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Hearings leave lawmakers more turned off to mayoral control

Technology constraints prohibited me from live-blogging Friday’s Assembly hearing on mayoral control of the city schools, which (for those not following along) is the policy that in 2002 handed near-total education authority over to the mayor — and which is up for renewal this June.

The strong thrust of Friday’s hearing, the last of five that have taken Assembly members on a tour through the boroughs, was that lawmakers are not happy with the system they created. Some have become even less happy during the hearings in every borough over the last few months.

A few flubbed exchanges with lawmakers have not helped the Bloomberg administration’s case. One such embarrassing moment happened one Friday, when officials failed to produce the graduation rate for black males.

Here are some of the highlights from Friday:

  • Thirteen Assembly members attended the hearing, one of the largest showings so far, and I didn’t hear any of them speak positively about mayoral control. Two members made their dissatisfaction most clear. “I can assure you that my opinion has changed a lot in these hearings,” Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell of Manhattan declared, after angrily chastising Department of Education officials during a question-and-answer session. “Talking to my legislative colleagues over the last three months, the question in my mind is no longer if we’re going to make any changes to the law. It’s going to be what changes are we going to make,” declared Mark Weprin of Queens.
  • Deputy Chancellor Chris Cerf declared passionately that the administration is open to making concessions as the legislature looks at mayoral control. “We have never come before this body and said anything other than that this statute is not a scared writ, and we need to work collaboratively with you and with others to improve up on it,” he said. He also pledged that he is in favor of adding on an independent body to study the Department of Education’s data. “I do believe these data, and I would be thrilled to have an independent body looking at them,” he said. “I would be thrilled to get this out of the realm of rhetoric and newspaper coverage.”
  • Interrogation by Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries about the black male graduation rate led to an embarrassing moment when Department of Education officials, who have made civil rights a major component of their rationale for changing the city schools, disclosed that they did not know the black male graduation rate off hand and had not included it in a 20-page packet highlighting their successes. Caught off guard, the lineup of officials issued a series of promises to find the figure, while urgently paging through files before them. Cerf had a extra-large white binder titled BRIEFING BOOK on his lap.
  • Throughout the exchange, the department’s new chief lobbyist, Micah Lasher, appeared distressed. He repeatedly walked briskly up to the table where the officials sat facing the lawmakers, his teeth clenched, and whispered urgently into several of their ears. At one point, he threw up his hands and retreated to a seat just beyond the officials, where he rubbed his sinuses vigorously.
  • Nick Perry, a Brooklyn member of the Assembly, interrogated the Department of Education’s chief parent-relations official, Martine Guerrier, so heatedly that Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott ultimately intervened to stand up for Guerrier. Perry’s questions had to do with several calls he placed to Guerrier’s office on behalf of a parent whose dyslexic child was suffering from bullying. “My office reached out to you: No response. I personally reached out: No response,” Perry said. “I even complained to the chancellor, and I got no response.” He said that he believed the un-responsiveness was one of the problems of mayoral control.
  • David Bloomfield, the Brooklyn College professor who runs a principal training program, challenged the idea that principals are “empowered” under the Bloomberg school reforms. “There are so many mandates that come down from central, budget and otherwise, that many veteran principals who do leave the system complain that they had more discretion under the old system,” he said, “that good principals always found a way to work within that system and now their hands are tied even more.”
  • The issue of how to judge the Bloomberg administration’s success at raising test scores received an extended debate between Assemblyman James Brennan, author of the report I wrote about that challenged the city’s claims, and Marcia Lyles, the deputy chancellor for teaching and learning. Lyles devoted a substantial part of her testimony to challenging Brennan’s assertion that the changes the mayor brought only began in 2003, not 2002. She described meeting personally with the chancellor when he first took over, and being taken aback — but excited and energized — by his high expectations for her schools’ performance.
  • Brennan later countered her claim by interrogating Walcott on when the real changes to the system began. He argued that simply asking Lyles and other superintendents to improve did not constitute the real start of the Bloomberg administration’s school efforts. “An anecdotal or a testimonial that the chancellor wants someone to improve the prior year is hardly the same thing as an entire structural overhaul,” Brennan said.
  • Lawmakers repeatedly raised concerns that charter schools are causing a “two-tiered system” where some students get excellent educations while others languish in failing schools. Education committee chair Catherine Nolan ended Friday’s hearing by highlighting that exact issue — “the growing disparity of a certain group that’s lucky enough to win the lottery, and then everybody else,” is how she described it — and saying she hopes to discuss it more in the future.