Commentary: Education: Wrong. Politics: Right!

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Mayor Bloomberg's decision to end social promotion in the third grade - and the way he got the policy approved - caused a political earthquake in the city this week - including calls to weaken mayoral control over the schools. WNYC's Brian Lehrer says it's possible that the mayor may be educationally wrong, but he's politically right.

Brian Lehrer: "Mayoral control means mayoral control, thank you very much." Those were the words Mayor Bloomberg used on Monday night after replacing three members of his Panel on Education Policy just before the crucial vote, so his proposal would pass.
Afterward, much of the city's political and educational establishment roared their disapproval. Here is Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion, who called into my weekday talk show on Thursday.

[TAPE of Carrion's call.]

But the funny thing is, I'll bet the biggest surprise to New Yorkers this week was not that the mayor was ending social promotion in third grade, which he's talked about for more than a year, but that there was any such thing as the Panel on Education Policy, and that it had any power to make such an important decision.
What you probably did know was that the state legislature abolished the old Board of Education in 2002 and gave the mayor control. One of the biggest problems with the old seven-member board was that it WAS independent. Its members were appointed by six different people, and it wasn't really accountable to anyone.

Mayoral control was designed to change all that. Bloomberg would set education policy, he would launch a process of massive reform, and voters, he said, should hold him accountable when he stands for re-election.

The Panel on Education Policy was created by the legislature to insure mayoral control by giving him power to appoint 8 of the 13 members.

So what really happened here? The most hostile take says it was all political - he did it to shore up support from Rudy Giuliani's white ethnic conservative base, who think standards have been diluted and who he has so alienated with the property tax hike and smoking ban. He'll need their support to win re-election. That hard political view also says: leaving back 15,000 low-performing third graders will raise next year's average score on the statewide fourth grade tests, allowing the mayor to boast in his re-election campaign that scores have improved on his watch.

I have a less cynical view, which is that the mayor is right on the politics, half right on the policy. This mayor, already known for being apolitical, again showed the courage to do what he thought was right, as he has done with other controversial moves such AS the property tax and smoking ban. And what's the point to Bloomberg of being the education mayor if he gives away his power to a 13-member board over their first substantive disagreement?

As for the policy, it may not matter much whether kids are left back or not. Either decision carries risks to the child. If entry into fourth grade is where the line is drawn, maybe they need grade 3-and-a-half for these thousands of kids. The Mayor has rejected that idea.

But no matter what classroom the failing children are in, they need real help. The eight million dollars the mayor has allocated for this may or not be enough. But I say let's judge the mayor a year from today, and see if the students left back this spring are ready for promotion then. If not, let's consider expelling Michael Bloomberg - from City Hall. In the meantime, let mayoral control mean mayoral control.