Say Schools March To a 2-Man Band
By MEREDITH KOLODNER
It's not about the Mayor, it's about checks and balances, according to several dozen Teachers and parents who showed up at a Jan. 22 United Federation of Teachers-sponsored forum on the future of mayoral control over the school system.
'We Need a Voice'
"It's not about mayoral control, it's about having a system of governance that works," UFT Staten Island borough rep Emil Pietromonaco told attendees before they took their turns at the microphone. "To do that, people have to have a voice."
The UFT has established a 60-member school governance task force, co-chaired by Mr. Pietromonaco, UFT Manhattan Parent Liaison Teresa Andersen and UFT Vice President Carmen Alvarez. It is holding forums in all five boroughs to get community input on the UFT's future recommendation to the State Legislature when it takes up the debate over mayoral control of the schools in January 2009.
Mayor Bloomberg was given wide-ranging authority over the school system in 2002, abolishing local community schools boards and the central Board of Education. The system will revert to its former incarnation in June 2009 unless the Legislature acts to renew or modify it.
"We've established a nonpartisan task force on school governance," said UFT President Randi Weingarten. "It's a broad-based committee representative of all the union's political parties and the school system's different levels, types of schools and geographic areas. Our goal now is to engage classroom educators, parents, civic organizations, community groups, elected officials and others in a public participation process so that their views on what kind of school governance would support teaching and learning and student success are heard in ample time before the sunset of mayoral control."
About a dozen people seated in the sparsely-populated auditorium gave their opinions, and while not everyone called for the end of mayoral control, all of the speakers argued that significant changes were needed.
Call for 'Two-Way' Flow
"Whatever control we have," said Paula Washington, a UFT chapter leader at LaGuardia High School, "there has to be checks and balances. There has to be a two-way flow of information."
Seth Pearce, a La Guardia student who said he had been studying for his U.S. history Regents exam, suggested that the Chancellor should have to be approved by the City Council, the same way the Federal Secretary of Education must be approved by the U.S. Senate.
Others called for a more complete overhaul of the current system of mayoral control, decrying the emphasis on data.
"If you can't count it, it doesn't count," said Michael Fiorillo, a chapter leader at Newcomers High School whose daughter is a public high school student. "They are using private foundation money to create policy they could not otherwise successfully achieve through a democratic process."
Ms. Alvarez and Mr. Pietromonaco spent about 15 minutes at the beginning of the session outlining the history of school governance in the city. The slide presentation showed the consistent see-sawing dating back to 1842, when the Board of Education was created by the State Legislature, between centralized control of the school system and the decentralization efforts that followed.
Manhattan Democratic Party chieftain William Marcy "Boss" Tweed abolished the BOE in 1871 to create mayoral control, only to have that decision reversed two years later under the direction of a new, reform-minded Mayor. After criticism of the local school boards hit a peak in 1896, they were eliminated and centralized control by a new board and a group of Superintendents was established.
Two years later, when the five boroughs were consolidated into the City of New York, each borough got its own board, but in 1902 the system was re-centralized.
That set-up lasted until 1969, when protests for increased community control led to a smaller seven-member central board, appointed by the Mayor and borough presidents, and 32 elected community school boards.
Ms. Alvarez, a former member of District 3's community school board, argued that the former system had greater transparency and better checks and balances. But she also acknowledged that it had problems. "Was it a panacea?" she asked. "It was not - there were schools that had and schools that did not," referring to discrepancies in funding and resources between neighborhoods.
Lack of Input
Several of the people who testified stayed away from specific policy recommendations on how to re-jigger the system. Instead they spoke about what they saw as the outcome of the lack of input from the community under the current system of mayoral control.
The Bloomberg administration's emphasis on testing was a repeated complaint. "There are national trends, but it's really scary when it hits home," said Josh Heisler, a humanities Teacher at Vanguard High School.
He said that he thought the standardized tests had become too important. "I believe it's become like the Holy Grail," Mr. Heisler said. "It's de-skilling and de-professionalizing Teachers."