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Queens Chronicle

The mayor who took control of schools

On education policy, Bloomberg is either a saviour or Satan himself

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Posted: Thursday, December 19, 2013 10:30 am

When Mayor Bloomberg leaves office at the end of this month, he will do so having a legacy of completely transforming the largest school system in the nation.

Whether that transformation has been positive or negative is a contentious argument that will continue to define the legacy of the city’s longest-serving mayor in nearly half a century.

Central to Bloomberg’s legacy was his plan, approved by the state Legislature in 2002 — the year he took office — to abolish the former Board of Education and form a centralized Department of Education, a policy commonly known as mayoral control. That system, which gave the mayor complete control of education policy by giving him an outright majority of the appointees on the Panel for Educational Policy, remains controversial.

Supporters of mayoral control say the system provides accountability and roots out the corruption that made the former system notorious. Critics of mayoral control say it gives the city’s chief executive dictatorial powers that cut out parents and school community members.

But 10 years in, mayoral control has become so ingrained that some of the Democratic candidates who sought to replace Bloomberg — even Mayor-Elect Bill de Blasio — advocated keeping it, with reforms.

“Why would you give up a tool like mayoral control?” former Rep. Anthony Weiner asked during his mayoral campaign, noting that mayoral control would give a new mayor the ability to easily undo Bloomberg-era reforms and institute his or her own.

Councilman Danny Dromm (D-Jackson Heights), a former teacher and a harsh critic of Bloomberg’s education policies, said mayoral control has become rule by fiat in which others are left out of the discussion.

“Things needed to be shaken up and we had a lot of high hopes for mayoral control. Where he fell down was with parental input and teacher input,” Dromm said. “You can’t have top down management because you’re dealing with people.”

Dmytro Fedkowskyj, who has served as Borough President Helen Marshall’s appointee to the PEP since 2011, said serving on the board was sometimes difficult.

“Serving on the PEP presented frustration and challenges during mayoral control, because it was close to impossible to change the mind set of mayoral appointees before an upcoming vote,” he said. “We all had jobs to do and did what we thought was best, but in the end they controlled the board. We were neutralized as [borough president] reps, but I always made sure that the concerns and values of our school communities would be debated before a vote, even though I knew it was unlikely to change the outcome of the vote. The importance of the debate was to ensure that our school community voices were heard.”

Fedkowskyj said the borough president representatives were more “reactive than proactive” during his time on the PEP.

Perhaps Bloomberg’s most controversial move in education was when he chose media executive Cathie Black as schools chancellor in 2010. Her short, ill-fated term as chancellor led critics like Dromm to believe educators needed to have a bigger place in running city schools.

“It gave the impression that anybody could do it, but it’s not that anybody could do it,” he said. “We have to go back to a time when experience counts, empathy counts.”

Black, who was previously chairwoman of Hearst Magazines, needed a waiver from the state to serve as chancellor since state law requires the position be given to someone with education administration experience.

In an interview last week at Queens High School for the Sciences in Jamaica Hills, Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott insisted the DOE has emphasized parental involvement and said parents have said they were satisfied with the department.

“We conduct the largest survey second to the Census in the country,” he said, noting 985,000 parents respond to it. “I will not take a backseat to anyone in so far as what we’ve done for parents and how we’ve been accessible to parents.”

Indeed, mayoral control has allowed Bloomberg to institute a number of reforms, from the creation of more than 100 charter schools and dozens of career and technical schools. In Queens alone, the DOE added new 41,585 seats across 63 new school buildings, additions and leases. Many of those schools are in overcrowded areas such as Corona in District 24 and Astoria in District 30.

As the administration prepares to leave office, it boasts higher SAT scores among New York City high school seniors — up eight points according to New Jersey-based SAT test administrator College Board, which released the statistics earlier this month — while the national average declined by three points. The same group said the number of city students passing one or more advanced placement exams has also increased — from 9,700 in 2002 to a record high of 19,500 students in 2012.

But the administration’s record on test scores has had its critics. In November, the DOE released data showing city students performed poorly on new Common Core tests, which Bloomberg argued set a new performance baseline.

“The new Common Core curriculum, as it is phased in, will empower students to achieve at higher levels in the years ahead and graduate high school ready for college and careers,” he said last month.

Critics like Dromm said the scores show Common Core has been implemented poorly.

“They have become a victim of their own focus on test scores,” Dromm said.

The administration also boasts a renewed focus on career and technical education, which Walcott said was helping change the negative image of public schools.

In 1960, there were 18 career & technical education schools, then called vocational schools, citywide. In 2002, there were still 18. Today, there are 46, including the High School for Construction Trades, Engineering and Architecture in Ozone Park and Energy Tech in Long Island City.

“I think that’s changed the buzz as far as the attractiveness of schools,” Walcott said last week. “I think the creation of new, different and exciting schools along with the schools that existed before will really contribute to the negative buzz around public schools is changing.”

Another factor that helped improve school reputation, Walcott said, was the increase in charter schools. When the Bloomberg administration took office, the charter movement was still in its infancy. Mayoral control gave Bloomberg’s first schools chancellor, Joel Klein, power to explore charter schools as an option.

“As Joel looked at the system, he concluded a number of things. One of them was he wasn’t going to be able to fix the school system from the top down,” said James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center. “He saw that the school was the unit of change.”

He said the opening of new charters — 175 since Bloomberg took office — provided more choice for parents, especially in areas with failing schools where parents were struggling to send their children to better schools outside their communities. Merriman said charters have had trouble keeping up with demand. More than 70,000 students are now in charter schools, with 50,000 parents on waiting lists.

Perhaps the biggest critic of charter schools — not only in New York, but nationwide — has been the United Federation of Teachers. The union has criticized charters, many of which aren’t unionized, as a backdoor way to break them.

But Dromm said one charter school in his district, the unionized Renaissance Charter school, is working.

“That debunks the myth that unions are the problem,” he said. “There’s a collaboration there between parents and teachers and the child is the focus of everything that goes on. If the DOE is saying charters are the answer, then take what works from the charters and implement them into public schools.”

Critics also said charter schools take resources from traditional schools, but Merriman said that isn’t the case. He noted that traditional schools are also helped by the existence of charters because they force competition and bring in better teachers.

“I think we’ve reached a place where traditional and charter schools see what unites them rather than what divides them,” Merriman said.

In fact, Bloomberg’s often frosty relationship with the UFT came to a head last year when the DOE attempted to close seven Queens high schools, and several more citywide, and reopen them under new names and with new administrations. The plan was stopped by an arbitrator appointed by a judge after the UFT sued the city.

Earlier, the DOE had succeeded in implemented the phasing out of Jamaica High School, which was replaced with multiple smaller high schools. That phaseout was controversial because critics and the school community said the DOE did not do enough to support Jamaica.

Walcott defended the DOE, saying it had done everything it could to help the schools that were closed or on closure lists.

“I still think it’s a necessary step for schools that aren’t meeting the muster,” he said.

The DOE has also been criticized for its use of co-locations, in which new schools are placed in the same building as other schools. Critics say co-locations cause overcrowding, pit schools against each other and waste space and money because each school has its own administration.

But Walcott said co-locations are necessary because of lack of space. He pointed out that the vast majority of co-located schools are traditional schools and not charters and some of them are temporary while new school buildings are being built.

“You got a lot of quality schools that are sharing space,” Walcott said.

Still critics see little to be impressed with.

“I hate to be negative, but I don’t see anything to point to that’s a positive,” Dromm said, added that the chancellors during Bloomberg’s term often publicly criticized teachers and administrators, creating a morale problem in the system.

“You’ll never hear the police commissioner put down the department,” he said.

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