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Winner Take All

Careful what you wish for, Mayor Bloomberg. Now that control of the schools is within reach, you'll actually be expected to fix them. Can it be done -- or are they a lost cause?

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Here was Mike not-yet-Mayor Bloomberg a year ago, in a major policy address on education emphasizing the need for mayoral control of the school system: "Change has to happen now, and I want to be in the position to make it happen as the next mayor of the city of New York. If I fail, the voters can -- and should -- throw me out."

Here was Mayor Bloomberg speaking on his weekly radio show at the end of May: "Keep in mind, if you change governance so the mayor has the tools, it doesn't mean the schools are going to get better."

The difference between those statements is the sort of enervated wisdom that only on-the-job experience can provide. There is, as we'll see, good reason for such talk, but in the meantime, the mayor has a right to bust his buttons over the school-governance deal he sealed with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver last week. No one would have guessed back in January that Bloomberg would win mayoral control in his first year. True, Silver had already signaled his intention to bend last year, and he's been under enormous pressure from business leaders and editorial boards for years (in fact, all this probably would have happened five years ago if the mayor hadn't been Rudy Giuliani, who was despised in the statehouse). Still, one would have thought that Silver might make Bloomberg sweat it out for at least one year just on principle.

But Bloomberg played it smart. After rejecting a State Assembly plan, the administration turned around and leaked its own version to the Daily News -- the paper that surely has the largest readership of public-school parents. They're pretty good with leaks at this City Hall. They brought Silver back to the table, and, mirabile dictu, the mayor is getting about 80 percent of what he wanted.

Being an outsider helped him here. He wasn't weighed down with the kinds of allegiances -- to local Assembly members, or to current Board of Ed operatives, or to the teachers union, which didn't endorse him -- that would have encumbered Mark Green or Freddy Ferrer. Last year, we spent a lot of time debating whether a mayor of New York needed "experience" to succeed. Maybe now we have our answer.

So, an A on the politics.

Now comes the work of actually making the schools better. Who expressed the more realistic view: Bloomberg, hopeful candidate, or Bloomberg, wizened incumbent?

To read the papers, you'd think mayoral control is some kind of magic spell. Secure it, and all will be well. The truth is that it might change things, maybe. But there's also the chance it will change nothing at all. Nationwide, it saddens me to report, there is more evidence to support the latter contention than the former.

This raises the deeper and really frightening questions, the ones nobody wants to contemplate, which are really the heart of the matter: Is New York's school system, at this point, even fixable? Or let's turn the question on its head, which is putting it more dramatically: What if the system isn't really broken? Is it possible that New York's schools, relative to other big-city ones, aren't so bad? Many children are reared in homes where learning perforce takes a backseat to the very hard job of just grinding out an existence. Others, alas, have parents who evidently don't care if they learn at all (I get dozens of e-mails from teachers making this point whenever I write an education column). Given all this, are New York's schools about as good as they can be?

And what do we do if the answer to these last two questions is yes?

There is not, yet, a vast body of research on the topic of whether mayoral control improves student achievement. The leader in the field appears to be one Michael Kirst of Stanford University. I'm looking at a report he published just last month. Kirst studied three systems that have recently gone to mayoral control: Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia. What was the impact of mayoral control on "improved coordination of city and school services" in the three cities? Slight, slight, and none, respectively. On "improved test scores, elementary"? Slight, moderate, and moderate. On "improved test scores, secondary"? No, no, and no. On "reduced gap between white and minority students"? No, no, and no.

That's a bleak picture, with the arguable exception of elementary-school test scores. But even there, it's not as if these three cities are exactly Plato's academy. Chicago, incessantly touted by mayoral-control zealots as the model New York must follow, has seen some progress, chiefly on fiscal discipline. But after seven years of mayoral control, those "moderate" increases in test scores have meant that 36 percent of fourth-graders there read at grade level. In New York, that number is 49 percent.

Mayoral control can probably ensure that money is spent more wisely. But what kind of impact will it have on, say, getting qualified teachers? Or reducing class size? Nobody knows. And bear in mind -- this is "reform" New York–style, which is to say, with a catch. On this new thirteen-member board, the mayor has eight appointees, and they serve at his pleasure, so he can fire them the second they cast a vote against him. That should mean the mayor will get his initiatives passed. On the other hand, it will still make for some raucous school-board fights, which will still produce intrigue and debilitating turf wars. Only in New York can we nearly double the size of a board (from its current seven) and say we're streamlining things.

Success, in other words, will not be a function of construction. I think success will be pretty much an exact function of the mayor's personal involvement and will. As Rudy did with police precincts, Bloomberg will need to do with schools. He must be tenacious, creative, completely absorbed. He will find that things work in the most cockeyed way he could imagine. He will ask why, and he will be given some insane explanation. He will order a change, and then he will find ten months later that things are still done the same way, and he will end up having to order the change eight more times before it takes hold. This will happen on 300 different matters. The whole thing, in every profound and minuscule way, really is in his hands, and he has to be up to it.

And even if he is, we have no idea whether things will change much, or whether the low state of public education is a function of things more permanent and insoluble. Because really, aren't we asking -- for years, haven't we been asking -- schools to be social workers and parents and nannies? What mayor can do anything about that?

I remember that when Bloomberg spoke those words a year ago, my immediate thought was, Boy, if he is elected, did he just hand a commercial to the person who ends up running against him in 2005. It's not for his sake that I hope I'm wrong.

E-mail: tomasky@aol.com


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