The ABCs of Mayoral Control of Schools

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg won control of this city's schools nearly four years ago and swiftly unleashed a dizzying string of reforms.

Bloomberg and his schools chancellor, former federal prosecutor Joel I. Klein, slashed administrative jobs, ordered uniform reading and math programs and hired parent coordinators for New York's 1,400 schools.

The pair converted warehouse-like high schools into smaller campuses and ended the practice of promoting failing students to the next grade. Their underlings even dictated how teacher bulletin boards should be designed.

But the top-to-bottom overhaul came with a cost: The mayor and his schools chief have alienated teachers, parents and administrators, leaving many in the nation's largest public school system feeling disenfranchised and afraid to challenge City Hall.

The changes in New York -- and the stresses they have exposed -- offer possible warnings to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa as he weighs his own takeover of the Los Angeles public school system.

Bloomberg, a billionaire businessman, is unapologetic about his policies and his hardball style of governing the school system, which has 1.1 million students. For the first time in years, he said in a recent interview, New York's schools have a clear line of authority with a single public official accountable for results.

"I don't think any serious person would suggest that we should run this school district by committee or that we should have a referendum on every change," said Bloomberg, 64. "The public said we want a decision-maker to go in there and do it right. You can't please everybody."

Whether mayoral control has made a measurable difference in New York is a matter of debate.

The city's fourth-graders posted significant improvement on state reading and math tests last year, and Bloomberg plugged the gains in his successful reelection campaign last fall.

But critics point out that other New York cities, such as Rochester and Syracuse, made even more progress in reading test scores. Those skeptics also point to New York City's eighth-grade test scores, which dropped slightly last year compared with a year before.

Regardless of test scores, many who study urban school reform believe that mayoral involvement can be instrumental in efforts to improve schools. A mayor, so the theory goes, can mobilize financial and political support to tackle public health, immigration and other issues connected with schools. The potential danger comes when future mayors put other priorities ahead of education.

In New York, experts believe that mayoral control has allowed Bloomberg and Klein to push through their student retention policies, for example, because they faced no opposition from elected board members.

"They are able to crack the whip more than is common in most cities," said Jeffrey Henig, a political science professor at Columbia University's Teachers College who studies the politics of school reform. "They sometimes have gone in with a bit too much haughtiness ... and cut themselves off from parent groups and teacher groups who know a lot from years of experience at the street level."

The school systems in New York and Los Angeles have much in common, both politically and demographically. Both have strong teachers unions and disparate groups vying for influence over the schools.

L.A. Unified, with 727,000 students, is second in size only to New York City's system. African Americans and Latinos account for the vast majority of students in both systems, 72% in New York and 85% in Los Angeles.

Both have multibillion-dollar budgets that dwarf spending in many other major American cities. And the two systems are among their cities' largest employers, providing jobs to tens of thousands of teachers, principals, bus drivers, janitors and other workers.

If there is one issue on which Bloomberg and his critics agree, it's that New York's public schools were in disarray when the Legislature granted him control in 2002.

For more than two decades, the school system had been split into 32 community districts, each with its own superintendent and school board.

The chancellor of schools had little authority over these local school boards, which were created to decentralize power but devolved into nests of corruption and launching pads for those seeking higher office.

Sitting atop this structure were a central Board of Education, the chancellor and the mayor, who had no formal power over education but who controlled the district's multibillion-dollar budget and often clashed with educators over spending.

Bloomberg sought to streamline this system.

He secured new state legislation that replaced the central school board with a 13-member advisory panel; he appointed the majority.

The mayor also was allowed to name the chancellor, who until then had worked for the school board.

Bloomberg and Klein replaced the 32 community districts with 10 regions, eliminating what they saw as redundant positions and using the money to pay for reforms. They sold the system's Brooklyn headquarters, turning the central school bureaucracy into a city department and relocating it in a onetime courthouse directly behind City Hall in Manhattan.

Bloomberg found an unexpected ally, the powerful teachers union president, Randi Weingarten. She supported the mayoral takeover partly out of frustration with what she viewed as a Board of Education driven by political power.

"The politics were so obnoxious and the considerations had so little to do with children that it called for a change," she said.

But Weingarten began to sour on mayoral control after coming to believe that Bloomberg and Klein press their agenda without listening to teachers, parents and others.

That came into focus when Bloomberg ended the practice of promoting failing third-graders to fourth grade, one of his major early initiatives.

The plan needed the blessing of the new mayoral advisory panel, which had a say in citywide education policies. When two of Bloomberg's own appointees dissented, he fired them.

The retention policy has since been expanded to fifth and seventh grades.

The mayor, meanwhile, has encountered blistering criticism from teachers and principals, who say the new management structure is less responsive than the one it replaced.

Teachers in particular accuse mid-level managers of micromanaging their classrooms by telling them how to decorate bulletin boards and how to arrange classroom furniture in groups rather than rows. Some say they have even been told to sit in rocking chairs when reading to their students.

Bloomberg and Klein acknowledged that managers might have gone too far but called it an isolated problem.

In a new teachers contract signed last fall, the chancellor agreed to protect instructors from discipline over the use of bulletin boards and classroom furniture.

Teachers and principals alike said the new top-down organization has fostered a climate of fear and intimidation.

"Never in my 34 years of teaching have so many people been afraid to speak up," said Ron Isaac, a junior high English teacher in Queens. "There is a reign of terror under Chancellor Klein. The creative spontaneity and the joy of teaching have been completely hijacked."

Critics also complain that the city department tightly controls information and conducts business without adequate community input.

"They have taken the public out of public education," said Diane Ravitch, an educational historian who has written extensively about the New York City schools. "It's the consequence of unchecked power."

Many parents say that they feel ignored and that community education councils established by the Legislature to allow parents and community members a voice in education are a waste of time.

Members of Klein's parent advisory council signaled their discontent recently when they decided to boycott the New York City Education Department's lobbying trip to the state capital. Instead, the parents will travel to Albany with the teachers union.

"There is no shortage of active parents in New York City, but they don't want to serve because they have no real power," said Tim Johnson, chairman of the advisory group. "The chancellor gives the impression that parents don't matter."

Klein said he has been responsive to parents and teachers, meeting with them on numerous occasions and personally answering e-mails. He said it is impossible to satisfy everyone.

Klein spoke of a new era of cooperation between City Hall and the school system, a quantum jump from earlier times when civic and educational leaders quarreled over money, power and responsibility even as their schools foundered.

And that, he said, has opened the door to innovations that in the past would have been unimaginable.

"The tough decisions can't all be made by plebiscite," Klein said. "Serious change needs serious leadership from the top."

Klein cites reforms that he believes are fostering change.

He points to the standardized reading program in elementary schools and the new teachers contract, which provides more instructional time for struggling students.

He also touts new literacy and math coaches to help train teachers, an "autonomy zone" that frees schools from red tape in return for a pledge to raise achievement levels and tens of millions of dollars in assistance from private donors who have helped pay for such things as a leadership academy that is producing school principals.

In addition, Klein said the growth of charter schools and small high schools is expanding education choices.

The Bronx Lab School, for example, has its own principal -- a 33-year-old Princeton and Harvard graduate -- and serves just 216 ninth- and 10th-graders. It is situated on the fourth floor of a large high school building that had enrolled 3,200 students but is now being carved into six mini-schools.

At the Bronx Lab School, classes are small and teachers are on a first-name basis with their pupils. The school calls home if students fail to show up by 10 a.m.

"Before I was here, I didn't like school. They didn't help me," said freshman Deja Lake, 15. "I like school now because if I need help, they give it to me."

Bloomberg and Klein say students like Deja are evidence that New York's public schools are moving in the right direction.

"I think people will look back on the last several years and say [we] made more robust and more significant change than most school districts make in a much, much longer time," Klein said. "You can sit here and say it created a lot of problems. But I'm focused on the fact that it created enormous opportunity."

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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