Wednesday, May 13, 2009
Accountability - It's More Than Just a Word
“Mayoral control represents Mike’s unique style of governing – one focused on accountability, competent management, and independent, non-partisan leadership.” (Mike’s Record – Education, www.mikebloomberg.com)
"I was hired to make the schools better," Mr. Bloomberg has said. "Hold me responsible." (New York Times, August 26, 2005)
“Today, there are people who disagree strongly with our priorities and who focus exclusively on the mistakes we have made. But whether they agree or disagree, no one questions that the Mayor and I are accountable for the state of our City’s schools.” (Joel Klein, February 6, 2009, testimony before State Assembly Education Committee)
“Then in 2002, the State Legislature…passed the Mayoral Control law, which puts the mayor in charge of the schools. Now parents know who they can hold the accountable for their schools: the Mayor.” (Learn NY website, www.learn-ny.org)
It is indeed fitting that the prospective sunsetting of mayoral control over NYC’s public schools coincides this year with the massively-financed revving up of Michael Bloomberg’s re-election campaign, a third-term bid that contemptuously subverts the twice previously expressed will of the people in voter referendums. Regardless, this fortuitous timing creates an opportune moment to consider the core principle and justification for mayoral control: accountability.
When Mayoral Control of NYC’s public schools became law in 2002, the State Legislature’s primary justification, actively supported by Mr. Bloomberg, was the creation of accountability. The former community school board system was widely perceived as lacking in decision-making ability and accountability, allegedly subject instead to the whims of “interest groups” that put themselves ahead of children. Endlessly and without fail since 2002, the Mayor and his “accountable only to me” Chancellor have uttered the words accountable and accountability more often than a Buddhist monk chanting “Om” on his prayer beads. But what does it really mean?
The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics' definition of accountability opens with the following sentence:
The requirement for representatives to answer to the represented on the disposal of their powers and duties, act upon criticisms or requirements made of them, and accept (some) responsibility for failure, incompetence, or deceit.
Accountability is variously expressed elsewhere in terms of responsibility to and/or for somebody or something, answerability, and liability to be called on to render an account, and the obligation to bear the consequences for failure to perform as expected. Three key elements emerge from these various definitions: responsibility, answerability, and liability for consequences. The Mayor and Chancellor swear to the ends of the earth about responsibility, and they’ve achieved it at least in part by doing everything conceivable to neuter or eliminate anyone, from the City Council and PEP to the UFT and parents, who might seek otherwise. Perhaps sole responsibility is a plus, but what about answerability and liability for consequences?
Here, the answers are crystal clear, and clearly not a plus. Messrs. Bloomberg and Klein have repeatedly behaved (and effectively stated) that they are answerable to no one. Not only are they not answerable, they act with wanton disregard of public input, treating public forums with haughty disdain as little more than obligatory guest appearances in which (in Mr. Klein’s case) his Blackberry is far more interesting than public input.
As to liability for consequences, the Chancellor serves solely at the Mayor’s pleasure and thus stands never to suffer consequences unless the political stakes for the Mayor should somehow demand it. At the next higher level, New Yorkers get one chance to hold the Mayor accountable, during an election that is so blatantly bought and paid for it would shame the worst of banana republics (a feeling which New Yorkers, depressingly, seem not to share). What we’re witnessing these days is the run-up not to an election but to democracy as benevolent dictatorship, purchased by a billionaire technocrat with as much empathy for everyday New Yorkers as Bernie Madoff showed for his victimized investors.
Imagine for a moment Mr. Klein announcing one day that the city’s public schools are now going to teach intelligent design, or that sex education will be reduced to “abstinence only” discussion, or that schools will have a mandatory one minute of silent prayer each morning, or that only high school students with GPA's in excess of 85 will be permitted to take the PSAT in their schools. Exactly how would we hold Mr. Bloomberg accountable under the existing version of mayoral control? Wait for him to decide he wants a fourth term and hope someone can come up with enough millions to keep up with his billions?
Even for those who agree one hundred percent with Mayor Bloomberg’s past educational initiatives, what of the next Mayor (assuming Mr. Bloomberg decides the office is not his to keep for life)? Are NYC public schools always to be held captive to the whims of one individual, giving him or her four years of unrestricted power over children’s education. No one can give a child back even one year of lost or misdirected education.
No matter how Shelly Silver, Chris Quinn, Al Sharpton, Geoffrey Canada, Randi Weingarten, or Mr. Zuckerman and Mr. Murdoch at the Daily News and NY Post slice it, accountability under the current system of mayoral control simply does not exist. Without it, we’re left with mayoral dictatorship and a hugely financed public relations campaign that leaves most New Yorkers spun with one-sided misinformation about the reality of their children’s schools. Along with a Mayor whose response to the question of what citizens could do if they were unhappy with the decisions emanating from mayoral control of schools came down to, "Boo me at parades."
As a former NYC public high school teacher and active parent leader, I simply don’t know how to put it any other way to the members of the State Legislature than to get down on one virtual knee and beg:
Please, good sirs and madams. Please do not allow mayoral control to continue without implementing appropriate checks and balances and at least some real measures of answerability and liability for consequences. Anything less constitutes abandonment of your collective responsibility for the welfare of over a million children and their families.