Transparency versus accountability. Support versus comprehensiveness. Proponents and detractors of mayoral control over New York City schools still disagree on plenty, though their discourse may not be as venomous as it once was.

Both sides squared off on March 8 at “The Future of New York City Schools: Has Mayoral Control Worked?” The meeting of New York City public school principals was held at the Lowenstein Center on the Lincoln Center campus.

The discussion was sponsored the Fordham Graduate School of Education’s (GSE) Division of Educational Leadership, Administration and Policy. It was triggered by a vote—set for August—on whether Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s office should retain control of city schools.

First to offer their views were Dennis Walcott, New York City deputy mayor for education and community development; and Marcia Lyles, Ph.D., deputy chancellor for teaching and learning.

They were followed by a panel featuring Michael Mulgrew, vice president of career and technical high schools for the United Federation of Teachers (UFT); Ernest A. Logan, president of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators; and James Hennessy, Ph.D., dean of GSE.

William F. Baker, Ph.D., president emeritus of WNET and Claudio Aquaviva Chair and Journalist in Residence at Fordham, served as moderator.

Walcott stressed how dysfunctional the system was before the school system underwent a radical reorganization in 2002.

“The system we put in place is a system of coherence, a system of accountability, a system of reform, a system that drives information not just to the principal, not just to the teacher, but to the parents as well,” Walcott said. “It’s a system that holds me, it holds the chancellor, it holds the mayor, it holds the principals accountable as far as results are concerned. It’s not a system based on politics.”

Lyles spoke about the school district’s high turnover rate when she was a superintendent under the old system. She said she constantly felt pressure to hire friends and relatives of board of education members. Aside from removing those pressures, she said the whittling of 32 districts to 10 regions had brought order where once there had been chaos.

“With 32 districts, there were 32 different kinds of programs going on. Subsequently, there was very little coherence,” she said. “Standards were not necessarily the same from one district to the next. The criteria for accountability was very different.”

In addition to increasing accountability in a coherent and organized fashion, she said, the new system also allows principals to determine what works best in their schools.

“We can work with you; we can support you; we can guide you; we can be there when you need us there; but ultimately, you must be responsive to, and accountable to, the children and the families of your community,” she said.

William F. Baker addresses Michael Mulgrew, Ernest A. Logan and James Hennessy in a panel discussion.
Photo By Patrick Verel

Representing those who oppose mayoral control, Logan accused the mayor’s office and the Department of Education of copping out by saying the mayor is held accountable because he is elected, noting that Bloomberg gets elected for a host of other reasons. Talking about how bad things used to be is not helpful, either, he mentioned.

The union’s biggest disagreement with the current structure, he said, is that it holds schools accountable for student performance, but does not hold administrators accountable for providing guidance to principals.

A suggestion by the UFT that most of the city’s 13-member panel for educational policy be chosen by someone other than the mayor has been rejected, which he said shows that city education officials are not serious about transparency.

“There are a lot of positive things that have happened, but the lack of transparency and the closing out of the community is the biggest issue,” Logan said.

Mulgrew said the expansion of city schools—as many as 40 new schools are slated to open in the next few years—is a perfect example of the opaqueness under which the Department of Education operates.

“If we’re having a budget cut, where we have to split money up between 1,500 schools, why are we adding to the mix to have even less money for each school?” he asked.


Patrick Verel is a news producer for Fordham Now. He can be reached at [email protected] or (212) 636-7790.