Thursday, June 22, 2017

Some fact checking & historical context on community school boards and what happened last time Mayoral control lapsed

Well it happened.  The NY Legislature adjourned last night at 11:30 PM without making a decision on whether to renew mayoral control, which otherwise lapses at the end of June. Senate Majority leader John Flanagan is still holding out for more charter schools in exchange for extending mayoral control , though he doesn't have a single charter school in his own Long Island district, and his constituents would likely be very upset if any were proposed.  He portrays himself  as the great champion of NYC black and brown children -- though most political insiders understand that he is simply doing the bidding of his biggest contributors among NYC hedgefunders and pro-charter school PACs.

At the same time, Mayor de Blasio and the Chancellor continue to deliver scare stories and repeat like a mantra that we will return to the days of "chaos and corruption" of local school boards; and the media is repeating their stories as gospel apparently without apparently doing any fact-checking.  As I mentioned briefly before in the blog, the local school boards lost all their power to hire, fire and let contracts in 1996, years before the adoption of Mayoral control, with nearly all power centralized in the Chancellor.  Here is an excerpt from the brief history in Gotham Gazette:

Under the prodding of then-Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew, the New York State Legislature in 1996 redefined the responsibilities of local school boards, taking away much of their power, including the authority to name a the district superintendent.

Today, school boards no longer manage day-to-day affairs within the district or hire or promote school district employees, including principals. Instead, the local school boards set educational policy, mostly just by helping to select a superintendent for the school district. Even here they don't have the final say; the chancellor does....

Rodney Saunders, a strong proponent of the local boards, says he ran for school board, an unpaid position, in 1996 because, after his daughter started kindergarten, he felt he had a vested interest in working to improve the school system. He says some people run for school board after serving as a leader of a school parents' association, while others see it as a first step in entering the political arena. About 30 percent of school board members have children in the school system.

Saunders says, "School board members, as elected officials, can use the power of the parents and the press to call attention to conditions that exist within a specific school or the entire district, such as the need for additional seats or buildings because of severe overcrowding."

He believes that corruption among board members is rare, but that the community boards have been convenient scapegoats. "The press and Board of Education were always blaming school boards for failures," he complains. Now that the community boards have less power, and "we can't be blamed, it's 'the parents' fault' or the 'students' fault.'"

Even Assemblyman Steve Sanders, who was a driving force behind passage of the 1996 school reform legislation, stops short of advocating the complete elimination of school boards.
"We should not have a school system without a place in the structure for parental involvement in decision making," Sanders says. "I'm more comfortable with the way school boards are today."

As I also pointed out in the blog, as did Patrick Sullivan, former Manhattan appointee to the Panel for Educational Policy, mayoral control is no check against corruption -- and the DOE proposed several multi-million dollar contracts to be awarded corrupt vendors under both Mayors Bloomberg and de Blasio. 

Josh Karan believes this is an opportune time for the Legislature to take a serious look at the 2008 recommendations of the former Parent Commission, which I belonged to.

You can also check out what I wrote the last time the Board of Education met in 2009, when mayoral control temporarily lapsed before resuming later that summer.  All the borough appointees immediately voted to re-appoint Chancellor Klein and gave him unlimited authority, including signing over their fiduciary duties to approve contracts.   Here is a less angry account from the NY Times at that time. 

In any case, whatever happens up in Albany this time, I believe the views of parents will likely be of only minimal importance to decision-makers and power politics will rule as usual.

Josh Karan: an opportunity to revise Mayoral control and what should happen next

Guest blog by Josh Karan below.  Though I'm not as optimistic that parents will have any say in what happens if and when mayoral control lapses, the Parent Commission which was a part of in 2008 did have a rigorous analysis of what was wrong with mayoral control and how to improve upon it. We invited any parent or parent advocate to be part of our group, held panel discussions with experts on school governance and critical education issues, and deliberated for an entire year before coming up with our consensus recommendations. For those who would like to see what we proposed, you can check out our full report here. -- Leonie

We have an unexpected opportunity to influence how NYC schools are governed, which could make them more engaging of and accountable to communities. 

Since 2002 the granting of control of the schools to the Mayor by the NY State legislature has required periodic re-authorization.  Presently such granting of power expires July 1, and there has been a deadlock between various factions as to the terms for its reauthorization.

Therefore, according to staff of one NY State Senator, the NYS legislature will be convening a Special Session after July 4 to address the issue of NYC school governance. 

This has panicked proponents of Mayoral Control, including the di Blasio administration, and many others, who view Mayoral Control as responsible for great improvements in educational outcomes.  They are seeking a multi-year, re-authorization, while Republicans and some Democrats, want to link re-authorization to an expansion of Charter schools, and an audit of how the school system has been spending its money.  

Proponents of Mayoral Control have argued that the alternative would be a return to what they assert were corrupt, unrepresentative, local Community School Boards.  

This impasse allows some opportunity to affect the debate, perhaps resulting in the Special Session granting only a short-term re-authorization, while we work to re-invigorate the discussion about the role of parents and communities in the formulation of the structure of decision making for public education, as well as its goals. 

The context can be proposals that a group of us, calling ourselves The Parent Commission, compiled in 2008, when then Mayor Michael Bloomberg first desired renewal of his control over NYC schools. 

At that time, over many months, a group of 15-30 parent activists discussed various proposals for democratic governance of NYC schools, and the mission that should underlie the school system. It issued a series of recommendations which again are pertinent. 

They can be viewed at:

Not everyone on the Commission agreed with every proposal, but we came to a consensus, which we offered as the basis for discussion about how our schools should function.  

These proposals are again timely.  They offer an alternative to the binary positing of opposites, whereby the only alternatives are seen as either authoritarian Mayoral Control or the old corrupt Community School Boards.  We believed that pretending there were only two possibilities reflected a failure of imagination in the public discourse, and its capture by those with a point of view about public education that would not well serve the majority of its students. 

Anyone wanting to be involved in talking to legislators about this, please contact me:


A summary of the Parent Commission proposals:

A)  Central Governance Structure 

We recommend a governance system distinguished by an educational partnership that includes the Mayor, a Board of Education whose members will strive toward cohesion and consensus, and new independent oversight agencies to verify financial and academic outcomes, investigate corruption, and respond to parental complaints.

B) Restoration of Community School Districts as meaningful entities

— whereby CEC’s have an important role in choosing the District Superintendent, who in consultation with the CEC and District Presidents Councils, and Community Board will help develop the annual capital plan, the district’s class size reduction plan, the Contract for Excellence spending, and the District Comprehensive Education plan, and whereby CEC’s have the full authority under the law to approve school siting, selection, restructuring, expansion, and reconfiguration of schools, as well as the closing, opening and relocating of all traditional public and charter schools in their districts.

C) Establish an Education Constitution to Proclaim the Mission of the NYC School System to provide the vision and mandates necessary to provide all our city’s children with a truly comprehensive, public and democratic education

Recognize that more than governance must be addressed, because through a variety of governance structures and chancellors over the last 40 years, little has changed for the majority of students, who are primarily low-income children of color.  The Parent Commission sought an explicit and legally binding statement of what education is intended to accomplish, to be embodied in a Constitution for the New York City Public School System that would codify in law a shared mission with core principles, primary goals, and a policy framework that must be respected and upheld by whomever is governing the system. Only in this way can our public servants be held to account for the money, resources, programs and staff needed to provide educational excellence for all.  Some mandates might involve resources for facilities and support staff and class size requirements, while others might involve educational philosophy regarding the use of multiple forms of assessment; the necessity of valuing diversity of ethnicity, race, and class; as well as the educational importance of racial and economic integration of schools. 

Monday, June 19, 2017

Arne Duncan still arguing for mayoral control -- when the trend is in the opposite direction

Arne Duncan - a fan of mayoral control
In the Sunday Daily News , former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan argued for the extension of Mayoral control.  The official legislative session is supposed to end Wednesday and Mayoral control expires at the end of the month.  Yet considering Arne's unpopular and controversial policies this probably is not the most effective endorsement.  He wrote:
"Mayors who are in control of their schools are directly accountable for the success of those schools. Education becomes a key to the Mayors' success. To put it another way, parents are hard to fool and parents vote."
Really? This certainly is a change of tone from Duncan’s earlier condescending remarks that parents only opposed the Common Core standards after finding out that “their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.”
If NYC parents are so hard to fool, one wonders why can't they have the right to elect a school board as voters do in most of the country? 
Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Farina have offered their own unconvincing arguments.  The Mayor has said an era of “corruption and chaos” would return if mayoral control is not renewed: 

Unfortunately a lot of chaos went with that. A lot of corruption went with that. A lot of patronage ... a lot of people went to jail, we’ve got to make sure we never go back to those days.”

Chancellor Farina’s hand-wringing is  even more extreme:

Managers, appointed by the local school boards, inflated the price of contracts to generate lucrative kickbacks that took money directly away from students and siphoned money from taxpayers. One district alone stole $6 million from students, paying 81 employees for jobs they never showed up to. In another, school safety was entrusted to a high-level gang member.

Yet as Patrick Sullivan points out in this blog, mayoral control in NYC has not ensured a lack of corruption.  In fact, several  multi-million dollar fraudulent DOE contracts were paid out while Mayor Bloomberg was in charge, far more costly than anything was stolen during the days of the local school boards.  A huge, potential billion dollar contract was awarded by the DOE in 2015 to a vendor that had engaged in a massive kickback scheme, only to be rejected by City Hall after the media had called attention to it.    Moreover, local school boards lost all power to hire or to award contracts in 1996, years before mayoral control was established, as well as the power to appoint district superintendents. All that authority was given to the Chancellor.  More on that here.  

Arne Duncan famously said in March 2009, “At the end of my tenure, if only seven mayors are in control, I think I will have failed.”"  In fact, no school district in the country adopted this governance system since Duncan made this statement – with Washington DC the last to do so in 2007, according to Wikipedia.

Just this spring, the Illinois Legislature voted to revoke mayoral control in Chicago, Arne’s home town and the first city to adopt the system.  As Chicago residents also found out, mayoral control is no defense against wrong-headed policies, mismanagement or corruption.  In fact, one could argue that autocratic rule makes it even more likely.  Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s first hand-picked CEO of the Chicago public schools, Jean-Claude Brizard, lasted only a 17 months in the job; and the second, Barbara Byrd Bennett, who closed 50 Chicago schools in one year, is now serving an 4 ½  year sentence for kickbacks and self-dealing.

In 2015, Chicago voters overwhelmingly approved an advisory referendum to return to an elected school board, and a bill to do so was introduced in the Legislature.  As one of the co-sponsors, Illinois State Representative Greg Harris explained:
There is only one school district in the State of Illinois that does NOT have an elected school board, and that is the Chicago Public Schools.  Currently all members of the Chicago Board of Education are appointed by Mayor and are not accountable to the parents, students or communities they serve. It is time for a change. That is why I am proud to cosponsor HB 4268 which would change Chicago’s school board from appointees to an elected school board.

We know about the recent pay-to-play scandals rocking CPS. But for our neighborhoods there are so many other reasons that we need to take back control of our schools. We have seen our neighborhood schools losing resources for enrichment programs such as music, art, sports, foreign languages, advanced placement and special education. This year, CPS is proposing over $8.7 million in cuts to schools in our area.

It is also worth noting that at the same time the Board is cutting our schools and asking for a property tax increase, we will be paying $238 million in termination fees to banks and investors to get us out of interest rate swaps and other financial deals that the CPS Board itself instigated.

Mayor Ras Baraka of Newark
Chicago is not alone in its intention to go back to elected school boards.  Detroit just reinstated an elected school board  with the support of its mayor, after many years of "emergency managers" under state and mayoral control.  At least two major cities have successfully resisted adopting mayoral control despite attempts by their Mayors to exert more power: Los Angeles in 2006 and Seattle more recently in 2016. The Mayor of Newark, Ras Baraka, has convinced the New Jersey Governor, Chris Christie, to allow their elected school board to resume authority after 21 years of state control.
So why do Duncan and others of his political persuasion keep promoting this inherently undemocratic system?  Bill Gates poured $4 million into the campaign to allow Mayor Bloomberg to keep control in 2009, as the NY Post then reported for the following reasons:

Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates — a pal of fellow billionaire Mayor Bloomberg — has secretly bankrolled Learn-NY, the group that joined the campaign led by The Post to extend mayoral control. “You want to allow for experimentation.” The cities where our foundation has put the most money is where there is a single person responsible.

Another big supporter of mayoral control, Bill Gates
Surely, it is always easier to only convince one person in charge to allow for untested policies to be imposed on our public schools and students, in the name of “experimentation,” without having to deal with school boards whose members may have different views.  Indeed, the top-down methods preferred by Gates and corporate reformers are far easier to implement without any of the limitations that messy democracy might require.
So what is the alternative?  As much as I’d like a citywide elected school board to replace the rubber-stamp Panel for Educational Policy, elected school boards are no panacea.  In Denver and more recently in Los Angeles and Oakland wealthy financiers, corporate executives and the charter lobby have combined to spend millions to elect school board members who complacently fall in line with their plans for privatization.  (Watch this terrific video if you haven’t yet of Kate Burnite, a recent Denver high school graduate, excoriating the school board for being in the pocket of Democrats for Education Reform and other privateers.)

Perhaps the simplest alternative would be for the NYC Council to be given the authority to provide some measure of checks and balance in an amended system of mayoral control known as municipal control.  Unacknowledged in all the heated rhetoric about the need to retain mayoral control in its current form is that the Department of Education is the only city agency where the City Council has no real power to affect change – or to exert any counterbalance against damaging policies.  

Right now, the City Council can only influence education by passing bills to try to influence policy through more reporting and/or through the overall budget.  The members have no ability to pass legislation when it comes to school closings, charter schools, testing or any of the myriad issues that deeply affect NYC students. The provision of municipal, local control would be a good first step—and because of strong campaign finance laws in NYC it would be difficult for privateer billionaires to hijack Council elections as they have done in school board elections elsewhere, and in the case of the GOP- and IDC- controlled NY Senate. 

Yet the members of the City Council would have to speak up more strongly to gain this counter-balancing authority over the DOE and our schools.  And the State Legislature tends to be very proprietary about retaining their prerogatives over NYC schools, and all too willing to use it as a bargaining chip, as occurs each time mayoral control comes up for a vote.   

The worst outcome of all would be for the Mayor and the Democratic leadership in the Assembly to trade mayoral control for more charter schools or tuition tax credits, as the Governor and the Senate GOP and IDC leaders seem intent on trying to extort.  Let’s hope this doesn’t happen – make your calls now to your Legislators, if you haven’t yet done this already; more on how to do this here.