2007-04-13 / Editorial/Opinion

School Governance Needs An Independent Review

Public Advocate Betsy Gottbaum dropped into The Wave for a long chat last week, and the talk turned to school governance. The question of who should govern the public schools has always been controversial, often drawing more heat than light to the issue. The legislature believed it had the perfect answer when it ruled in the 1960's that "community control" was the way to go. That law set up community school boards that were given the ultimate power over the schools in their district. Those local elected boards, however, quickly became fiefdoms ruled by local politicians and became more about cronyism and getting reelected than about education. Community School Board 27, which controlled the schools in Rockaway and parts of the mainland, was a perfect example. People who wanted to become supervisors had to buy tickets to $100-a-plate election events and carry petitions for those running for the school board seats. Minorities were regularly kept from supervisory jobs. Board members ran their neighborhood schools as if they owned them, making decisions on staff, spending and curriculum. Eventually, our school board attempted to coerce the school superintendent into giving it complete control by holding his job hostage. He wore a wire, however, and the Gill Commission suspended the entire board. Two school board members were arrested and eventually pled their cases. It was a dark time. That incident, and others in which aspiring supervisors paid tens of thousands of dollars for school jobs to school board members in other districts, led to the idea that the school boards had to go. Mayor Michael Bloomberg convinced the state legislature to give him control of the schools. He has had that control for long enough to measure how it has worked, and we judge it a failure. Scores on standardized tests are up slightly because the focus has been on testing, not on education. The small rise, in fact, has come at the expense of Science and Social Studies education. More students are graduating from high school, attributable not to the mayor, but to the fact that the standards for passing Regents tests have been lowered so much that the testing program has become a joke among teachers. The new school boards, called Community Education Councils have no power and little input. They are a joke that the mayor is playing on the city's parents to make them believe they have a say in their child's education. One only has to look at such gaffes as the school bus fiasco and the testing mistakes to see what mayoral control, the use of no bid contracts to hire consultants and privatization really means. Gottbaum told us that she is going to have an independent review of mayoral control prior to 2008, when the legislature has to reopen the question in order to renew it or make it permanent. We think that's a good idea and that legislators such as Audrey Pheffer, who was a proponent of mayoral control, should take a long look at what it really means. We wish Gottbaum well in her independent review. It could be one of the most important things she had ever done in her political life.

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