NYC Schools Need Some Mayoral Control

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[Fleming’s Views]

Who are we to believe?

Is Mayor Bloomberg’s tight grip over New York City’s schools making a difference? Or are the poor, the minorities, the special needs students still being left out of the education renaissance in Gotham City?

In a campaign worthy of a bitter national Democrat-GOP mix-up, the lobbyists and proxies have swarmed all over New York State to convince Albany to stay the course in terms of mayoral control. Albany legislators, still undecided on which way to go, must make up their mind on the issue before the end of June. If they twiddle their thumbs, the law will expire.

Mayor Bloomberg, in the middle of a lackluster City Hall campaign, has plenty riding on retaining mayoral control over city schools. The 2002 law ended the corrupt Board of Education and gave the mayor control of a chancellor appointment. Newspapers and city watchdog groups had been long complaining about the BOE, which was riddled with cost overruns, patronage, secrecy and outright theft.

Nobody misses the Board of Education, which used their control of schools to pad the bank accounts of several key officials and their families and girlfriends.

Within a period of two months, editorials of the city’s major newspapers have touted the achievements of the seven-year reforms of the nation’s largest school system. School Chancellor Joel Klein was proud to announce that there has been an over 20% rise in students from fifth to eighth grades achieving passing grades. Mayor Bloomberg has beamed with the news about Black and Hispanic students narrowing the school achievement gap with their white peers by 4 and 5 points.

While the ruckus of mayoral control bubbles over, there is something fishy about the current state of our traditional public schools. Forget the United Federation of Teachers (UFT). Forget the Campaign for Better Schools. Forget ACORN. Forget Learn-NY and its mouthpiece, Rudy Giuliani.

Look at our faltering traditional public schools in poorer areas. They are still not a good academic environment for our children to learn. The schools are still dangerous, overcrowded, and ill-equipped in poorer minority communities.

Aside from the startling triumphs with charter schools, Harlem State Senator Bill Perkins was right when he talked about public schools earlier this month: “Why are they fleeing the schools above 96th Street? You got charter schools uptown and regular schools downtown. That’s polarizing. These schools are drowning in failure and people are fleeing them. They don’t accept that as progress.”       

When reporters pressed him, Perkins asked the crucial question: “Why don’t we fix traditional public schools?”  A lot of children are being left behind.

A recent New York Daily News report revealed that the poorest children in the school system, the children learning English as a second language, the children with special needs are given the short end of the stick by both in the traditional schools and the charter schools. Conditions must be improved for those children in both systems. With charters, administrators should recruit the children of immigrants more effectively, bringing them into the fold. With the traditional school system, these children should be properly served and not immediately classified as special education students.

Mayor Bloomberg, in a radio address, dealt with the notion of possible changes of mayoral control from Albany: “There is not one of the reforms that were done in the last seven years that would have been done without mayoral control.”

He is not budging on his stance.

But in Albany, state lawmakers might have some surprises for the mayor and his school chancellor. They are leaning toward making significant changes before renewing the law. As State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver told reporters about the law, he was deadly serious: “The law can be made better without losing the principles for which it was originally contemplated and without going back to an old, failed system.”

Anything is better than revisiting the past with the old school system. It was a cruel joke. Still, if the charter schools are enjoying incredible success with their students, then why can’t we lift the lagging traditional schools to an equal par to these flagship schools for the rest of the city?

As citizens of this great city and parents and employers, we should demand nothing less than excellent schools in every community of New York.

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