Parents knock mayor’s control of schools

By Lincoln Anderson

A forum on mayoral control of New York City’s public schools at The Cooper Union last week saw about 70 parents turn out in numbers to demand a greater voice in their children’s education. The mayor came under heavy attack, one parent even accusing him of seeing their children as little more than “processed sausages” to raise test scores to make him look good.

Of the audience members who spoke, none favored mayoral control. One of the panelists, said he favored the idea — though not under Mayor Bloomberg, who he charged is running things terribly.

The forum was convened by local Assemblymember Deborah Glick. The mayor gained supervision of the schools six years ago, but his powers must be reauthorized by the state Legislature next year or the legislation will sunset. Glick said she wants to hear public opinion on the issue to help decide her position.

“The districts have to be restored,” declared panelist Dolores Schaeffer, former president of the now-defunct Community School Board 1, which used to cover the Lower East Side. “I believe the superintendents should be the ones that rate principals, not computers. Community Education Councils are an insult — they are an absolute insult to parents,” she said of the groups that have replaced the local school boards.

Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters, said her group conducted a survey of the current system, making 600 phone calls and receiving 1,000 online responses. “A substantial majority” of all respondents, she said, believe mayoral control of the schools should be ended or changed.

The results showed four main themes, she said: The mayoral-run system lacks “checks and balances,” making it “dictatorial”; parents’ views are not adequately represented, while the schools are “run like a business”; too much focus is put on testing; and insulation from mayoral influence is needed.

Haimson slammed the appointment of Joel Klein, who she said had “no education experience,” as schools chancellor. Also, she charged, local school districts have been “restored in name only,” under Bloomberg, while each school has become an isolated “fiefdom of its own.”

A panelist, David Bloomfield, a former teacher and former general counsel to the old Board of Education, now a Brooklyn College education professor, said, “While I support strongly mayoral control of the schools, under this mayor, I think, it has been a disaster.”

As for why mayoral control, in general, is good, Bloomfield said, “We have never seen funding at these levels before.” In previous administrations, he noted, “Mayor after mayor defunded the schools.”

“There are obviously greater efficiencies — working with other agencies — under mayoral control. We used to have chancellors going in and going out — they were road kill.”

And yet, Bloomfield said, “This mayor has given rise to all sort of other problems — fiscal irresponsibility, insularity and autocracy.”

To help parents get more involved under mayoral control, he said parent councils must be beefed up at all levels — school, district and citywide.

On the other hand, while saying he respected Schaeffer’s comments, Bloomfield noted, “For years, District 1 wallowed near the bottom, not only in performance, but in politicizing the school board.”

But during the question-and-answer period, several parents disagreed with the characterization that the school system today is less political — or that it should be.

“The idea that mayoral control depoliticizes the system is so out in the ozone,” said Susan Crawford, a Schools District 3 parent and a founder of The Right to Read Project.

“You never get politics out of the school system,” Bloomfield answered. “There is no way to depoliticize the school system.”

The feeling expressed by some at the forum was that the mayor will almost surely keep power over the schools, but that some tweaking of the legislation at least can be done to improve the situation. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver told Downtown Express several months ago that he also favored renewal with some “tweaking” to give parents a stronger voice.

Discussions on the issue should start to heat up in February or March. The legislation that gave the mayor supervisory authority sunsets in June, which is when the legislative session ends, as well.

Speaking afterward, Glick said: “Obviously, across the board, people felt that improvements were necessary. Clearly, independent auditing for their statistics of graduation rates, test scores and class size are really critical — not to mention, somebody has to audit the money. So I think there’ll be some important issues to discuss in Albany about it. But that’s just the first step, in gleaning the interests and concerns of community members.”

Glick did say that if mayor control were to be abandoned, there must be something to take it place.

“You don’t go from a structure to no structure,” she noted. “At the moment, there’s no other option.” While not saying whether she favors mayoral control or another alternative, Glick did say, “I don’t think everything works well from the top down,” adding, “high-stakes testing has restricted the opportunity for critical thinking and creativity — because the test doesn’t test that.”