Mr. Ed

New York City’s old board of Education is to the public-school system as the Politburo is to today’s Russia, or Saddam Hussein’s presidency is to Iraq—few, at least openly, have agitated for its return. But that was before the mayor’s explosive, unilateral removal of social promotion in the third grade. As soon as Bloomberg pushed out three members of the Panel for Educational Policy (the defanged remnant of the Board of Ed) in order to leave back third-graders who failed a key test, teachers-union president Randi Weingarten and educational historian Diane Ravitch—not always the closest of allies—co-wrote an op-ed suggesting that things would be better with a board-based system, in which the mayor couldn’t fire at will. The same week, Carol Gresser, a former Board of Ed president, recalled mistily in one news story how in her time, educrats treated each other with respect—a rose-colored memory that overlooks years of infighting.

Ravitch and Weingarten are indulging a powerful collective fantasy of a school system that exists beyond the realm of politics—a place where teachers are free to teach what works best for them, and are given the tools by a benevolent Board of Education that has only their interests at heart. It’s beautiful, but of course it’s fiction: From time immemorial, public schools have been creatures of politics. And the squabbles over mayoral control are a far cry from the political scrum that was the old Board of Ed: Instead of closed board meetings and local patronage, we have open warfare over the curriculum and executive favoritism (see departed deputy Diana Lam).

Any call for the return of the board is liable to be dismissed out of hand—as it should be. Still, what it suggests is that mayoral control—conceived as a way to take politics and patronage out of the school system, with accountability and justice for all—has its own distinct set of problems, its own politics and atmosphere.

The politics of mayoral control—surprise—start with the mayor himself. Soon after Bloomberg’s social-promotion episode, the mayor’s poll numbers jumped, spurring an unsettling realization: The mayor who said “Judge me on the schools” now knows he doesn’t necessarily have to please the people inside the schools to get reelected. Even if test scores go down, the mayor could argue that he’s been saddled with damaged goods. And from the numbers, it looks as though voters would buy it. “Demonizing us was a very thought-through strategy,” declares Weingarten, who has noticed that, paradoxically, as Bloomberg’s overall poll numbers go up, the percentage of people who think he’s doing a good job managing the school system stays low—”basically 40 percent for the last year or two.”

“This is how mayoral control could disappear—not by referendum or revolution, but by the death of a thousand cuts.”

Bloomberg started out as a technocrat, a manager interested only in results. But voters, he’s finding, are more responsive to grand gestures than they are to numbers. Removing social promotion so recklessly may not have made pedagogical sense, but it was clearly a political masterstroke. Critics are trapped in a box: If they’re against the mayor, they must be for social promotion, right? “Even though people are totally in favor of ending social promotion, there was a real hesitancy about the way in which the mayor did it,” Weingarten says.

Meanwhile, educators and Bloomberg’s political opponents have had to scramble to find new ways to influence the system. Their first stop has been the courts. Comptroller Bill Thompson, who may run for mayor, is suing Bloomberg over his no-bid awarding of the schools’ vending-machine contract to Snapple, while the City Council, led by candidate Gifford Miller, is considering mandating competitive bidding in the schools, presumably for everything from textbooks to toilet paper. The teachers union has gone to the mat over a litany of issues—the mayor’s proposed eight-page contract, the dismissal of teachers’ aides—and recently won a big one when a judge ruled the mayor couldn’t wipe out 600 teacher sabbaticals without negotiating first. This is how mayoral control could disappear—not by referendum or revolution, but by the death of a thousand cuts.

Another characteristic of the new system is that the mayor’s opponents look for any excuse to minimize his role in any progress. Weingarten, Ravitch, and others irritated by Bloomberg’s progressive new literacy curriculum have used the recent National Association of Partners in Education data of test scores in urban school districts to argue that New York was tops in the field before Bloomberg came along. “We have the best urban school system in the United States of America,” boasts Weingarten, who endorsed the mayor’s reforms until she saw he was implementing them with teachers as foot soldiers, not as generals. “We were seeing sustained, incremental progress. I found it really funny when they started comparing us to Chicago. Frankly, on our worst day we’re better than Chicago on its best day.” Weingarten barely wrist-slaps the old system’s shortcomings: Why did 80 percent of eighth graders not read at grade level? The state raised standards without giving the system enough money, of course. “It’s not a shock that once you put higher standards into place, you’re going to see really terrible test results,” she says. “And that’s what happened in 1998 and ’99.”

Money, it turns out, is another reason the debate over mayoral control is heating up now. Not just the lack of it, but a potential windfall: Perhaps before Bloomberg’s term ends—fairly soon, in glacial education time—Albany will finally reach a settlement in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity’s historic lawsuit to provide a basic education to city schoolchildren, and billions of dollars will start flooding into the schools. It’s easy to envision the same politicians in Albany who granted Bloomberg control wanting it back. “When there’s new money, a lot of people are gonna want to control it,” Ravitch says. “I think at some point very soon, mayoral control is going to change. The State Legislature will not give an open-ended power to anyone who’s mayor. It may be mayoral control, but it won’t be what it is today. My hunch is, even if he has a second term, the Legislature will revisit this issue and create a lay board—so it’s the board that makes the decisions.”

Weingarten wants input on how that money is spent as well. “When you think of the school system right now, you think about a big fight,” she says. “Now, that’s a failure of leadership. And so what this is doing is, it’s hurting the attempt to secure the appropriate funding.” And so she hangs on to the hope that mayoral control in a second Bloomberg term would be tempered. “If the mayor gets reelected,” she says, “he can no longer use the argument that the checks and balances on his power is the mayoral election.”

In perhaps this way only, the people who long for the bad old days do have a point. Does one election every four years really represent accountability? Mayoral control was supposed to make politics work for schoolchildren—focus it on pedagogy. Possibly, the opposite is true.

Mr. Ed