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Klein bats away critics’ calls for checks and balances

With the state legislature’s deadline for making a final decision on mayoral control less than two months away, Schools Chancellor Joel Klein himself made an appearance at one of the panels debating the issue across the city.

Sandwiched between assorted people who have called for curtailing the mayor’s power over the schools, Klein, who supports preserving the law intact, fielded criticism calmly.

When other panelists raised arguments about whether test scores and graduation rates were increasing at the dramatic rate touted by the Department of Education, the chancellor shot back with more data.

“In 2002 CUNY enrolled 16,000 students, in 2008 CUNY had 24,000 students enrolled,” Klein said. “I don’t care what you say about the graduation numbers — those are 8,000 real kids whose lives have changed because of the opportunities that are a product of mayoral control.”

Klein reiterated previous statements that he is open to having an independent agency review Department of Education data, like graduation rates and test scores. But he kept the door closed to other concessions. When the teachers union chief operating officer, Michael Mulgrew, asked Klein if he would be willing to consider removing MS 399 in the Bronx from the list of schools slated to close, Klein balked. (Mulgrew had replaced union president Randi Weingarten at the last minute; he is considered her likely successor as president when she transitions to running the national American Federation of Teachers union full-time.)

Mulgrew pointed out that the school’s English test results jumped 20% this year, according to results released last week. Klein initially replied by saying that another school that was removed from the closure list after the union threatened a lawsuit also had a relatively good year, with proficiency rate of 50%. But that should be tempered by the fact that the charter school the city wanted to replace it with saw a proficiency rate of 95%.

When Mulgrew pushed, Klein said he was “willing to engage in a discussion.” “But,” he added, “I want to wait to see the data, I want to see the math scores. I don’t make policy decisions in forums like this.”

In addition to Mulgrew, panelists at the debate, which was hosted by Baruch College, included a Hunter College professor, Joseph Viteritti, who led a commission on school governance whose recommendations Klein and Mayor Bloomberg sharply criticized; a member of the Campaign for Better Schools group; and a parent leader.

Klein was the only panelist who argued for maintaining mayoral control without any changes. Even the organization represented by his strongest ally, Rev. David K. Brawley, co-chair of East Brooklyn Congregations, has called on the state to create an independent advocacy group for parents.

Joining the chorus of those asking for more public discussion before decisions are made, a member of the audience, Martin Needelmann, of the Brooklyn Legal Service Corporation, drew a comparison to Mayor Bloomberg’s eventual embrace of affordable housing in Williamsburg, following a heated debate. Why couldn’t the same back-and-forth process benefit the city schools? he asked.

“There is a big issue here with having an independent board,” Klein said. “We would submit to going back to the old system.” He argued that the old system was better at blocking initiatives than at creating new plans.

“I think he avoided the issue,” Needelmann said after the panel. “The issue I raised was an example of how the mayor is not perfect and some of his appointments are terrible. Schools are different from other municipal services, consulting with parents is critical, and there has to be some power to it.”

Mulgrew also urged more public discussion. “Every policy should have some debate,” he said. “For most policy, it should be clear in terms of what is good for children, but shouldn’t we be sure?”

Leonie Haimson, the executive director of Class Size Matters, agreed with Mulgrew. “The panel tonight, this is what school governance should look like,” Haimson said.