Since he was first elected mayor in 2013, Bill de Blasio has struggled to win friends in Albany. Not all of it has been his fault. Republicans in the State Senate saw in de Blasio a recalcitrant urban liberal. Governor Andrew Cuomo perceived, for a time at least, a threat.
A function of this dynamic has been the city’s massive school system devolving into a bargaining chip. De Blasio’s control of the schools seems perpetually under threat: In return for granting the mayor continued power over local education, state lawmakers have regularly demanded various concessions.
For the first time in de Blasio’s mayoralty, Democrats now control the State Senate, and this has fueled hopes in City Hall that the haggling over mayoral control of public schools will be less contentious. Many of the Democrats represent New York City. They are not obsessed, like their Republican colleagues, with perpetually increasing the number of charter schools or carving out special exemptions for them, like free rent in public buildings.
But Democrats are also asking harder questions of an arrangement that has existed since Mayor Michael Bloomberg first seized control of city schools in 2002, when he argued that the old Board of Education, rife with patronage and lacking for funds, had failed city schoolchildren.
“Republicans were mostly interested in embarrassing the mayor and changing the power dynamic,” said David Bloomfield, a professor and education expert at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. “Community-centric Democratic legislators may be more involved in changing the details of mayoral control than Republicans ever were.”
The process will begin on Friday when Senate Democrats hold a hearing on the future of mayoral control. This year, Senate leadership created a new committee dedicated specifically to New York City education, appointing John Liu of Queens as its chair. Liu is a former city councilmember, city comptroller, and one-time mayoral challenger of de Blasio who is expected to bring scrutiny to a school system he knows very well.
No one in state government is considering not renewing mayoral control at all, as Republicans threatened in the past, before granting de Blasio single-year extensions in 2015 and 2016 and a two-year extension in 2017. (By contrast, under Bloomberg Senate Republicans who benefited from the billionaire mayor’s generous campaign donations extended mayoral control for as many as seven years and asked few questions.) Cuomo and Democrats in the legislature have pitched a three-year extension, which would outlast de Blasio’s time in office. It’s possible the extension could be hammered out in this year’s state budget, due on April 1st.
Rather, lawmakers and education advocates have zeroed in on a few key issues, including parental involvement, school discipline, and the concentration of power in the DOE.
“Parents need to feel their voices are being heard. My sense is there’s a strong sentiment that many parents are not being heard,” said Liu, who stressed repeatedly he wanted to listen to education stakeholders and not “color” anyone’s views with his own opinions.
John Liu on the campaign trail in Whitestone, Queens in 2018 (Scott Heins / Gothamist)
Unlike much of the rest of New York state, since 2002 the city’s schools have not had elected school boards. They are instead consolidated under the auspices of the mayor, who appoints the schools chancellor and sets policy through the Department of Education. Before Bloomberg instituted mayoral control, the Board of Education ran the schools in concert with local elected school boards, with relatively little influence from the mayor.
Because of the nature of mayoral control, the City Council has very little oversight over the DOE: As Bloomfield explained, the law as written views the city’s education department as a single school district under the aegis of the state education department, which, in turn, grants the mayor the right to appoint a chancellor and set a budget. That means councilmembers can’t pass laws governing education policy like they can for transportation or the police.
Some local education advocates have criticized this City Hall-centric arrangement, with policies set chiefly by the mayor and education officials he appoints. The Panel for Education Policy, the 13-person body that approves many of the most significant spending and policy decisions at DOE, is dominated by the mayor: de Blasio appoints eight members and the five borough presidents each appoint one.
Senate and Assembly Democrats plan to at least entertain the possibility of changing the make-up of the PEP by shrinking the number of mayoral appointees. “I want to go into the process with as open a mind as I can,” said Bronx Assemblymember Michael Benedetto, the new chair of the Education Committee in the lower chamber.
Leonie Haimson, an education advocate and founder of Class Size Matters, a nonprofit that fights for smaller class sizes and more parental involvement in education, is a longtime critic of mayoral control. She is hoping state lawmakers take up the cause of “municipal control,” which would maintain the Department of Education while giving new oversight powers to the City Council.
“The DOE is not like any city agency,” she said. “We do need input from the City Council to provide checks and balances. There’s very little transparency.”
The Education Council Consortium, a group of parents and educators who serve on local Community Education Councils—education policy advisory bodies with little formal power— are likewise fighting for increased local involvement in education decisions. The ECC recently issued a resolution demanding a list of changes to the governance structure of mayoral control.
The ECC wants to shrink mayoral appointments to the PEP so they are a minority, not majority, of the 13-member body, and wants a majority of those serving be parents with children in public schools. The ECC is also calling for the empowerment of local CEC’s so these panels can play a role in deciding co-location of schools, the selection of superintendents, and the closure of underperforming schools.
Liu said he wanted more oversight of DOE when he served on the City Council, but was circumspect on whether he would put his full weight behind a municipal control push in Albany. In the Assembly, some Democrats, particularly in the Black, Latino and Asian Caucus, are reportedly dissatisfied with de Blasio’s stewardship with the schools and are seeking some changes to how mayoral control operates, though the criticism remains vague.
One issue that may divide Democrats, especially the more left-leaning members of the Senate, is school discipline. Under de Blasio, school suspensions have plummeted, a trend cheered by progressives who point to the overwhelming number of students of color who are targeted for suspensions.
Michael Mulgrew, the president of the United Federation of Teachers, has called the de Blasio administration’s approach—which prioritizes counseling and warnings over suspensions—“broken.” State Senator Diane Savino, a Staten Island Democrat, and Liu recently told the New York Post they share Mulgrew’s concerns.
But speaking with Gothamist, Liu stressed he wanted to strike a balance between teacher safety and creating “police states” in public schools.
“I want teachers, students and staff to feel safe and secure in our public schools,” Liu said. “I think that can be achieved without turning our schools into police states and taking measures that are penalizing and criminalizing kids in schools.”
However Democrats end up tinkering with mayoral control, it's becoming apparent the de Blasio administration won't breeze through the next month. Where Republicans north of the city merely saw a foil they could bully on behalf of the charter sector, Democrats in both the Senate and Assembly are paying much closer attention to how City Hall operates a school system bigger than most American cities.