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Wayback Wednesday: Mayoral control, 19th-century style

Yesterday, I attended a hearing about mayoral control sponsored by the New York State Senate Democratic School Governance Task Force. As I listened to the handful of opponents of mayoral control who turned out to rail against the authoritarianism and cronyism they have identified under Mayor Bloomberg’s leadership, I was inspired to think back to 1871, when for the first time the city’s mayor gained total control of the schools, resulting in what the New York Times then called a “demoralized condition” for the system.

In 1869, Boss Tweed, the leader of the infamous Tammany Hall ring, pushed through a law in the state legislature that replaced the city’s popularly elected Board of Education with an interim panel staffed completely by his hand-picked mayor, A. Oakey Hall. In early 1871, a second Tweed-originated law abolished the Board of Education permanently and made control of the schools a municipal responsibility. Oakey Hall’s control of the schools lasted until Tammany Hall’s corruption was exposed later that year; the Board of Education was reconstituted in 1873.

Hall’s appointees brought Tammany’s notorious brand of corruption to the schools, as Diane Ravitch, a leading historian of education, noted in a short history of school governance she recently prepared for Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum’s Commission on School Governance. Ravitch discussed this brief episode of mayoral control in greater detail in Great School Wars, her comprehensive history of the New York City schools, pointing out, for example, that the city canceled its contract with Harper’s publishing house because the textbook supplier had an anti-Tammany Hall reputation, instead awarding contracts to friends of Tweed. Hall’s administration also attempted to cut costs by stripping down the curriculum to the essential subjects — reading, writing, and basic arithmetic — and by increasing the number of students in each classroom, Ravitch notes.

But Ravitch’s words are no match for the what the New York Times had to say about the schools under mayoral control. In March 1871, the Times editorialized against the abolition of the Board of Education:

Read more of the Times’ coverage of the “Decay of Our Schools” from April 1871.

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