New York’s schools
A victory for New York’s boss
CONSUMED by inexplicable grief over the death of John Gotti, the city’s favourite celebrity mobster, New Yorkers may have missed an event far more significant and beneficial. After 13 pages of wallowing in the lonely death of the “Dapper Don”, the New York Post slipped in a report headed: “Mike Signs Teacher Contract”. This concerned an offer made by Mayor Michael Bloomberg that the city’s teachers couldn’t refuse, and that may deliver its 1.1m pupils a brighter future.
The contract, which will raise teachers’ salaries by as much as 22%, is not, as it might first appear, a case of throwing money at a problem that has patently not been solved by more money in the past. Nor is it evidence of Mr Bloomberg weakly abandoning, in the face of union pressure, one of the most entrenched negotiating positions held by his predecessor, Rudy Giuliani. Rather it is a shrewd piece of deal-making that bodes well for Mr Bloomberg’s mayoralty.
How could Mr Bloomberg agree to a $1.14 billion pay-off to a municipal union — let alone trumpet it as a victory — in view of the city’s looming $5 billion budget deficit? Because it has bought him a prize that has eluded every previous mayor since Ed Koch: control of the city’s schools. New York’s education politics traditionally resemble a blood sport; Mr Koch himself has heralded the deal, which was signed on June 12th, as “a miracle”.
Much as Mr Giuliani made reducing crime the priority of his tenure as mayor, Mr Bloomberg entered office with his sights set on the city’s ailing public schools. But the Board of Education — the body that (mis)manages the $12 billion schools budget — stood squarely in his way. The board was created in 1969 with seven members (two appointed by the mayor, one by each of the five borough presidents) to decentralise power and increase community participation. Since then it has become a breeding ground of paralysis and patronage, and has turned a blind eye to corrupt practices such as inflating standardised test scores and attendance figures to squeeze more money out of the state.
At first Mr Bloomberg took a Giulianiesque hard line and called for the board to be abolished completely. This was never likely, and was probably only a bargaining stance, since the power to abolish rests with the state legislature, whose Democratically controlled lower body has long protected the board, in part at the behest of their friends in the teachers’ union.
Starved into submission by Mr Giuliani, the city’s 80,000 teachers had seen their real pay plummet in comparison to their suburban counterparts. They had been working without a contract for 19 months. There was growing talk of a strike, and a deal suited Randi Weingarten, head of the teachers’ union, who was able to persuade her allies in state politics to agree to mayoral control of the board.
Bills due to be passed by the state legislature and signed by the governor may give Mr Bloomberg more power over public schools than any other mayor in America. The board will live on, but now with 13 members, eight of them direct mayoral appointees. The schools chancellor, previously elected by the board, will be appointed by the mayor. The 32 elected community school boards, which were especially weak in poor neighbourhoods and often corrupt, will go. Democratic lawmakers stipulated that this new order will last only seven years (enough time for the Republican Mr Bloomberg to serve out two terms). But if the reforms are successful, they will surely survive.
Did Mr Bloomberg pay too high a price for his prize? Sol Stern of the Manhattan Institute, a think-tank, reckons the mayor got about 95% of what he wanted in the teachers’ contract. It streamlines disciplinary procedures to get rid of bad teachers, and adds an extra 20 minutes to the working day. But it has left out Mr Bloomberg’s proposals to reward merit and give better pay and better assignments to the most able (rather than the most senior) teachers. The generosity of the payment may also encourage the other big unions to aim higher in their negotiations with the city, inflating the budget deficit.
The other big question is what Mr Bloomberg will do with the schools. So far he has not revealed much. With luck, he has more ideas than he has so far let on.