Monday, June 19, 2017

Arne Duncan still arguing for mayoral control -- when the trend is in the opposite direction

Arne Duncan - a fan of mayoral control
In the Sunday Daily News , former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan argued for the extension of Mayoral control.  The official legislative session is supposed to end Wednesday and Mayoral control expires at the end of the month.  Yet considering Arne's unpopular and controversial policies this probably is not the most effective endorsement.  He wrote:
"Mayors who are in control of their schools are directly accountable for the success of those schools. Education becomes a key to the Mayors' success. To put it another way, parents are hard to fool and parents vote."
Really? This certainly is a change of tone from Duncan’s earlier condescending remarks that parents only opposed the Common Core standards after finding out that “their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.”
If NYC parents are so hard to fool, one wonders why can't they have the right to elect a school board as voters do in most of the country? 
Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Farina have offered their own unconvincing arguments.  The Mayor has said an era of “corruption and chaos” would return if mayoral control is not renewed: 

Unfortunately a lot of chaos went with that. A lot of corruption went with that. A lot of patronage ... a lot of people went to jail, we’ve got to make sure we never go back to those days.”

Chancellor Farina’s hand-wringing is  even more extreme:

Managers, appointed by the local school boards, inflated the price of contracts to generate lucrative kickbacks that took money directly away from students and siphoned money from taxpayers. One district alone stole $6 million from students, paying 81 employees for jobs they never showed up to. In another, school safety was entrusted to a high-level gang member.

Yet as Patrick Sullivan points out in this blog, mayoral control in NYC has not ensured a lack of corruption.  In fact, several  multi-million dollar fraudulent DOE contracts were paid out while Mayor Bloomberg was in charge, far more costly than anything was stolen during the days of the local school boards.  A huge, potential billion dollar contract was awarded by the DOE in 2015 to a vendor that had engaged in a massive kickback scheme, only to be rejected by City Hall after the media had called attention to it.    Moreover, local school boards lost all power to hire or to award contracts in 1996, years before mayoral control was established, as well as the power to appoint district superintendents. All that authority was given to the Chancellor.  More on that here.  

Arne Duncan famously said in March 2009, “At the end of my tenure, if only seven mayors are in control, I think I will have failed.”"  In fact, no school district in the country adopted this governance system since Duncan made this statement – with Washington DC the last to do so in 2007, according to Wikipedia.

Just this spring, the Illinois Legislature voted to revoke mayoral control in Chicago, Arne’s home town and the first city to adopt the system.  As Chicago residents also found out, mayoral control is no defense against wrong-headed policies, mismanagement or corruption.  In fact, one could argue that autocratic rule makes it even more likely.  Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s first hand-picked CEO of the Chicago public schools, Jean-Claude Brizard, lasted only a 17 months in the job; and the second, Barbara Byrd Bennett, who closed 50 Chicago schools in one year, is now serving an 4 ½  year sentence for kickbacks and self-dealing.

In 2015, Chicago voters overwhelmingly approved an advisory referendum to return to an elected school board, and a bill to do so was introduced in the Legislature.  As one of the co-sponsors, Illinois State Representative Greg Harris explained:
There is only one school district in the State of Illinois that does NOT have an elected school board, and that is the Chicago Public Schools.  Currently all members of the Chicago Board of Education are appointed by Mayor and are not accountable to the parents, students or communities they serve. It is time for a change. That is why I am proud to cosponsor HB 4268 which would change Chicago’s school board from appointees to an elected school board.

We know about the recent pay-to-play scandals rocking CPS. But for our neighborhoods there are so many other reasons that we need to take back control of our schools. We have seen our neighborhood schools losing resources for enrichment programs such as music, art, sports, foreign languages, advanced placement and special education. This year, CPS is proposing over $8.7 million in cuts to schools in our area.

It is also worth noting that at the same time the Board is cutting our schools and asking for a property tax increase, we will be paying $238 million in termination fees to banks and investors to get us out of interest rate swaps and other financial deals that the CPS Board itself instigated.

Mayor Ras Baraka of Newark
Chicago is not alone in its intention to go back to elected school boards.  Detroit just reinstated an elected school board  with the support of its mayor, after many years of "emergency managers" under state and mayoral control.  At least two major cities have successfully resisted adopting mayoral control despite attempts by their Mayors to exert more power: Los Angeles in 2006 and Seattle more recently in 2016. The Mayor of Newark, Ras Baraka, has convinced the New Jersey Governor, Chris Christie, to allow their elected school board to resume authority after 21 years of state control.
So why do Duncan and others of his political persuasion keep promoting this inherently undemocratic system?  Bill Gates poured $4 million into the campaign to allow Mayor Bloomberg to keep control in 2009, as the NY Post then reported for the following reasons:

Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates — a pal of fellow billionaire Mayor Bloomberg — has secretly bankrolled Learn-NY, the group that joined the campaign led by The Post to extend mayoral control. “You want to allow for experimentation.” The cities where our foundation has put the most money is where there is a single person responsible.

Another big supporter of mayoral control, Bill Gates
Surely, it is always easier to only convince one person in charge to allow for untested policies to be imposed on our public schools and students, in the name of “experimentation,” without having to deal with school boards whose members may have different views.  Indeed, the top-down methods preferred by Gates and corporate reformers are far easier to implement without any of the limitations that messy democracy might require.
So what is the alternative?  As much as I’d like a citywide elected school board to replace the rubber-stamp Panel for Educational Policy, elected school boards are no panacea.  In Denver and more recently in Los Angeles and Oakland wealthy financiers, corporate executives and the charter lobby have combined to spend millions to elect school board members who complacently fall in line with their plans for privatization.  (Watch this terrific video if you haven’t yet of Kate Burnite, a recent Denver high school graduate, excoriating the school board for being in the pocket of Democrats for Education Reform and other privateers.)

Perhaps the simplest alternative would be for the NYC Council to be given the authority to provide some measure of checks and balance in an amended system of mayoral control known as municipal control.  Unacknowledged in all the heated rhetoric about the need to retain mayoral control in its current form is that the Department of Education is the only city agency where the City Council has no real power to affect change – or to exert any counterbalance against damaging policies.  

Right now, the City Council can only influence education by passing bills to try to influence policy through more reporting and/or through the overall budget.  The members have no ability to pass legislation when it comes to school closings, charter schools, testing or any of the myriad issues that deeply affect NYC students. The provision of municipal, local control would be a good first step—and because of strong campaign finance laws in NYC it would be difficult for privateer billionaires to hijack Council elections as they have done in school board elections elsewhere, and in the case of the GOP- and IDC- controlled NY Senate. 

Yet the members of the City Council would have to speak up more strongly to gain this counter-balancing authority over the DOE and our schools.  And the State Legislature tends to be very proprietary about retaining their prerogatives over NYC schools, and all too willing to use it as a bargaining chip, as occurs each time mayoral control comes up for a vote.   

The worst outcome of all would be for the Mayor and the Democratic leadership in the Assembly to trade mayoral control for more charter schools or tuition tax credits, as the Governor and the Senate GOP and IDC leaders seem intent on trying to extort.  Let’s hope this doesn’t happen – make your calls now to your Legislators, if you haven’t yet done this already; more on how to do this here.

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