Should the Mayor Control NYC Schools?

This June, the state legislature will decide whether to renew the 2002 law that put Mayor Michael Bloomberg in charge of the city’s schools. It’s a controversial subject, with supporters and critics of the law each mounting fierce campaigns. As WNYC’s Beth Fertig reports, there are questions about what role the mayor is playing behind the scenes.

The parents who filled the front rows of a state assembly committee hearing in the Bronx last week didn’t have to speak to be heard. Jeanette Iglesias wore two different buttons expressing her views.

IGLESIAS: One says “South Bronx Churches for Mayoral Control on Schools.” And the other says “When Everyone is in Charge No One Is.”

That theme was also emblazoned on white and black placards Iglesisas and other parents were carrying that said “Mayoral Control Equals Better Schools.” The signs also listed the name of the group "Learn NY". Iglesias says the group visited her daughter’s charter school, the Family Life Academy in the Bronx. About 20 parents came from that school including Karin Weekes, who says she worries about what would happen if legislators weakened mayoral control.

WEEKES: Maybe they might get rid of the charter schools. I know, like, people whose children go to public school, I mean PS 79, 27, something like that, and they complain so much about fighting. About the kids them not learning. And I say I don’t have a problem with my school.

Weekes credited Mayor Bloomberg with expanding the number of charter schools in the city. But Jane Hirschmann, who runs another group called "Time Out From Testing", looked on with suspicion.

HIRSCHMANN: Learn NY is being funded inadvertently, not directly, through the mayor. He’s done great P.R. I think its very sad that he’s using parents in this way, and that the real fact is we have to look to see if the mayor has been successful in what he says that he’s brought to New York City. And if you look at the facts, not the spin, the eighth grade scores in math and English are totally flat.

Hirschmann is among many parents and education advocates who question the connection between Learn NY and the mayor. Learn NY has filled other assembly hearings with parents, many of them from charter schools. It’s hired the political consulting and polling firm Global Strategy Group, which worked for Attorney General Andrew Cuomo and Congressman Charles Rangel.

Learn NY claims to have raised $3 million. But it won’t say who’s funding its campaign and because it’s a non-profit it doesn’t have to. The group DOES maintain it’s NOT funded by Mayor Bloomberg.

CANADA: I met with no one from City Hall. And I was not asked by City Hall to do this.

Geoffrey Canada chairs the board of Learn NY. He’s also Chief Executive of the Harlem Children’s Zone – which runs a network of services for families, plus two charter schools. Canada says Learn NY is supported by private foundations who don’t wish to be identified, but which are longtime contributors to the schools. A spokesman for the mayor also says the group gets no money from Bloomberg and is completely independent.

Canada says he incorporated Learn NY last summer, before Bloomberg declared his intention to seek a third term. He says it’s an important issue for him in Harlem, because too many people were passing the buck before the mayor took charge.

CANADA: Everybody you talk to "It’s not my problem, I don’t control budget, I don’t hire the principals, I don’t really hire the superintendent." That series of excuses have allowed poor children, invariably poor children of color, to be poorly served by the school system in New York for decades. And so I don’t care who the mayor is it’s how the children perform.

Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Childen’s Zone has received almost $388 million in contracts from the city and the Education Department over the past decade, according to records from the comptroller’s office. Two other board members of Learn NY are Reverend Calvin Butts of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, and Sister Paulette LoMonaco of Good Shepherd Services. Their organizations have done almost $400 million worth of combined business with the city over the last decade.

Canada acknowledges that raises legitimate questions about what he stands to gain or lose.

CANADA: If you look at my position around these issues 15 years ago you will see no change in the way they are right now. The only change is I have a mayor who actually seems to agree with those positions.

Last year, Canada was also among a group of non-profit leaders who supported Mayor Bloomberg’s call to abolish term limits. That led to questions about whether they were pressured by City Hall, something they denied. But Chris Keeley, Associate Director of Common Cause New York, sees a similar pattern in this campaign to keep mayoral control of the schools.

KEELEY The underlying message when the mayor would ask for participation in a board is, what if you say no? The implicit message, and that’s not to say that the mayor does that, but it is a power dynamic that exists. If somebody is providing finances for your organization and they ask you for a favor it can be difficult to say no.

About 40 community based organizations and charter schools have joined Learn NY. Many of them get city funding. There’s no evidence Mayor Bloomberg pressured them to join. But last September, Klein, Bloomberg and Geoffrey Canada attended a breakfast at City Hall with foundation heads and business leaders. Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott was also there. He says no one was asked to campaign for mayoral control – though attendees were shown a powerpoint presentation about the system’s success.

WALCOTT: The system in place has produced results that benefit children in the long run. So there’s nothing wrong with that. We talk about results all the time, we talk about the progress that we made, we meet with people, I go out to community forums and testify at state assembly hearings and state senate hearings, I mean that’s part of our job and my job.

And political experts agree that building coaltions is essential for any mayor.

Coalitions may be especially important for Bloomberg, whose relationships with Albany lawmakers have been strained. His signature plans for a West Side stadium and congestion pricing on the East River bridges died in Albany.

April Humphrey represents a group that is fighting to put checks and balances on the mayor’s power, called the "Campaign for Better Schools". She concedes it’s politically smart for someone as respected as Geoffrey Canada to lead a group supporting mayoral control, instead of Bloomberg and his chancellor.

HUMPHREY: They’re not very popular with legislators. I think that they created this group to distance the mayor and chancellor as much as possible from the fight to renew this law so it could look like legitimate grassroots demand.

Humphrey’s Campaign for Better Schools includes the community organizing group ACORN.

A recent Quinnipiac poll found most New Yorkers support keeping mayoral control of the schools. But there are strong voices of dissent. While it’s hard to find anyone who wants to go back to the old Board of Education, many groups do want to weaken the mayor’s role - including the politically powerful United Federation of Teachers. Parents and local community leaders like Monica Major of the Bronx have also joined the fray.

MAJOR: Instead of a dictatorship we demand partnership. A real productive partnership with the mayor and other public officials.

A lively debate is sure to continue before the law granting the mayor control of the schools expires in June. Tomorrow, the Assembly’s Education Committee will hold its last in a series of hearings on the issue, in Brooklyn. For WNYC I’m Beth Fertig.

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