Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Education of Ms. Quinn (editorial)

New York Sun

May 23, 2008


"We're lawmakers, not education experts," City Council Speaker Quinn declared in a breakfast speech Tuesday. She proceeded to wring her hands over cuts of $191 million to the schools. If she really wants to be mayor, better she should be asking how the administration squandered the $8 billion added to the budget these past six years, even as the system serves 60,000 fewer students, and why the results are so lackluster.

When the Board of Estimate was struck down by the courts in the 1980s, the resulting charter allowed for increased powers for the City Council to provide a counter-balance to the vast influence enjoyed by the mayor. The charter has made the Council Speaker the second most influential person in the city government and term limits make her an automatic candidate for mayor.

The first speaker, Peter Vallone the elder, found the right balance. Mr. Vallone was cooperative with Mayors Dinkins and Giuliani when circumstances called for it, yet maintained an independent critical posture making the most of the Council's influence. Yet Mr. Vallone was unable to transfer his expertise and the respect it won him to success at the ballot box and was defeated in his 2001 bid for mayor.

The second speaker, Gifford Miller, took office knowing that he would serve just four years. He assumed an attack dog posture, challenging Mayor Bloomberg at every turn. This strategy ended in a disastrous electoral rout.

Ms. Quinn has taken the role not of attack dog but of lap dog. She is so in step with the mayor that it hardly seems that two separate branches of government exist. The only challenges to the mayor's agenda have been on inconsequential nonsense, such as whether children should play baseball with aluminum bats.

This has not served the public well, particularly in regard to the schools. Under Mr. Miller, the chairwoman of the education committee, Eva Moskowitz, took a hyper-critical role, holding the feet of all of the players to the fire through frequent public hearings. Ms. Quinn's education chair, Robert Jackson, has been indifferent, even somnolent.

Six years into the mayoral control experiment results are less than stellar, so one would think that Ms. Quinn and her members, who have to approve the budget that pays for this, would be engaging in some careful criticism. But they are not. Despite a 72% increase in education expenditures during this period, scores on the highly regarded NAEP tests are flat, and high school students' scores on SAT exams have actually declined.

One can argue that things were actually better for students and parents before the mayor gained control of the schools. Under Chancellors Crew and Levy, scores on the NAEP actually increased. While scores on the state tests, widely criticized as being enormously inflated, have risen (and will continue to rise) under Chancellor Klein, the rate of test score growth was actually greater during the tenure of his predecessors.

Earlier this week, throughout New York State, voters gave their thumbs up or down to local school budgets and elected school board members. Only here and in Yonkers are citizens denied such direct input into their schools. The mayor frequently asserts that when city residents elected school boards, the system was rife with corruption and political influence. The fact is that these concerns were largely eliminated by changes in the decentralization law passed at the end of 1996 at Mr. Crew's behest. In the long run, more democracy is always better than less.

Under the old system, with arguably better results, fewer of the public's tax dollars were spent, and what was spent was done with far more transparency than today. Under the "bad old system" every contract exceeding $100,000 had to be approved at a public meeting at which citizens were invited to speak their minds. Contrast this with the tens of millions in questionable no-bid contracts now awarded behind closed doors.

The mayor and chancellor see things differently. But for them to be effective they need the scrutiny of the branch of city government charged with that task, the Council. That hasn't come from Ms. Quinn, who seems to care more for the mayor's possible endorsement.

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