Legislators said they have decided to separate mayoral control of the city’s public school’s from the budgetary process, and will take up the issue before the legislative session ends in June. That leaves some uncertainty around a policy that has been in place for two decades. While mayoral control is expected to be extended, there may be changes.
State Sen. John Liu, who chairs the Senate’s Committee on New York City Education, said mayoral control merits more focus than lawmakers can give it during hectic budget negotiations.
“We should really be able to think about it and discuss it without being distracted by a multitude of other matters,” he said in a recent interview with Gothamist.
Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg lobbied for and won control of the school system in 2002, replacing the Board of Education and network of local school boards, which he and many others deemed ineffective and sometimes corrupt.
Now, the mayor has near total power over the city’s public school system, including appointing the chancellor and a majority of members who serve on an oversight body called the Panel for Education Policy. The panel votes on contracts but is largely advisory.
While most school districts across the country are governed by school boards, made up of elected members, multiple big cities shifted to mayoral control during the 1990s and early 2000s. In recent years, the pendulum has begun to swing back: Chicago, for example, is moving toward an elected school board in the next few years.
In New York, the legislature has extended mayoral control for various increments of time, and the issue is often subject to bitter negotiations and horse trading. Now, parents want to have their voices amplified in discussions about their children’s education.
Proponents say mayoral control has streamlined governance, reduced corruption, and contributed to increased achievement, including higher graduation rates in New York City public schools. But critics say ceding all authority to the mayor means there are no checks and balances and parents’ priorities are often ignored.
In a statement in March, Mayor Eric Adams credited mayoral control with the success of universal pre-K and the city’s ability to get students back into classrooms during the pandemic. He called on lawmakers to “build on what we know works.”
“Continuing mayoral accountability will benefit all of our students and will allow Chancellor [David] Banks and myself to make the transformative changes in the education system that will address systemic inequities,” he said.
In testimony before state lawmakers last month, Kathryn Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York, which represents businesses, said prior to 2002, “the city’s school system was chaotic, inefficient, plagued by patronage, and highly politicized.”
“As employers who depend on the city’s schools to prepare students for college and careers, we have a stake in the system and believe that any dilution of mayoral control would jeopardize the progress made over the past two decades,” she said.
Gov. Kathy Hochul had called for a four-year extension of mayoral control in her budget proposal in January, a move welcomed by the Adams administration.
But parents pushed back, and lawmakers appear to be listening.
NeQuan McLean is co-chair of the Education Council Consortium, which is composed of parent leaders from across the city, and has called for state lawmakers to convene a task force to review the policy and recommend changes.
He said when administrations change, so do priorities, increasing instability.
“It’s important to know that as soon as a mayor leaves office, so do those hallmark re-organizations, initiatives and staff - and often, dismantling the prior mayor’s legacy is the first order of business of the next mayor,” he said. “What successful organization adopts a model that relies on a perpetual and radical change every four to eight years, including leadership turnover and mission change? None.”
The consortium is calling for the state legislature to increase the number of students and parents on the city’s Panel for Education Policy, with slots set aside for parents of students with disabilities and English Language Learners. The panel is currently made of 15 members, plus the chancellor; seven members must be parents.
Since the panel is responsible for approving costly contracts, the group is calling for an appointee by the city comptroller who has the skills to scrutinize spending. It also wants to see the powers of the City Council strengthened in relation to the Department of Education. While the council can hold hearings and require reporting from the education department, it generally cannot influence policy.
Liu said he wants to hear more from stakeholders – especially parents – in the coming weeks.
“I’m trying to get as much feedback as possible from teachers, principals, fellow legislators and in particular the parents who are the most important stakeholders in this whole process,” Liu said. “In fact it’s parents who feel like they’ve been left out all too often and for far too long. I just want to make sure their voices are heard.”
Mayoral control is set to expire June 30, 2022.
Jon Campbell contributed reporting