Top state education official criticizes city’s school networks

The next mayor should “reconsider” the current system of school-support networks, State Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said Monday, adding her voice to a chorus of critics – including mayoral frontrunner Bill de Blasio – who have questioned the signature Bloomberg education policy.

“Me, if I were going to take over the school system, I would look heavily to change the networks,” Tisch said during a panel discussion hosted by the nonprofit group, PENCIL.

“I think the networks have basically failed children who are [English-language learners],” added Tisch, who is due to defend the state’s education policies at a state senate hearing Tuesday. “They have failed children who have special needs.”

Under the $90 million network system, principals choose from about 55 Department of Education or nonprofit-run support providers, which assist schools with teacher training, budgeting and more.

The networks emerged as part of a major school-system overhaul under Mayor Michael Bloomberg that shifted power from district superintendents to individual principals, who became more accountable for student performance.

Proponents argue that the network system enables principals to partner with like-minded leaders, regardless of geography, in the process eliminating the patronage system that thrived when superintendents held sway.

But critics charge that some networks do little to aid their member schools, while separating schools from their communities and cutting locals out of the decision-making.

Earlier this year, de Blaiso, the Democratic mayoral candidate who enjoys a commanding lead in the polls, said he was “dubious about whether this current network structure can be kept,” adding later that parents need “to be able to talk to someone at the district level.”

The Republican candidate, Joe Lhota, has not commented publicly on the issue. His campaign staff did not respond to a request for his position Monday.

During the panel talk and in a follow-up interview, Tisch praised much of Bloomberg’s education agenda, such as his support of charter schools, and urged the incoming mayor to “choose from the wonderful smorgasbord of things this administration has done.”

But she singled out the networks as a policy with a mixed track record, saying they had been “hit or miss” in boosting schools, leaving some principals feeling “very lonely and abandoned in their work” – particularly the work of educating students with special needs.

She added that she had yet to find a small-sized support provider that could adequately serve every school in a network spread over multiple boroughs.

“Networks needs to be reconsidered – how they work and how they’re managed,” Tisch said in the interview.

Eric Nadelstern, a former deputy schools chancellor who led the design of the networks, forcefully defended the system in an interview, saying it was at the “center of the reforms” under Bloomberg that raised the graduation rate by 30 percent.

“It’s wonderful that people in authority offer opinions that aren’t aligned with the data,” he quipped when told of Tisch’s comments.

Nadelstern said the networks stamped out the corruption of the district system – where politicians would dole out jobs and school seats as gifts – while also slashing costs, since each network employs about 15 people, compared to some 120 staffers in the old district offices, he said.

He also argued that networks allow educators to collaborate across economic lines and that network staff visit schools much more often than superintendents’ staffs did.

The education department also considers the networks a major advancement over the old districts, even going so far as to hire a consulting firm this year to devise ways to keep the system in tact under the next administration.

Erin Hughes, a department spokeswoman, said Monday that networks “replaced a corrupt, patronage-ridden district structure with teams of professional educators, and turning back the clock would be an injustice to our principals, teachers and students.”

She also said the department added nearly 70 new network coaches and supervisors in the past couple years to aid schools during the special-education overhaul.

Tisch did not recommend specific changes to the network system, but another panelist did.

Ernest Logan, president of the city principals union, said that oversight of schools’ budgets and personnel should be returned from networks to superintendents, which would provide clarity to principals.

“People need a boss,” he said.