Unions, Parents, and Mayor Adams Are Battling for Control of New York City Schools

If mayoral control is not renewed in June, critics say, the city’s biggest teachers union will have more power than the mayor over the New York City school system.

Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images
Mayor Adams on April 18, 2023, at New York City. Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

As Mayor Adams pushes to hold on to his authority over New York City’s public schools, state legislators and teachers’ unions are hoping to tighten their grip over the city’s education system and bring back what critics describe as misgovernance by local community school boards.

Mayoral control of New York City schools is set to expire in June after a two-year extension was granted back in 2021 for a system that has been in place since 2002. If it’s not renewed, control of the school system will revert to local school boards, which critics say have historically been unduly influenced by the city’s biggest teachers’ union, the United Federation of Teachers.

Governor Hochul proposed a four-year extension of mayoral control last week, backing Mayor Adams, but a heated fight is expected as the system faces fierce opposition from unions and the state lawmakers. As the future of public school governance hangs in the balance, parental advocates worry about the return of the pre-2002 system, which they say lacked accountability and transparency.

“I feel like it’s very undemocratic the way that it’s being yanked away from Adams because the state legislature is more progressive,” and wants to keep the power to itself, a New York City public school parent, Jean Hahn, who serves on the school leadership team of her daughter’s middle school in Queens, tells the Sun. “It feels like sour grapes.”

State legislators appear to be using the issue of mayoral control as leverage to hold over the mayor in other disputes. State senator Robert Jackson told Politico there would be “big trouble down the road” regarding Mr. Adams’ request for mayoral control if he continues to resist their costly mandate to reduce class sizes. Lawmakers are also up in arms over his education budget cuts amid the swelling costs of the migrant crisis, which has created an influx of more than 30,000 students.

The UFT, with its considerable influence in Albany, is calling for the state to rip control away from Mr. Adams. “It is simply not acceptable,” the union wrote in a December statement, “that one person has blanket authority over the country’s largest school system.” It alleges that “frustrated parents and educators are demanding a more democratic and accountable school governance system” that gives them “a real voice.”

“Hasty” is how a Democratic state senator, John Liu, who supported the extension of mayoral control in July of 2022, describes to the Sun Ms. Hochul’s request for an extension of mayoral control. He notes that New York’s Education Department is conducting a study of city school governance, based on public hearings at each borough, which will not be completed until April.

“It’s an important issue, which is why I think the state legislature would best serve by awaiting the state Education Department study,” Mr. Liu says. “I think it was a too hasty decision for the governor to include it as part of her budget proposal,” which asked for a more than $800 million increase in funding for the state’s public schools. 

Yet, Mr. Liu says, “there is no fiscal correlation to or with mayoral control… so we will remove it from the state budget and consider separate legislation prior to the current expiration of school governance in New York City.”

Based on parental input from the Education Department’s public hearings, “the vast majority of parents want to see an end to mayoral control,” Mr. Liu argues. “What I urge people, parents and all stakeholders alike, is to consider the issue of school governance, how best to operate our New York City public schools into an indefinite future, and not consider who the mayor happens to be at any given moment.”

Depriving Mr. Adams of authority, though, would deprive the school system of a single point of responsibility and again decentralize control across the city’s 32 Community Education Councils, volunteer boards which are located in each school district in the city. Nine of the 11 officers on each board are voted in by city residents, and the other two by the borough presidents, every two years. 

Critics fear the board members might not have much experience in pedagogical and financial management as they are charged with weighing in on academics, budgets, and nearly every other facet of public school education in the district. They also give recommendations to the governing body of the city’s Department of Education, the Panel for Educational Policy, over which Mr. Adams currently has oversight because he appoints a majority of the members.

Scrapping mayoral control, critics say, risks a return to the system of governance that was in place before Mayor Bloomberg secured near-total authority over New York City’s public school system in 2002. “Under the old system,” a research director at the Empire Center, Ken Girardin, tells the Sun, “there was no one for voters to fire if they were dissatisfied with how schools operated because no one elected official was responsible for picking the Board of Education.”  

“Corrupt” is how the co-founder of an education center that advocates for academic rigor in K-12 public schools, Place NYC, and a mother of two children who attended public schools, Yiatin Chu, puts it to the Sun. She explains that the “UFT was very strong. Principal positions, superintendent positions, were often bought. There was no accountability.”

In the 1990s, the special commissioner of investigation for New York City schools, Edward Stancik, consistently found instances of financial and political misdeeds taking place on community school boards. In one report, he found it took two years for a public school in Queens to replace four windows. Another found a school safety officer to be an open member of the Latin Kings gang. Amid concerns over public schools’ ties to gang violence, Mayor Giuliani pressed for the New York Police Department to take over school security. 

The evidence of danger and incompetence at New York City public schools was even acknowledged by the liberal press. “The outrageous tales of corruption,” the New York Times reported in 1996, included “cash bribes paid for principalships, a cabal of top-level educators accused of conspiring to steal a school board election.” That year, the state legislature limited the Board of Education’s power and the system ultimately fell apart.

When Mr. Bloomberg took office, he determined that the schools were being mismanaged. He replaced struggling schools with new and smaller schools in their place, created more charter schools, instituted merit pay for teachers, and made school data public, including report cards, test scores and teacher evaluations.

As the democratically elected head of the City’s executive branch, the mayor is rightly charged with overseeing education for his constituents, Ms. Chu says. “Yes, you have to wait four years if you don’t like what he has done, but there’s still someone you can look to, someone you can protest, someone you can write letters to.” 

Ms. Hahn says that she was no fan of Mr. de Blasio, in part because the former mayor weakened New York City schools’ Gifted & Talented programs in which she says her child received accelerated instruction, and also moved to centralize school governance. “But I wouldn’t want to take mayoral control away from him. I would rather have more oversight and authority over what he’s been doing.” She asserts: “I know who to blame and I will not vote for that guy again.”

Mr. Liu looks to the example of Chicago, where voters in November will elect their first school board members in nearly 30 years. State lawmakers passed a law backed by the city teachers’ union to phase out mayoral control over the next three years. “We can learn from what other major school systems have undertaken,” Mr. Liu says, “in terms of their decision-making and their implementation.” 

Critics point to Mr. Liu’s support from teachers unions as a factor influencing his policy positions on city schools. The New York Post editorial board has dubbed him “a teachers union pet.” Since his first Senate race in 2018, Mr. Liu has received $26,500 in donations from the political action committee of the 600,000-member New York State United Teachers union, The Voice of Teachers for Education, according to figures published by the New York State Board of Elections. “They have him in their pocket,” Ms. Hahn tells the Sun. “And I really am concerned about that.”

Asked by the Sun about this criticism, a spokesman for Mr. Liu, Scott Sieber, said that “Senator Liu considers the wide-ranging views of all stakeholders including the UFT, and has no problem with critics tying him to the UFT since no one understands how best to teach our kids more than our teachers do.”

Indeed, the  “UFT has considerable influence in Albany,” Mr. Girardin explains. They oppose mayoral control, he says, because under that system, “the mayor has more incentive to exercise management’s prerogative over school operations, which is directly opposed to UFT’s interests, which will always be to reduce that prerogative.” The UFT did not immediately respond to the Sun’s request for comment. 

“I don’t think the teacher’s union is working for everyone’s best interest,” says Ms. Hahn. “They’re working for their best interest.” Asked by the Sun how parents might actually get the “voice” for which the UFT purports to advocate, she wonders: “Why isn’t there customer support for parents?” 

For parents of public school children, the incentive is not to play the politics game, but to improve the quality of the classroom in a state that spends more per pupil than any other in America and double the national average. “We are parents who want the best education for our children,” says Ms. Chu, “and a good use of our tax dollars.”

The New York Sun

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