Educators railed against mayoral control at hearings. What comes next?

A man with no hair and wearing a dark suit, speaks at a podium with his hand up. A white wall in the background.
Mayor Eric Adams in Brooklyn on Dec. 19, 2023. Adams wants to keep control of the city's school system, but community members want changes. (Ed Reed / Mayoral Photography Office)

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As the state’s Education Department studies the effectiveness of New York City’s 20-year-old system of mayoral control, locals aired their views at five hearings held across the boroughs over the past two months.

Over the hours of testimony, a clear theme emerged: Most of the educators, parents, and other community members wanted to see it revised or overturned.

Many voiced grievances against the educational policies of Mayor Eric Adams and his predecessors, arguing the current system places too much power in the hands of the mayor and diminishes the voice of local communities. Meanwhile, defenders of the system, like schools Chancellor David Banks, contended that centralizing decision-making allows for a more effective and accountable system than the fractured school board approach that the city once relied on.

Mayoral control is set to expire on June 30, and the speakers hope their words might influence lawmakers who will soon determine who gets control over city schools. Some observers remain skeptical about whether the hearings will sway negotiations over the city’s school governance structure — particularly as Gov. Kathy Hochul has already called for a four-year extension of the current system.

Troy McGhie, a teacher at Curtis High School in Staten Island, called for further limitations on the mayor’s power over schools during a Monday night hearing in Staten Island. He cited Adams’ recent education budget cuts and his pushback on the state’s mandate to reduce class sizes in New York City schools.

“It’s become quite evident over the years that mayoral control — the way that it is now — is out of control,” McGhie said.

But though dissatisfaction with the current system has been consistent across the hearings, speakers have voiced a range of opinions on how state lawmakers should alter it.

“There’s lots of folks who don’t like some aspects of the current system,” said Jeffrey Henig, a professor of political science and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College. “But there’s way less consensus about what the alternative should be.”

Future of mayoral control remains unclear

Adams questioned whether the testimony was representative while speaking to reporters on Tuesday.

“I’m not a mathematical genius, but having five testimonies or hearings and at most you got 500 people, that’s not a reflection of our school system,” he said. “We have a public school-reared chancellor, public school-reared mayor. We have transformed the school system in what we are doing, and I think we need to continue the success.”

The current school governance system — and critiques of it — predate Adams by decades. Driven by feelings of dissatisfaction with elected school boards in the 1990s, the push to establish mayoral control took hold in a handful of major cities across the country, including New York and Chicago.

In New York City, the system began under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2002, and has been regularly extended in the years since. In Chicago, where mayoral control of schools was established in 1995, the city will transition to a fully elected school board by 2027.

But even with years to look back upon, it can be difficult to determine the impact of the school governance structure.

“That’s been very difficult to decipher empirically,” Henig said. “Partly because of the variation in forms it takes, partly because it’s been hard to separate mayoral control from the particular individuals who had mayoral control.”

There are an enormous number of factors influencing how students perform in school, said Sandra Vergari, a professor of education policy at the University at Albany.

“I would question anybody who claims mayoral control doesn’t work, or traditional school boards don’t work,” she said. “How do you isolate governance as being the thing that really explains student achievement?”

The governance system has largely relied on the mayor’s power to choose a schools chancellor and appoint a majority of members to the city’s Panel for Educational Policy, or PEP, a city board that votes on major policy proposals and contracts.

Over time, tweaks to the system have lessened the mayor’s degree of control. When lawmakers extended it in 2022, for example, they adjusted the system so that PEP members could no longer be removed for voting against their appointer’s wishes, making it harder to remove a panelist for opposing proposals from City Hall. At the same time, the board also expanded from 15 to 23 members, with the mayor appointing 13 of them and retaining the majority.

Calling for deeper changes in school governance

A number of the speakers at the recent public hearings have called for adjusting the PEP’s makeup so the mayor no longer appoints a majority of its members — alleging the panel has served as a “rubber stamp” for the mayor and schools chancellor.

Having a system where a board has “an oppositional mindset to the chancellor,” however, might not be most effective, said David Bloomfield, a professor of education, law, and public policy at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.

“There will always be a substantial number of opponents to controversial decisions,” he said. “You do want an effective and broadly representational decision-making process, but how that plays out in terms of the decisions themselves is, I think, wholly based on individual circumstances and not predictable through the governance system.”

Bloomfield has instead advocated for the City Council to take on an oversight role in the city’s school governance system.

Some have called for a longer term approach to changing the city’s school governance structure. The Education Council Consortium, a grassroots group of parents, advocates, and other community members, has urged the state to form a commission made up of parents, students, educators, researchers, and advocates to develop recommendations for a new system.

“It’s a very complicated system, and those who have been involved in this work for a long time know that sometimes changes are made, and there are unintended consequences,” said Jonathan Greenberg, a parent leader who serves on the group’s board. “It’s really important to get a wide swath of people in the room over time to see what we can do to balance out the various needs that different stakeholders have, and learn from the mistakes of the past.

“But the one guiding principle for us is this idea of a more democratic system,” he added.

A school governance overhaul may be unlikely, some observers say

Though Monday marked the conclusion of the public hearings, it will still be some time before the state’s findings are released. The state Education Department’s forthcoming report is expected to be finished in March — and in the meantime, some lawmakers have stressed deliberations should wait until after the release of the report.

State Sen. John Liu, a Queens Democrat who chairs the senate’s New York City education committee, said the study would examine 20 years of mayoral control in the city, as well as the experiences of other school systems that have reversed course.

“I heard a tremendous amount of opinion and insight from a wide range of stakeholders about how to improve our system of school governance at the public hearings, and look forward to receiving SED’s final report in the Spring,” he said in a statement.

Some observers remain skeptical that lawmakers will implement sweeping changes.

Bloomfield said he expects mayoral control to persist largely as it exists now, with potential tweaks to lessen the mayor’s degree of control.

“I don’t see the appetite in the legislature for any massive change in school governance,” Bloomfield said. “Certainly nothing that the governor says shows that she wants any large change.”

Regardless of which governance structure the city adopts moving forward, Henig noted a longer-term system could benefit the city’s schools.

“No matter how you feel about the existing structure or its earlier iterations in New York, the fact that the rules of the game are constantly up in the air and awaiting what the legislature is going to do this time,” he said, “I think there’s a cost to that kind of uncertainty.”

Julian Shen-Berro is a reporter covering New York City. Contact him at jshen-berro@chalkbeat.org.

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