Tweaking the Mayor's Control of the Schools

Thursday, May 21, 2009

State Senators Suzi Oppenheimer and Pedro Espada (center, surrounded by aides) were the only lawmakers to attend the Senate Education Committee's hearing on mayoral control of the schools, in the Bronx. Oppenheimer chairs the committee and Espada represents the Bronx.

State Senators Suzi Oppenheimer and Pedro Espada (center, surrounded by aides) were the only lawmakers to attend the Senate Education Committee\'s hearing on mayoral control of the schools, in the Bronx. Oppenheimer chairs the committee and Espada represents the Bronx.

As lawmakers get closer to the deadline for renewing the 2002 legislation that put Mayor Bloomberg in charge of the public schools, you might say there are now two dominant schools of thought on how to change it. And one of them just lost a powerful ally.

Teachers union president Randi Weingarten now favors keeping the mayor in charge of the school system's Panel for Educational Policy (which replaced the old Board of Education). This is a significant, because Weingarten formerly supported a proposal that would have seriously weakened the mayor's role by giving him a minority of the panel members.

In an editorial today in the 'New York Post,' which has been unabashedly in favor of keeping the mayor in charge of the schools, Weingarten acknowledges her proposal to dilute Bloomberg's power was going nowhere. Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver both want to keep Bloomberg in charge of the Panel. So, she writes, 'why not consider other possibilities?' to give the public more input through other channels.

Weingarten calls for giving the mayor's appointees to the panel fixed terms, so they can't be fired at will if they disagree with him (which happened in 2004 when some wanted to vote against his plan to stop promoting third graders who fail their state exams). And she asks legislators to bolster the community education councils. Parents on these councils complain they get little advance notice when schools close or new schools open.

Weingarten calls this Mayoral Control 2.0. But there are still some lawmakers shooting for more dramatic changes, or what you might call version 3.0. Brooklyn Senator Kevin Parker and Bronx Assemblyman Carl Heastie introduced a bill to take away the mayor's majority on the Panel, which they call a "rubber stamp" because it's controlled by Bloomberg. They also want more oversight of the Department of Education's budget and contracting.

The State Senate's Education Committee held a hearing on the matter today at Bronx Community College. Only two lawmakers attended: Pedro Espada, of the Bronx, and Education Committee chair Suzi Oppenheimer of Mamaroneck. As usual with these hearings, supporters and opponents of the current system packed the auditorium. Learn NY and churches from the Industrial Areas Foundation brought passionate school principals and parents who said mayoral control has led to higher test scores and more equity. Parents who oppose mayoral control also testified about how they feel alienated by the current system. At one point, members of the Campaign for Better Schools urged Oppenheimer and Espada to support the legislation introduced by Heastie and Parker to weaken Bloomberg's hand.

"We are seriously looking at much, much more public participation, much more transparency, much more checks and balances," Oppenheimer replied. She went on to mention possibly giving the Independent Budget Office some oversight. The parents from the Campaign for Better Schools seemed pleasantly surprised. But neither Oppenheimer or Espada would go as far as to support their legislation. Instead, Oppenheimer said lawmakers from the Assembly and Senate would get together and debate a number of bills next week and try to hammer out a consensus. Espada said he preferred to get something the Democratic majority could agree on without needing the help of Republicans. With a razor thin majority, Espada has become a powerbroker in the Senate. And he supports keeping the mayor in charge of the Panel with more checks and balances like the ones Weingarten mentioned in her editorial.

Looks like Weingarten saw the writing on the wall and decided to throw her union's support behind the most likely outcome. Or - as cynics might say - she supported the more extreme proposal as a bargaining chip.


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