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Guest blogger Betsy Gotbaum on: The Future of Mayoral Control

Betsy Gotbaum is the Public Advocate for the City of New York. The Public Advocate is an independently elected citywide official who serves as a public ombudswoman.

Six years ago, Mayor Michael Bloomberg accomplished what those before him could not: he gained control of New York City public schools, a fragmented, famously troubled bureaucracy that now has about 1.1 million students, 80,000 teachers, 1,450 schools and a budget that, at more than $21 billion, is larger than that of several states. When the New York State Legislature authorized mayoral control in 2002, it added a sunset provision, which takes effect next June. At that time, the Legislature will decide whether mayoral control should continue.

I believe that it should.

I also believe that the law should be amended in certain important ways. Last year, Catherine Nolan, chair of the education committee in the New York State Assembly, asked me to appoint a School Governance Commission to assess mayoral control. Over the course of a year, this independent Commission heard testimony from more than 100 individuals representing broad and diverse constituencies, hosted parent forums, and held public hearings. It also commissioned eight academic papers from experts on mayoral control of schools, which in turn shed light on how the process has worked in other cities. (These papers are to be published as an edited volume, When Mayors Take Charge: School Governance in the City, by Brookings Institute Press.)

In its final report, the Commission recommended that mayoral control be maintained. It also recommended changes to ensure greater public accountability as well as meaningful input from parents and the community.

For some time, it's been clear that we need better oversight of city Department of Education (DOE) finances. We also need better oversight of certain DOE-produced data. I enthusiastically endorse the idea that the city’s Independent Budget Office serves as an outside evaluator to monitor and assess such DOE data as test scores and graduation rates. And, since the DOE spends billions of tax dollars, it must follow the same procurement procedures as other city agencies, including bidding protocols created and monitored by the city comptroller. Since 2003, we have seen the DOE give away more than $300 million by skirting the competitive bidding process. The era of no-bid contracts must end.

The DOE has ignored parents, community leaders and others who have a valid stake in the ways and means of educating New York kids. Virtually shut out of the decision-making process, these stakeholders have been unable to provide meaningful input about issues that directly affect their children’s education.

This regrettable DOE attitude must change. While overall mayoral control should continue, it should be flexible enough to include a certain amount of decentralized authority. This is needed to address such local problems as enrollment, school transfers and school bus routes. Also, given the immense size of the school system and the DOE bureaucracy, parents desperately need someone who's knowledgeable, effective, and locally based to consult when problems or questions arise. Toward this end, the local geographic school districts that were created decades ago should be re-established. They should include superintendents with adequate staff and explicit oversight over principals in a given district.

The Commission recommended that Community District Education Councils (CDECs) should continue as well, though a process should be developed to give them meaningful input into decisions about budgets, general education practices and the opening and closing of schools. I support this recommendation, which provides a valuable tool for local involvement. I also believe that eligibility criteria for CDEC membership should be expanded.

To maintain mayoral control, the mayor must continue to appoint the majority of members of the Panel for Education Policy, a 13-member group that, among other things, reviews education policies proposed by the Chancellor. However, members should be appointed for fixed terms, which would ensure their independence. As it is now, they can be fired at will, and they have been, for disagreeing with the Mayor and Chancellor. I also believe that Panel members should select their own chairperson; currently the Chancellor serves as chair of the PEP. Further, the Panel should be comprised of members with relevant backgrounds and a stake in the education system.

While the Commission sets down the groundwork for stronger community and parent participation in school governance, much more needs to be done. It's difficult to legislate greater opportunities for community input, but the state's Contracts for Excellence model for parental involvement, cited in the report, is a good start. It's also an approach with which the State Senate has experience.

I’m opposed to one Commission recommendation, that the Panel for Education Policy be involved in collective bargaining agreements. Third-party approval would undermine collective bargaining by empowering an entity that is not involved in the process.

Some may believe that the Commission's final report does not adequately assess the current governance arrangement under Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein. I understand this criticism. The purpose of this effort, however, was to develop a map for the future, regardless of who is mayor or chancellor. I think the Commission has done that.

Some may disagree with the findings, but there's no question that, by and large, they reflect the views that stakeholders expressed throughout this process. Passions and tensions run high when debating this issue, but the debate must take place. The Commission has established a framework in which this debate can and should continue. I look forward to the discussion that lies ahead, and I'm confident that, through an open and deliberative process, school governance in New York City can be improved.

I encourage you to read the Commission report.

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