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NYCLU: Lawmakers should stop DOE from being so secretive

Mayor Bloomberg’s school leadership has been characterized by secrecy, defiance of the law, and a heavy hand in school discipline, the New York Civil Liberties Union declared today in a report titled “The Price of Power.”

The report details NYCLU’s experiences with the Bloomberg-controlled Department of Education stalling on responding to Freedom of Information Law requests, refusing to comply with student safety-related laws passed by the City Council, and refusing to provide basic data about military recruitment that the organization said the U.S. Armed Forces provided freely.

The report deliberately avoids some of the major questions of the debate about mayoral control of the city’s schools, including whether the mayor should appoint the chancellor and whether the mayor should control the number of seats on the citywide school board. But it does offer recommendations on the law, which is set to sunset June 30 if it’s not renewed or revised.

The recommendations include making the public school system a city, rather than state, agency, which would bring it under a slate of good governance regulations about public notification of policy changes; opening the school system to audits by the city comptroller and public advocate; and requiring that schools contracts get publicly vetted.

Transforming the Department of Education into a city agency would also allow the City Council to make laws about the public schools that the DOE would be accountable for implementing. Like others recommending changes to mayoral control, NYCLU is saying that the city’s Independent Budget Office should get the right to receive and review DOE data, but the group adds the idea that the department needs an “inspector general” who would investigate systemic wrongdoing.

NYCLU has long been at odds with the Bloomberg administration over its education policies. The organization lobbied for changes to school policing, military recruitment, and public consultation policies. Earlier this year, it was one of several parties suing the Department of Education over its move to redraw zone lines without community input.

A department spokesman, David Cantor, declined to comment on the report.

Donna Lieberman, NYCLU’s executive director, emphasized today that her organization is not taking a position on mayoral control itself.

Instead, NYCLU officials said that the group is proposing changes that would benefit the city schools no matter what form of school control goes into effect in July. “Whatever system state policy makers adopt … it must be a system that includes greater transparency and accountability than the system that currently exists,” said Udi Ofer, NYCLU’s policy director.

Whatever law the state passes in June, it should sunset again in seven years so that lawmakers can learn from their mistakes, as they are likely to this year, Lieberman said. “It may be a political pain in the neck, but it’s really important,” she said.

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