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Panel offers school governance history lesson, calls for checks & balances

“All the levers are in the hands of two people… and they don’t have to listen to any of us,” historian of education Diane Ravitch said on Wednesday night at the first of five public forums about mayoral control sponsored by the Parent Commission on School Governance.

Ravitch and her fellow panelists, community organizer and retired educator Jitu Weusi and New York State Regent and former educator Betty Rosa, provided an overview of the history of school governance to a crowd of more than 200 parents, education activists, teachers, and others interested in the future organization of the city school system. The current school governance law, establishing mayoral control of the schools, sunsets in June 2009; the state assembly will begin holding public hearings on the issue in January.

The Parent Commission is planning monthly panels on different aspects of school governance to help answer the overarching question of what model will serve New York’s children best.

Ravitch launched her overview of 200 years of changing school governance in New York with the statement, “You’re in school, here’s your history lesson.” You can read a detailed account in her paper advising the Public Advocate’s Commission on School Governance, but here are a few highlights:

In 1869 Boss Tweed took over the school system, shut down the existing Board of Education, and created a created a Department of Education run by the mayor. When Tweed was jailed in 1873, reformers returned power to an independent Board of Education, however, all members were appointed by the mayor and no school officials at any level were elected. The boroughs were consolidated in 1898 to form the City of New York, and a central board was created along with 4 boards representing the boroughs (Manhattan and the Bronx were combined). Conflict among these boards soon led the state to abolish them and create a large central school board and many small, powerless district boards. This system lasted until 1969, when, in response to the Ocean Hill-Brownsville conflict, a new 7-member central board was created, with 1 elected member from each borough, plus two mayoral appointees. Due to concerns about unfair representation since borough populations varied, elections never took place and instead borough representatives were appointed by the borough presidents. Finally, in 2002, Mayor Bloomberg took over control of the schools, created the Department of Education and reorganized the school bureaucracy.

“At no time has there been so total an absence of democratic participation in control of the schools,” Ravitch concluded, adding that among major U.S. cities, at least two top-performing districts have school boards, two poorly-performing districts have mayoral control, and neither system seems to guarantee a good education to students.

Weusi, who helped organize African-American teachers in Brooklyn’s Ocean Hill-Brownsville section in the 1960s, spoke about the events in that community and across the city that led to conflict between the United Federation of Teachers and neighborhood activists who wanted more control of their children’s schools. Ocean Hill-Brownsville was a “demonstration site” for decentralization, overseen by a local superintendent. After the abrupt firing of more than a dozen teachers led to bitter racial tensions and three teacher strikes, new legislation created 32 weak community school boards headed by a strong chancellor and central school board.

Betty Rosa spoke last, sharing her experience working with students with special needs in District 75 and later, serving as community superintendent in District 8. She said that when she was first tapped to become a superintendent, she hesitated because she felt “the school boards were so focused on adult issues and I wanted to focus on instruction.” Nevertheless, she became a superintendent, inheriting a community school board rife with conflict. She says that she worked hard to unify her board and keep its attention directed to issues affecting children. Rosa said after Mayor Bloomberg began reorganizing the school system in 2003, she resigned, telling the principals she worked with, “I will not let this mayor rewrite my history.”

Moderator Pedro Noguera, a professor at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development at NYU, followed up, asking the panelists to describe the kind of governance structure that would give the community a voice while ensuring good academic outcomes for children.

None of the three panelists had a specific proposal for a new system, but all emphasized the need for checks and balances and better avenues for public participation.

The panelists pointed to flat or falling scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests and high enrollment of city graduates in remedial classes at CUNY, calling into question the stream of good news — a shrinking achievement gap and rising graduation rates, widespread improvement in school progress report grades — coming out of the Department of Education.

“If the mayor is in control, what is he going to say, the schools have failed since I took control?” Weusi said.

Weusi expressed concern about a lack of critical media coverage of the schools. “If you see something, say something? … You cannot say anything about anything you see in these schools,” he quipped.

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