To Renew or Rebuild? Albany Considers Alternatives to Mayoral Control of NYC Schools

New York legislators have until June 30 to decide if they want to extend mayoral control again, and if so, for how long. If they choose not to extend, they need to come up with a new system, since few legislators seem interested in reverting to the school board structure that was in place prior to 2002.

Tom Sheppard, the only elected member of the city's Panel for Educational Policy, at the steps of the Tweed Courthouse building.

Adi Talwar

Tom Sheppard, the only elected member of the city’s Panel for Educational Policy, at the steps of the Tweed Courthouse building.

Tom Sheppard represents roughly 2 million fellow parents in New York City on the Panel for Educational Policy, the 15-member body that functions as the city’s school board.

The Bronx parent of three schoolchildren is the only PEP member voted in by the heads of the city’s largely parent-run Community Education Councils, and so he tries to advocate on behalf of families who have been historically disenfranchised and neglected by the education system, he said. But sometimes he feels outnumbered by the nine PEP members appointed by the mayor, and the five appointed by each respective borough president, and said he doesn’t feel like he alone can represent the diverse needs of all families.

Sheppard wishes there were a larger proportion of PEP members who were elected to represent parents: like six total representatives, elected by the community education councils in each borough and one representing the citywide council for special education.

“You cannot have a single parent that’s supposed to represent everybody in the system,” Sheppard said. “It’s impossible for it to be truly reflective of all the parents in the city and the needs that exist in different places.”

New York City’s school system has operated under mayoral control for the last 20 years, where the mayor appoints and has the power to fire the schools chancellor and nine of the 15 members of the PEP. The state legislature granted a term of control to former Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2002, after years of criticism about the former seven-member school board model–with two members appointed by the mayor and one by each borough president–that suffered from mismanagement allegations.

The legislature has extended mayoral control every couple of years since it was initially granted two decades ago. While Gov. Kathy Hochul backs renewing it once again, state lawmakers did not extend the policy in the state budget they approved earlier this month. They now have until the end of June to make a decision, when the current term of mayoral control is set to expire. Legislators need to decide if they want to extend it again, and if so, for how long. If they choose not to extend, they need to come up with a new system, since few legislators seem interested in reverting to the school board structure that was in place prior to 2002.

Criticism of the mayor’s executive role in the current system has gained traction recently, too: At a hearing hosted by the education committees of the state Senate and Assembly on March 4, the majority of people who testified said they were against mayoral control.

“Mayoral control does not and cannot work because the decision-making power lies with one person at the end of the day,” said Tajh Sutton–the president of Community Education Council 14 in Brooklyn and the director of the youth advocacy organization Teens Take Charge–at the March 4 hearing.

Sutton’s criticism is a common one lodged against mayoral control: that it puts power in the hands of too few stakeholders, and that families, educators and students do not have enough opportunity to participate in school-policy decisions. “What I’ve seen throughout the pandemic is a very small minority of parents who are very well organized being able to make and impact a lot of really important decisions,” Sutton said.

In New York, mayoral control has led to controversial policy decisions. Under Michael Bloomberg, that included closing low-performing schools and expanding the charter network. While Bill de Blasio was largely heralded for his landmark Universal Pre-k program, some of his other educational goals were met with backlash, including his failed effort to eliminate the single admissions exam for the city’s specialized high schools.

Most mayors in the United States do not have control over their city’s schools. Los Angeles, the nation’s second largest school district after New York, has an elected school board. Last year, Chicago voted to transition to an elected school board by 2026, bringing an end to the city’s 150-year stint of mayoral control.

Stakeholders this year have proposed numerous alternatives to New York City’s current model, including: reconstructing the PEP so the mayor doesn’t appoint the majority of members; giving PEP members set terms so they have more autonomy after they are appointed; making the schools chancellor an elected position instead of a mayoral appointee; and even giving control of schools over to the New York City Council.

Lawmakers say their ears are still open to suggestions. Assemblyman Michael Benedetto, chair of the State Assembly’s committee on education, said the legislature plans to discuss mayoral control when they reconvene on Tuesday.

“It was blatantly obvious from what we heard that the vast majority of them wanted us to keep it out of the budget,” said Benedetto, referring to those who testified at the hours-long public hearing on mayoral control last month. “After that, their suggestions were basically all over the place from letting mayoral control expire, to keeping mayoral control just the way it is, to keeping mayoral control but with some tweaks to it.”

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