Education officials joined Public Advocate Letitia James for the first in a series of town halls on education last Wednesday night, just hours after Mayor Bill de Blasio directly addressed Governor Andrew Cuomo’s controversial education overhaul for the first time.
During testimony on the state budget in Albany, de Blasio called for the governor to permanently extend mayoral control, the system first implemented under the Bloomberg administration that grants the mayor extensive controls over the city’s education system, and which is slated to expire in June.
The debate over mayoral control took center stage on Wednesday night, with local parents and school officials squaring off on the system’s merits.
“I worked for 39 years in the public school system,” said Anna-Maria Thomas, a clinical psychologist and former high school counselor. “My recommendation? Remove mayoral control. We are not being fairly represented. We are paying taxes, but our money doesn’t even get to our children. Give parents back the right to do good by their children.”
Before 2002, the Board of Education comprised 32 school boards of elected representatives, but the system was dismantled under Bloomberg amidst allegations of rampant corruption and concerns that boards were lacking in accountability.
Under the current system, the mayor oversees the system’s operating budget through the Department of Education (DOE), and appoints both the schools chancellor and eight of the 13 members of the Panel for Educational Policy, the legislative body implemented in the school boards’ place.
Natasha Capers, a NYC Coalition for Educational Justice commissioner and mother of two, who sat on the panel of experts, pointed to the fact that many current parents were unacquainted with the past system.
“I think there are parents in the room who very clearly remember school boards,” she said. “I have no idea what that looks like. I want us to be really thoughtful when we say let's go back to the old system, it was really great. We have a whole generation of parents who have no idea what you’re talking about.”
After the meeting, James said the night’s takeaway on mayoral control was that the system needed to be altered, not necessarily terminated.
“I would think the vast majority want to mend mayoral control,” she said. “No one wants to see it stay the way it is.”
What, precisely, that mending might look like monopolized much of the discussion on Wednesday, with James asking panelists for their thoughts on the aspects of mayoral control most often criticized, including accountability, and where parents’ voices could be implemented, among other issues.
“I think what we need here is a certain degree of local control,” said David Goldsmith, president of Community Education Council (CEC) 13.
He suggested establishing a parent commission that would constitute half the seats on the PEP, while a handful of elected officials could appoint the other half.
“Then you don’t have one elected official running the show, you have a real opportunity for real engagement,” he said.
Calls for increased parent and community input in the system were repeated throughout the night. Members of the panel said the lack of control the DOE allowed CEC's was contributing to difficulties recruiting parents to the councils.
“I think the biggest issue is the lack of support the CEC’s get,” said Ellen McHugh, the public advocate’s appointee to the Citywide Council on Special Education. “We get very little training. Local CEC’s are not powerful. Only those of us who are nuts would think about being a part of it.”
“We’ve been fighting all these years and are voices haven’t been heard,” added District 20 CEC President Laurie Windsor. “Now parents are saying, why bother?”
While panelists were quick to commend the work of the DOE, long-simmering tensions between parent boards and the department surfaced throughout the night, with many parents saying the department has historically not done enough to support local parents.
“I know the parents sometimes seem like the enemy,” said Capers, who called for a re-organization of the Division of Family and Community Engagement, with a focus on restructuring the training program and models of parent engagement. “We’re not. I just gave you the best thing I ever did in my life.”
Public Advocate Letitia James speaks a town hall on education she hosted in Brooklyn last week.