The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2012

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MAR 2012 Issue

Ending Mayoral Control

The sober sixth grader was small for his age and wore a handsome pinstriped suit, just the kind of suit a mother wants her son to wear. And indeed the boy’s mother was right by his side, begging the Panel for Educational Policy (PEP) not to close his school, the Academy of Business and Community Development (A.B.C.D.), where he’d been transferred for his safety after relentless bullying. Meanwhile, the older teenagers—students from many of the schools that the PEP would vote to close that night—wanted to storm the stage. They gathered in the hallway and began chanting, “Whose schools? Our schools!” and “El pueblo, unido/Jamás será vencido!”

Dissent at February’s PEP meeting at Brooklyn Tech took many forms: some registered their objections with quiet dignity, others with clamorous commotion. The meeting was about school closures, but the anger in the room was just as much about the sham process (see “Report Card: Our Fake School Board,” September 2011) as it was about the policy. Many of the protesters in the auditorium held signs offering a solution: “End mayoral control.” As we gear up for regime change in New York, it’s time to get serious about this idea.

Ending mayoral control is, after all, an idea that enjoys broad public support. A Quinnipiac University poll released the day before the PEP meeting found 57 percent of voters declaring Bloomberg’s takeover of the school system a failure. Even more dramatically, only 13 percent thought the next mayor should retain control of the schools.

The PEP meeting showed how differently our school board might behave if not handpicked by the mayor. The panelists appointed by the Manhattan, Brooklyn, Bronx, and Queens borough presidents voted against every single proposed school closure. (The Staten Island appointee voted with the mayor’s puppets. Let’s now resist the opportunity to make a cheap joke at the expense of that much-mocked borough.) The independent representatives had heard strong objections to the school closures from their constituents.

There was also plenty of empirical material for the PEP to ponder. An Independent Budget Office (I.B.O.) report released that week found that compared to other New York City high schools, the schools slated to close in 2012 had far greater percentages of special education students and students living in poverty, as well as of over-age students—that is, those taking longer than four years to graduate. The closing schools also educated dramatically fewer white high school students than the system as a whole (1.1 percent as opposed to 12.9 percent). The I.B.O. has reached similar conclusions about school closures in the past.

While schools headed for the chopping block are receiving more funding than other New York City schools, the difference isn’t as great as it should be—for elementary and middle schools, the difference was less than $200 per student—considering the monumental challenges such schools face. And the I.B.O.’s observation that the doomed schools spend considerably more on teachers and staff than other schools does suggest that school closures are, like so many so-called “reform” measures, motivated more by the elite agenda—saving money and union-busting—than by any ideas about improving education. Just as distressing is the research on what happens to kids after their schools close: large numbers of them transfer to other failing schools.

The dissenting panelists considered some of this information, as well as the strong feelings of parents and kids in their communities, when voting against the school closures. It appeared that the PEP renegades had weighed evidence and listened to people. What would it take to get a school board with a majority of public servants who could perform such amazing tricks?

That hardly sounds radical, but alas, it is. The 1% is not going to willingly surrender mayoral control. It’s fun to personalize mayoral control as if it’s all about Bloomberg, a problem he’ll take with him when he leaves. The NYC Public School Parents blog has a countdown clock, ticking off the days, hours, minutes, and seconds until Bloomberg leaves office. Certainly this style of governance seems temperamentally suited to an arrogant billionaire. But it’s short-sighted to overlook the fact that it is not just Bloomberg who wants mayoral control. The rest of the ruling class wants it, too. And that’s why it has to go.

Other major cities—Boston, Chicago, to name a couple—now have puppet school boards much like ours, and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has cited mayoral control as a critical pillar of his reform agenda. Why do Duncan and the elites want mayoral control? Because abolishing democratic checks and balances makes it much easier to push austerity and privatization.

In New York, some liberal politicians are declining to oppose mayoral control because they hope that the next mayor will be more progressive, perhaps friendlier to parents and more hostile to profiteering. That’s not going to happen. Sure, many of the mayoral candidates are saying the right things now: most have denounced Bloomberg’s school closures, for example. But no one is going to become mayor of New York City unless the city’s financial elites want her (inclusive language here based on likely political outcome, not on political correctness). No mayor is going to be elected without money and ideological guidance from Wall Street. And that’s why the elites want mayoral control: they know the next mayor will be working for them. Regardless of the specific rhetoric, color, or party affiliation of the new boss, mayoral control equals control by the one percent, especially in New York City.

The local media loves the pretend ongoing showdown between the teachers’ union and the mayor. But, funny story: the teachers’ union doesn’t oppose mayoral control. Its president, Michael Mulgrew, recently told Errol Louis on NY1 that he supported “the idea” of mayoral control because it works better than the old system did. Mulgrew’s position is likely a tactical effort to build a good relationship with the next mayor, and it also may reflect the union leadership’s tepid and uncertain view of the public. The aforementioned Quinnipiac poll found that when asked who they trust more to protect the interests of public school students, the teachers’ union or Bloomberg, a majority of New Yorkers chose the union. Perhaps the trust is not mutual?

But although the public agrees, by a wide margin, and Harlem assemblyman Keith Wright has proposed a bill to end mayoral control, this lack of serious institutional support for change is a problem. Getting rid of our fake school board will take one brutal fight, and many different tactics. Some will need to wear suits, and others will need to make some noise.

As the February PEP meeting wound down, late at night, most protesters had gone home to bed, but a few seemed to be gearing up. “Time for a mic check?” suggested a Brooklyn mom in hijab, with the suggestion of a mischievous smile.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2012

All Issues