New York city’s schools
The Board of Education may be failing, but it won’t be going
WANT to blame someone for the sorry state of New York city’s schools? Take your pick. Mayors can be difficult; the state isn’t paying its fair share; everyone would like more money from the federal government. But, increasingly, fingers are pointing in one direction: the Board of Education, the independent body that oversees the school system. Democratic state legislators, once the most steadfast supporters of the “Board of Ed”, have let slip that they are willing to pass legislation giving the mayor more power over the board. If this happens, it will mean a sharp shift of power in the city.
Every mayor since Ed Koch has tried, and failed, to dump the Board of Ed. When its seven members are not squabbling among themselves or being chauffeured around in city-owned cars, they are often busy stifling bright ideas. The present mayor, Michael Bloomberg, has vowed to do what his predecessors could not. He is supported by a growing number of experts from across the political spectrum, who believe that greater mayoral control of education would be most helpful to voters. If schools are not better in four years, they will know whom to blame.
Unfortunately, the power to bring the school system under mayoral control lies not in New York city but in Albany, the state capital. The Board of Ed was created in 1969 by the state legislature to insulate the school system from politics. As each of the five New York city borough presidents appoints one board member, and the mayor appoints two, there should be a balance of power. In reality, with no one group in clear control, the board has become a battleground between mayors and borough presidents. Yet the Democrat-controlled state assembly, the lower legislative chamber, has long refused to let it die — largely, cynics say, because of the patronage power afforded by all those jobs in school administration.
This week, in hearings about the board’s future before the city council, Mr Koch suggested that Mr Bloomberg create a special committee of New York’s great and good that would promise to support the opponent of any state legislator who resisted abolishing the board. This bold plan looks less likely to succeed than a limper compromise, proposed by Democratic legislators, that the board’s chancellor, currently chosen by the board, could become a mayoral appointee. That would give the mayor more control, though there would be nothing to prevent his favourite being hamstrung by the board.
A more efficient solution, supported by the powerful teachers’ union, would be to give the mayor power to appoint a majority of the board. A similar remedy has worked well in Chicago, where in 1995 the mayor was given the power to appoint all the members of that city’s Board of Education, and the schools have improved. Unfortunately, in New York, Democratic state legislators say that, in return for giving the mayor more control of the board, the state would increase its fiscal oversight of the school system to prevent the city from making cuts in spending.
In too many New York city schools the buildings are run-down, caretakers steal toilet paper, physical-education programmes are non-existent and qualified teachers (who earn 20% less than in the suburbs) are hard to find. These problems will not disappear if the Board of Ed is reformed. But, in a period of budget shortfalls, tinkering with the board is one of the few cures the city can afford.