates and higher test scores. However, some critics questioned whether the city’s measurement of those achievements were accurate. At the time, many were unsure of how Bloomberg would do with the city’s schools, but he proceeded to assert a strong sense of accountability over the city’s education system. For example, Bloomberg made school data public, including report cards, test scores and teacher evaluations.

Before the state Legislature granted the city mayoral control, the city’s schools were run by 32 community school boards and the Board of Education, which crafted education policies and selected the schools chancellor. Members of community school boards were elected, and prior to 1996, they each appointed a superintendent for their district. Corruption, on both the financial and political level, was rife in many community school boards, which led to the state Legislature to limit the Board of Education’s power in 1996 and ultimately led to the system’s demise. While the Board of Education was in charge, the mayor mainly controlled the school system’s budget and union contracts.

New York City has been granted mayoral control of the city’s school system since 2002, which means that the mayor has the power to appoint the city’s schools chancellor and a majority of the Board of Education, known as the Panel for Educational Policy. The mayor isn’t guaranteed mayoral control over the school system in perpetuity. It’s up to the state Legislature to renew the mayor’s authority every year or two and it’s expected to expire in 2022.

Power Players

Who really controls the city’s public schools

Sure, Cuomo may control the city’s schools now – but these are the people who typically call the shots.

  • New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio: As mayor, de Blasio appoints the schools chancellor and nine of the 15 members to the city’s Panel for Educational Policy, which governs the city Department of Education and is imbued with power by the state.
  • Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza: In his role, Carranza acts as the chief executive officer and superintendent of the city Department of Education, which means he’s responsible for leading the department and implementing its educational policies.
  • Panel for Education Policy: The city’s education oversight panel has 15 appointed members, including the chancellor, that advises the department on all matters tied to the city schools and its students’ welfare, similar to how the city’s old Board of Education once functioned.
  • The state Legislature: State lawmakers ultimately decide whether or not the city’s mayor can continue to have mayoral control.
  • Community Education Councils: Each of the city’s school districts has its own Community Education Council and there are four citywide councils. The top officers on each board are voted in by city residents every two years and are responsible for holding monthly meetings so that community members can discuss their concerns or ask questions. These councils also provide recommendations to the Panel for Education Policy.


The arguments for and against mayoral control of schools

Legislators, education advocates, teachers and parents have been questioning the effectiveness of mayoral control for years now and have yet to reach a general consensus on its value to the city’s education system.

More centralized control of the education system allows the city to set broad standards that it says have contributed to higher graduation rates, greater college attendance, new schools and methods of teaching, and better relationships between schools and the communities they serve. Mayoral control has taken power away from all the little fiefdoms that had been rife with corruption, but its centralization has significantly reduced the influence of different communities throughout the city. Many parent leaders, in particular, feel they have been squeezed out of making a meaningful impact on their schools in recent years due to their reduced role in this (relatively) new system.

Mayoral control has faced even more scrutiny under de Blasio due to some of his controversial educational policies, including spending nearly $800 million to save some of the city’s most underperforming schools that showed mixed results, and his controversial attempt to diversify the city’s specialized high schools. And then there’s his mismanagement of school closures during the coronavirus pandemic. These criticisms are important to take note of, as they are likely to factor into whether or not the state Legislature will continue to renew mayoral control, or if it will attempt to overhaul how the city’s schools are managed.