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Five Myths About Mayoral Control

David Bloomfield

March 06, 2024

Answering common critiques of New York’s school governance system

Answering common critiques of New York’s school governance system

In 2002, the governance of New York City’s public schools had its biggest overhaul in generations. After the state passed a law giving the mayor authority to choose the chancellor, out went a seven-member central Board of Education (appointed by borough presidents and the mayor), the chancellor those board members chose, and assorted local decision-making by 32 elected community school boards (each chosen by a tiny fraction of the electorate). In came mayoral control — the appointment of the schools chancellor by the mayor, with a central board dominated by the mayor. Community school boards were eliminated, converted to largely advisory parent-elected community councils.

I’m no apologist for mayoral control — there have certainly been associated problems and inequality remains persistent — but under the system, graduation rates and test scores have inched forward and school funding generally increased with the mayor now directly responsible for school quality. It also squares with delivery of other public services. After all, we have mayoral control of just about every other major city responsibility, based on the reasonable theory that the city’s chief executive, chosen in the highest-turnout election, should ultimately be held politically accountable for the consequences of leadership.

Yet for all 22 years of its existence, mayoral control of the schools has been under siege by its opponents, including the strange political bedfellows of the teachers union and local activists who battled over community control in the 1960s. The fever pitch of today’s debate is not only an ideological proxy war between those who believe in centralized citywide authority and those who value more local autonomy, a principle that has special resonance when schools and children are at issue. It’s about access to decision-makers, jobs and the largest slice of the city budget — and, of course, who has the biggest stick, whether that’s Mayor Eric Adams; John Liu, chair of the State Senate’s New York City Education Committee; UFT President Michael Mulgrew; or other contenders.

I know a great deal about the old way things worked. I was general counsel to the old Board of Education, the seven-appointed-member body that made most big policy decisions until it was disbanded in favor of rule by the chancellor and a pliant, mayor-dominated Panel for Education Policy. In the early 1990s, I served as the education advisor to the Manhattan borough president — one of the officials who appointed a member to the BOE.

I also understand the way things have worked since the governance change. I was a parent member and president of a local community education council — one of the largely advisory bodies that replaced the 32 elected community school boards — at the start of mayoral control, when Joel Klein was Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s first chancellor. I saw and sometimes expressed resistance to the way Klein led as he closed many large high schools, downsized community district offices and demanded the co-location of charter schools in traditional school buildings.

While it’s reasonable to debate the merits of mayoral control and refinements to the model — I’ve proposed giving the City Council more oversight power — both proponents and opponents of the current system should agree on one thing: The way schools were governed before mayoral control was a disaster. Authority and accountability were fragmented; waste, fraud and abuse were chronic problems; and inertia far too often carried the day. A dysfunctional Board, with five members appointed by the borough presidents and two by the mayor, ultimately represented and answered to no one. Nor were they helpfully insulated from politics. In my time there, during the Dinkins administration, four borough president representatives peeled away from their Democratic patrons to oppose mayoral appointees, leading to petty in-fighting and the eventual ouster of Chancellor Joseph Fernandez over his “Children of the Rainbow” curriculum proposal. Similar fates awaited ex-chancellors Ray Cortines and Rudy Crew.

Since Bloomberg’s mayoralty, Albany has offered grudging renewal after grudging renewal of the authority, and this time around, there’s talk that the state Legislature might press for more serious changes still. In the latest wave of scrutiny, public hearings have centered on the supposedly inevitable flaws in the current governance structure and the supposedly intrinsic benefits of alternate models.

Oft-repeated talking points, however, don’t hold up to scrutiny.

1. A Non-Educator Shouldn’t Run Schools

The very term “mayoral control” raises hackles. Why should one person, a politician no less, dictate educational policies, contracts, building uses like charter school co-locations and all other aspects of a system responsible for educating almost 1 million children and a budget of almost $40 billion?

But the fact is that non-educators are at the core of American public education. School board members across the country are generally non-educators who are elected (thus, politicians). They serve part-time, usually without salaries or staff, hiring educators as district superintendents, like our chancellor, who are required to be educators with specialized licenses. Ever since the debacle of Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s appointment of a magazine editor to head the schools, all chancellors have been educators like Adams’ choice, David Banks. But like all superintendents, Banks reports to a lay board and, in New York’s scheme, ultimately the mayor. 

Even if mayors were eliminated from the equation, they would maintain vast powers over the schools by setting the Department of Education budget and union contracts, powers derived from the City Charter, not mayoral control legislation. New York City has no dedicated school tax, as in most other school districts run by elected boards, so it’s the mayor, with input of the City Council, who determines the budget and negotiates collective bargaining agreements. Without far greater changes than are currently debated, these vast powers would continue.

2. Almost Everything Bad is the Mayor’s Fault

Decisions by education leaders are frequently controversial and often wrong. But arguments over policies and shortcomings are not generally the fault of the governance system. If revenues fall without new income streams, budgets need to be tightened, whether by a local school board or the City. Curricula need to be chosen and attendance zones determined, a fact of life for all school districts often accompanied by strong feelings among differing proponents. Who declares a snow day or flood day or figures out bus routes or special education placements or building enrollments? Someone needs to decide, with attendant opposition and second-guessing by those in disagreement. There’s no way around that, no matter who’s in charge.

It’s fair to state that in some cases, mayoral control has been the determining factor in school policies. Bloomberg's creation of small high schools and broad school choice options comes to mind, along with charter co-locations. But popular opinion on those issues is divided, and even without mayoral control, it’s possible that larger political forces (i.e., from the governor in the case of co-locations) would have mandated similar policies. It’s also fair to say that one overwhelmingly popular policy, Mayor de Blasio’s public pre-K initiative, would not have taken place without mayoral control.


3. We Just Need More Democracy

Still, say mayoral control opponents, better decisions would come from more democratic decision-making. What that would look like, however, is unclear. Many propose that the mayor should no longer be able to appoint a majority of the Panel on Educational Policy (PEP), our version of a Board of Education, and that the PEP, rather than the mayor, appoint the chancellor. But how would that group be assembled? Now, 23 appointed members sit with a thin but decisive mayoral majority, with the rest named by the borough presidents and parent councils. Re-weighting the group away from a citywide elected official toward borough president appointees and parents would likely run afoul of one-person, one-vote requirements and equal protection claims against favoring parents over other constituencies. Chicago’s attempt at parent-centered governance was overturned by the Illinois Supreme Court on that basis. 

A more radical change — but similar to most American school districts — would be to create an elected citywide board of education that appoints the chancellor. This might be accompanied by a return to elected community boards with similar powers of personnel appointments and more localized education policies. But it hardly follows that better decision-making would go hand in hand with an elected citywide board, especially if low-turnout elections could be easily turned by high-dollar special interests. And localized decision-making over personnel, school enrollments and curriculum would find many opponents seeking city-wide solutions and protections for our highly mobile, often educationally-vulnerable students, not to mention the teachers union, which sank community control in the 1960s.

Progressive proponents of elected boards might find broader popular voting unlikely to bring the kind of policies they favor. In pre-mayoral control days with elected community school boards, for example, District 14 in Williamsburg had a Hasidic-majority board. With so many non-parent voters and the recent conservative cast even to local community education council elections, an electoral system brings with it the contentious politics we’ve seen nationally and the potential for board in-fighting and paralysis, a feature of high consequence in a system so large and important.

Turning to the democratization of funding, the norm in most New York State school districts is to vest taxing authority in its elected boards with separate referenda on the district budget. But as a result, school funding is often kept low by voters opposed to higher taxes. In New York City, with large numbers of people without school-age children, high rates of poverty and other factors, votes over school spending would be as likely to result in less, rather than more money for schools. Moreover, with the mayor no longer accountable for the schools, it’s likely that the education budget would take a hit in favor of those services and agencies for which the mayor remains directly accountable.

4. We Need Checks and Balances

Just as the phrase “mayoral control” automatically raises hackles, the notion of adding “checks and balances” rings favorably, contrasting autocracy with ordered government. Surely advocates have a point — but the concept is slippery. In traditional district governance, lay school board members appoint professional superintendents to run the school system as CEO. Thus, day-to-day operations and decision-making is left to the superintendent without checks on executive authority. 

The board does not declare snow days or appoint, supervise and fire school personnel. In addition, since the board appoints the superintendent, they are generally allied with the superintendent’s recommendations when board action is required. In most cases, as in the system of mayoral control and similar public and even private executive/board relations, the board rubber stamps recommendations of senior staff; its check on executive function is mostly benign and, when active, as likely to do with personal ax-grinding as the common interest. 

This arrangement is far different from the one often imagined by opponents of mayoral control; assuming board consensus, it puts board members in a position to micromanage schools’ policies and thwart, rather than support, the chancellor. Such a system is unworkable in practice and far from the classic checks and balances we see in the federal system. There, the president, Congress and the courts each have wide latitude within their clearly delineated powers, while day-to-day executive decision-making proceeds relatively unconstrained by the other branches or even public input. I have proposed that more traditional form of checks and balances as a form of “city control,” where the City Council would provide the kind of check on the mayor’s education powers that it now has over police and fire departments, and would be more effective in representing community interests than the traditional model of a part-time, voluntary, unstaffed Board of Education

5. Mayoral Control Breeds Too Much Turnover

A final myth about the mayoral control era is that it is intrinsically unstable since, at most, mayors serve eight years and, as they turn over, so does the chancellor and the educational policies and program of the previous administration. Of course, that’s often a good thing. But the volatility of schools’ leadership is hardly ascribable to mayoral control. In the 20 years before 2002 when mayoral control became law, New York City had 12 chancellors. Since then we’ve had seven. The longest-serving chancellor during that 40-year span was Joel Klein, who served for eight years thanks to the support he had from Mayor Bloomberg. More generally, superintendency is a notoriously hard and relatively short-term job, last estimated, pre-pandemic, at approximately six years for urban superintendents, and likely shorter now. Superintendent turnover is a fact of life, whatever the governance system, and mayoral control, even when Chancellors leave mid-term, guarantees a degree of continuity often lacking when elected board majorities change accompanied by ensuing superintendent terminations. 

There’s No “One Best System”

When it comes to district governance, it may be that we are asking the wrong questions. Does it matter whether the mayor controls the system, an elected board or another set of power players? How can we deliver a system that promotes learning through effective instruction inclusive of all students? That is the fundamental question and, in the words of education historian David Tyack, an answer that continues to elude us as we seek “the one best system.”

Humility is thus a critical quality as we engage in this important debate. Especially in an era of exploding technological innovation, we need a governance system agile enough to accommodate our diverse post-pandemic student population for an unknown future faced with challenges of climate change, economic and social inequality, and extreme political polarization. In determining a governance system for this era, myths only get in the way.