Opinion: The politics of NYC education

By former Assemblyman Steven Sanders

The debate about continuing the Mayoral Control Law for NYC schools is still raging even after the legislature left the Capital and left that matter unresolved. With a looming expiration date of June 30, I am occasionally asked, why, if mayoral control is so important, was it not enacted while Rudy Giuliani was mayor who also coveted that authority?

Some think it was because Giuliani was a Republican and the State Assembly with its speaker was Democratic. But of course I remind them that when mayoral control was enacted in Albany back in 2002, another Republican, Michael Bloomberg, was mayor.

But there is truth to the fact that the legislation was not negotiated during the Giuliani tenure in part because of who was mayor. I know this because at that time I was chair of the Assembly Education Committee.

I believe that mayoral control and the coherent accountability to the mayor with community input into decision making is far superior to the previous system of decentralization with its authority disbursed across the education landscape.

After a few brief discussions with Giuliani officials in the 1990s, it became clear that the mayor was only interested in total and unfettered control. He did not wish to be bothered or impeded by community or parental involvement whatsoever. In fact, he disdained and even ridiculed those with contrary points of views. Giuliani wanted to run the school system as he ran the police department… no questions asked. That governance view may or may not be right for schools, but it was surely not a philosophy endorsed by Assembly Democrats.

In our strongly-held views, parents and the public needed to be invested and involved in issues and decisions affecting their one million children, the ultimate consumers of our education product. It’s not for me to say whether Mayor Giuliani was right or we were right, but that was the difference.

When Michael Bloomberg became mayor, he too wanted control of the city school system but was ultimately willing to accept public involvement as part of the construct. Even Mayor Bloomberg valued and stressed his authority far more than civic engagement and that was disappointing. But at least Mayor Bloomberg (grudgingly perhaps) allowed a degree of public participation.

At the end of the day, public education is not like running the Police Department or Parks Department or other agencies of city government. Parents entrust the schools with personal custody of their precious children for a large part of every week. They have a right and a need to know what is going on in their schools as well as to have an opportunity to impact school policy. It is their children’s future at stake. What could be more important?

Decentralization failed largely because no public official was ultimately responsible or could be brought to account.

That is why as imperfect as it may be, mayoral control is a better system.

But without a sense of partnership with parents and communities, mayoral control will not make our schools as good as they might be.

If the leadership in Albany truly cares about public education in New York City, they will quit the political gamesmanship and restore the tools this mayor needs by immediately reauthorizing mayoral control. Surrendering to the previous dysfunctional system would be a grievous and cynical abdication of responsibility. It would be the triumph of politics over children.

And if this or some future mayor truly cares about good policies he or she will pay attention to the stakeholders who care the most… parents.

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