Backers of Mayoral Control See a Tough Education Fight

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The New York Sun

With the deadline approaching for the state Legislature to renew or scrap mayoral control of the public schools, defenders of the policy are saying that they have an uphill battle ahead.

For the past six years, Chancellor Joel Klein has said he is committed to insulating his school system from the influence of elected officials in Albany and the City Council, saying decisions should be based on fairness, not political favors. The effort to keep elected officials at a distance was aided by the mayoral control law, which eliminated the community school boards that had been easy avenues for participation.

After pushing the politicians out, Mr. Klein and his supporters now must turn to those same people — some of whom harbor bitter antagonism toward the Bloomberg administration — in their effort to keep the mayoral control law intact after its slated sunset in 2009.

Several supporters of the law said they are concerned that convincing the Legislature could be difficult.

“It’s always a mistake not to prioritize concerns that legislators have, since they will get you in the end,” the president of the Partnership for New York City, Kathryn Wylde, said.

“In this time of the Olympics, there has to be an Olympian effort to improve relationships between the city and Albany in order to maintain mayoral control,” a senior fellow at the Center for Educational Innovation, Harvey Newman, said.

The president of the principals union, Ernest Logan, said he worries that “burned bridges” could threaten some of the positive aspects of mayoral control.

“There are some things that are really in jeopardy, because when you talk to some of the legislators, they are unhappy about how they have been treated,” Mr. Logan said.

The deputy mayor who oversees education issues, Dennis Walcott, said the education department and City Hall have not shut out lawmakers.

“I think the DOE sometimes gets a bum rap in that regard,” he said.

He added: “I know that the chancellor and I have been meeting with legislators in their communities and even talking about ways we can improve that responsiveness.”

Several lawmakers said they find the Department of Education unresponsive.

State Senator Martin Malave Dilan, a Democrat of Brooklyn, described trying to contact the Department of Education’s government liaison office to discuss a problem in a school. “The response I got was, ‘Well the principal of the school is his own CEO. So if the principal couldn’t help you, no one else can.'”

Lawmakers said they are not trying to buy influence or favors, but rather trying to help improve the schools.

“If his definition of politics in the schools are special interest favors, then none of us want politics in the schools. But do we want good information? Yes. Do we want planning? Yes,” State Senator Liz Krueger of Manhattan said.

Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer, a Queens Democrat, asked the same question. “What kind of politics is he trying to take out of the schools?” she said. “Is it when maybe a politician calls and says, ‘Gee, I’d love this kid in this class.’ Is that what he’s talking about? Or is it when I call and say, ‘Gee, what are you doing with the extra billions of dollars that I gave you?'”

Assemblyman Alan Maisel of Brooklyn said he does not want to scrap mayoral control; he wants to improve it by implementing checks and balances that would allow more community participation. “Everybody complains about three men in a room. So what do you think about one man in a room?” Mr. Maisel said. “That’s basically what happens: The chancellor makes the decisions and everybody has to live with it.”

The executive director of Democrats for Education Reform, Joseph Williams, said legislators’ relationships with the department should not determine their positions. “If legislators are prepared to make such an important decision based on whether their feelings were hurt some day three years ago, our kids are going to get hosed once again by the political establishment,” he said.

The New York Sun

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