The Failed Rescue: The Potential Loss of Mayoral Control of Schools

New York's City Hall.  Only SOB's need apply.

New York's City Hall. Only SOB's need apply.

It takes a true prick to govern New York.  It also takes the truly prickless to remove the pricks that are needed to run things.

Our best leaders have been insufferable bastards.  Peter Stuyvesant, Alexander Hamilton, DeWitt Clinton, Fiorello La Guardia, Rudy Giuliani, and Michael Bloomberg—all effective leaders, all of them assholes.  These men probably warrant a swift kick in the nuts, yet our city couldn’t run without them.  You cannot govern America’s greatest city by being a nice guy.

Yet what happens when that control goes away? 

We may see firsthand as the legislation to maintain mayoral control of New York City public schools is set to expire July 1.  With the New York State Senate in a circus-like deadlock over leadership, many important bills (the schools bill among them) have not been considered.  Let’s thank Hiram Monserrate and Pedro Espada, Jr., for making New York government the butt of even more jokes for years to come. 

Forget the whores of Albany for a moment.  Once mayoral control—which was approved verbally by almost all city agencies and legislators, including the teachers union—were to extinguish, the school system would revert to the elected New York City Board of Education.  This board has not even been in existence in 7 years.  When will elections be held?  Will there be a new chancellor?  How will policies change?  Can this happen before the start of school in September?

Would we allow this with any other system than the schools?  During the constitutional convention of 1787, the Founders didn’t just say “We’re scrapping the Articles of Confederation, so everybody just sit tight and be good while we come up with something else.  Madison, write down the names of everyone not behaving.” 

However, dwelling on the transfer of power masks an important point.  Did we need to scrap mayoral control completely in the first place?  I’m not so sure—and this isn’t because I’m in love with our Mayor Napoleon (also Mayor Cromwell, Mayor Torquemada…insert moralistic blowhard here). 

History has shown that the ills of New York require strong medicine.  On the other hand, New Yorkers have the distinct inability to swallow the medicine that is best for them.

At the beginnings of the settlement, a crippled soldier, a minister’s son from the hinterlands of the Netherlands, was sent to save a colony on the brink of disaster.  Colonists in New Netherland hated Peter Stuyvesant—and were quick to shove him off once the English arrived in 1664—but his tyrannical rule was necessary.  New Netherland, later New York, became an orderly, thriving commercial enterprise.

The New York of 1783, after the Revolution, was a burnt-out mess.  While the patriot hot-heads were busy expropriating Tory lands faster than a Cuban workers’ committee, Alexander Hamilton was secretly working with both former Tories and Patriots to get the New York economy moving again.  Many local Sons of Liberty hated Hamilton’s “sleeping with the enemy,” but this compromise ensured that the city could recover financially and institutionally.

During the Great Depression, New York reached unemployment rates nearing 40-50 percent.  Fiorello La Guardia, a little “Republican” congressman who sounded more like Lenin than Reagan,  pushed to sweep away all the vestiges of the old patronage system created by New York’s longtime political machine, Tammany Hall.  Many immigrant neighborhoods, especially the Irish wards that still benefited from Tammany largesse, chafed at the imperious little “Eye”-talian with the bluster of Mussolini.  Yet the city government became a strong, more efficient entity thanks to La Guardia’s ham-fisted rule.

Now Michael Bloomberg follows in the irritating footsteps of other tyrants.  He took up the unfinished business left from New York’s last great dictator, Rudy Giuliani.  From 1994 to 2001, Giuliani managed an iron grip on the city.  He reorganized the police force, making it a force of both effectiveness and terror—depending on your skin color.  He cleaned up “seedy” neighborhoods so that tourists can come and gape in comfort at the tall buildings.   And, of course, 9/11 made him a hero. 

Yet for all these accomplishments, Giuliani could never subdue the many-headed Hydra that is the Board of Education.  Bloomy was happy to oblige.  With a pliant City Council (thanks to a re-written charter) and Albany on his side, Bloomberg crushed the old Board, replacing it with a rubber-stamp body called the Council for Educational Policy.  In short, the mayor now ran the schools, and he placed a Wall Street lawyer, Joel Klein, as his chancellor, with orders to clean the place up and make the kids learn again.

To be fair, something had to be done about the school system.  Graduation rates were abysmal.  Schools were dilapidated and dangerous.  The individual Community Boards could only agree on enriching themselves, and the elected Board of Education could only agree on making sure they got a taste of the spoils.  The system was a Byzantine mess where directives from one department were countered by directives from another.  Due to the elected nature of the Board of Ed, the mayor and schools chancellor were nearly powerless to correct the situation.

Begrudgingly, the Bloomberg era has achieved some notable successes.  Crime rates have continued their trends from the Giuliani era.  Smoking bans have made public places much more livable.  The school system has been reorganized as a more centralized structure, as more and more schools are added to the system.  Children are achieving higher and higher scores on standardized tests, and graduation rates show significant improvement.

This does not mean all is rosy in the Tweed building.  Bloomberg still believes that standardized test scores alone are an indicator of success.  Many think otherwise, me included.  He has too many consultants, “experts” and bean counters that obviously have never set foot inside a classroom.  Parents and community leaders clamor for their voices to be heard, or at least acknowledged, while our Lilliputian Caesar issues commands like an Eastern potentate. 

In short, the guy is not only an insufferable prick, but an unashamedly insufferable prick.  Yet can we do without his control of schools, especially in the near future?  No, largely because there never was, nor will there ever be, a viable alternative.

The original proposal before the Albany robber barons involved slight modifications on mayoral control, which would allow the input of parents and community leaders in decision making—the INPUT, not the control itself.  The centralization of power in schools requires the mayor make the ultimate decisions.   Yet checks on his power are necessary.  I, for one, would like a reworking of the city charter to reinstitute the Board of Estimate, the committee responsible for budgetary matters.  It’s a pipe dream, but it serves as an important check on Bloomberg’s power.

The complete dismantling of the system, though, is unfeasible and unworkable.  We cannot go back to a system that did not work in the first place.  It’s unfair to the students, irresponsible to teachers and administrators, and a slap in the face to a city that—like it or not—needs strong governance.

The only people acting in control, funny enough is the new Board of Education.  They voted to retain Klein as chancellor and almost-unanimously maintain mayoral control of schools.

Let’s hope the senate, too, comes to its senses and passes the mayoral control legislation.  It may need another hardheaded bastard to get things moving.

Governor Paterson, are you willing to be that bastard?

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