On day two of the convention he is jointly throwing with Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, the Rev. Al Sharpton ceded his time on a panel to a City Council member who promptly called on Mayor Bloomberg to fire Klein. The panel’s members were a collection of allies of Klein’s, including two mayors who support mayoral control of schools, but Council Member Charles Barron called the system “dictatorial” and “autocratic” and said that in New York City it has actually made the public schools worse.
Barron also criticized Klein, who stood about 50 feet away from him waiting to join the panel, saying that the chancellor lacks any pedagogical expertise. “He definitely should go,” Barron told me after his remarks. “He shouldn’t ever have been hired.”
Sharpton said he asked Barron to speak because he wanted the event, which was sponsored by his National Action Network along with the Education Equality Project he started with Klein, to offer views from both sides of the debate on mayoral control. “If EEP is going to be anything, we’re going to hear all views,” Sharpton said. “The main thing is to change the conversation.” Sharpton yesterday told the New York Times that he supports revising mayoral control.
In his comments, Klein strongly defended the idea of mayoral control of the public schools, saying that it has allowed the city to begin to close the racial achievement gap. Klein made little reference to Barron’s criticsm, but he did make an oblique nod. “How long are we going to continue with all of the adult politics before we help our children?” he asked.
Other panelists included the former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings; the mayor of D.C., Adrian Fenty; the mayor of Sacramento, Kevin Johnson; and the president of the United Negro College Fund, Michael Lomax. All of them endorsed Klein’s view that giving control of the public schools to a mayor rather than a school board allows for more accountability.
Several members of the audience disputed that view. Members of a group that pushes for revising the mayoral control law when it comes up for renewal this summer wore pins supporting their position and passed out fliers advertising their views. Several critics also challenged Klein’s characterization of improvements made under his watch, saying that students are graduating without being prepared for college and that schools lack black history teaching.
A Harlem father, Vernon Ballard, said he lacks a voice in the school system — and leaders are not held accountable — when the mayor has total control.
“There is accountability,” Klein replied. “You have the chance to express your voice here.” Many members of the audience broke into laughter.
There was one opinion everyone seemed to share, first raised by Johnson, the Sacramento mayor who also runs a network of charter schools that recently opened a New York City branch. Johnson explained that he only got involved in politics after he faced political resistance from opening a charter school. “Educating our kids is the most political thing that we can do in this country,” he said.