The pending closure, restructuring and reopening of seven high schools in Queens and 24 citywide, as approved last week by the Panel for Educational Policy, is a disturbing development in the troubled history of New York City education under mayoral control.
Do children learn better in smaller classes when they get more individual attention? Absolutely. Do they learn better in smaller schools, such as those the Department of Education has established in place of ones it’s shut down in the past, or in schools that simply get new names and staffs? The jury’s still out on that, and will be for some time.
Mayoral control was designed to bring accountability through the ballot box for the school system, as well as outside-the-box thinking. The former went out the window when Mayor Bloomberg and the City Council colluded to override the voters’ clearly expressed demand for term limits. The latter has been on full display since then. Not every move the mayor and his various chancellors have made is bad by any means, but they’ve all lacked two key elements: respect for the history of storied institutions and respect for the opinions of the parents whose children are being treated as guinea pigs in a great educational experiment.
First the history. One of the schools that will be shuttered is Flushing High School. Established in 1875, it’s the city’s oldest public school. As of July 1, it will no longer exist.
Dying a slower death but dying all the same is Jamaica High School, which the PEP voted to shut down in an earlier round of closings. Never mind that it was the first school in New York State to be desegregated, and never mind how much that status means to the largely black community it serves. Bloomberg had other ideas.
The other high schools in Queens the PEP just decided to eliminate — August Martin, Bryant, John Adams, Long Island City, Newtown and Richmond Hill — all have traditions and legacies that should be preserved. We believe each should at least keep its name, because changing those can serve no purpose, and after all, they’re literally carved in stone. The students in these schools should at least be able to retain the legacy of pride that comes with being the John Adams Spartans, for example, or the Flushing Red Devils.
Last week this page called for a special city-state commission to re-examine mayoral control of the schools, with an eye toward democratizing the system. Though we take no credit, on Monday Gov. Cuomo announced a commission to examine education statewide from the bottom up. We believe one of the panel’s top priorities should be reforming mayoral control. Key elements to consider might include:
• Restructuring the PEP so it’s not always a rubber stamp for the mayor. Imagine, for example, if it were headed by a chairman elected citywide, and if the five borough appointees were also elected. Yes, elections mean politics, but politics already play a big role what’s going on now.
• Forced commitment to programs. Several of the schools being closed had been put in another reform program just last year. Then the mayor simply changed his mind. The administration should not be allowed to turn everything about a school’s future upside down overnight.
• Serious consideration of opinions voiced at hearings. As it is, what students, teachers and parents say is meaningless. The administration does what it wants. Instead there should be a period of time between hearings and votes, during which comments are considered, as there is with regular legislation and a million other things governments do.
These are just some ideas. The point is that ideas other than those of the mayor must play a stronger role in deciding the future of the city’s next generation.