unanswered questions

On mayoral control, comptroller doesn't fully show his hand

In its review of mayoral control, lawmakers should force the city Department of Education to follow the same financial transparency rules as other city agencies, Comptroller William Thompson said today at Manhattan’s Assembly school governance hearing.

But on the all-important question of whether the mayor should control a majority of the seats on the school board, currently known as the Panel for Educational Policy, Thompson said nothing. According to Elizabeth, when reporters pressed him on the point after his testimony, Thompson declined to provide a straight answer. This separates Thompson from Rep. Anthony Weiner, currently his main rival in the mayoral race. Weiner believes that the city schools should remain firmly in the mayor’s control.

Thompson urged lawmakers to clarify whether the DOE is officially a city agency and to require independent analysis of DOE data and measures to help parents to get involved in school leadership.

Thompson also described how, as president of the city’s old Board of Education, he helped build a foundation for the constrained form of mayoral control he now supports. “In short, we laid the groundwork for a more centralized management of our public school system that helped clear a path towards mayoral control,” he said. “But in doing so we prioritized two things that are currently missing from the current administration’s approach — transparency and parental involvement.”

Below the jump, Thompson’s entire testimony as it was prepared.


Good morning, Chairman Nolan and members of the Education Committee….Thank you for giving me this opportunity to testify today regarding governance of the New York City School District.I want to make clear at the outset that I have always supported mayoral control….But as the sunset of the law draws near, it is imperative that we review school governance as practiced under the Bloomberg administration.

This is a subject of great concern to me, not only as a New Yorker and a product of the New York City public schools…but because as Comptroller I am mandated to audit all city agencies.

Recent audits conducted by my office have found numerous failures in basic governance at the New York City Department of Education.

In the past two years alone our audits have found that the DOE:

  • failed to monitor and track the provision of special education services effectively;
  • failed to adopt effective controls to ensure that violent incidents at city high schools are reported to the State Department of Education;
  • failed to provide both vision and hearing screenings in accordance with regulations due to lack of oversight;
  • failed to exercise necessary controls over universal pre-K payments to non-public schools in Brooklyn and Staten Island; and,
  • failed through its Office of Pupil Transportation to effectively record and follow up on school-bus-related complaints.

Among my duties as the City’s Chief Financial officer, I have also been particularly attentive to fiscal accountability at the Department of Education.

As many of you know, through my office’s responsibility for registering City contracts, I play an important role in ensuring that the laws and regulations designed to encourage fair and open competition are followed.

Under the tenure of this Department of Education, however, the use of non-competitively-bid contracts has soared all out of proportion, with a cumulative total of close to 300 million dollars since Mayor Bloomberg entered office.

How did they get to this point? The DOE refuses to adopt a set of formal procurement rules similar to those followed by every other City agency – a process that is open and subject to public comment and accountability.

Contracts at all other City agencies are subject to the rules of the Procurement Policy Board, which takes a deliberative approach to developing policies under which the City procures goods and services….There is discussion, debate, and an open forum through which the public can comment.

This is a process that, while not always perfect, is at least transparent.

By contrast, since the Board of Education became the Department of Education, it has exploited a gray area in the law … one that allows it to treat itself as a State agency whenever it is convenient to do so … and then as a City agency when it is likewise convenient.

The Department has even taken the position that it is not required to register its contracts with my office if it does not want to — a position I obviously disagree with.

That is neither good government nor good public policy, and has led to a number of questionable contracts in recent years.

In May 2004, I recommended State legislation to make the Department subject to the same procurement rules as every other City agency….Rather than pass a new law, elected officials in Albany encouraged the DOE to work in good faith with my office to resolve the problem voluntarily.

And yet despite the best efforts of my office, the DOE has continued to process millions of dollars in contracts outside of the competitive bidding process….As you consider extending mayoral control, I urge you to make the New York City DOE transparent and accountable once and for all.

When I was President of the Board of Education, I adamantly pursued accountability in our public education system. ….Indeed, such accountability was exactly what I was attempting to bring about when I pushed for a series of reforms in 1996.

As many of you will remember, at that time — some 25 years after the schools were decentralized in 1969 — the system was fragmented….Lines of authority were blurred, there was little accountability for educational failure, and local boards were mired in corruption.

We felt that if the Chancellor was to be held accountable for educational performance, then he or she must be given clearer authority. … We stripped individual school boards of the responsibility for day to day operations of schools and gave that power to superintendents.

The Chancellor in turn was given a more direct role in the selection of individual superintendents and gained the authority to intervene in schools that were failing as well as to transfer or remove principals.

We mandated School Leadership Teams in every school — made up equally of parents, teachers and administrators — that injected more accountability at the school level.

In short, we laid the groundwork for a more centralized management of our public school system that helped clear a path towards mayoral control. … But in doing so we prioritized two things that are currently missing from the current administration’s approach — transparency and parental involvement.

As we look ahead to the sunset of mayoral control we should reauthorize the law, but we must reform and strengthen it.

While Tweed has trumpeted gains in test scores and improvements in city graduation rates, concerns over data manipulation have arisen. … For the years 2003 to 2007, National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, tests have shown no gains in 4th grade reading, 8th grade reading or 8th grade math for black, white, Hispanic and lower-income students. [1]

That is why I support using an independent body to audit test scores and graduation rates. … If the public is to trust the city’s claims of gains, we must remove both the incentive and the opportunity to manipulate results.

At the same time, parents, who have an enormous stake in their children’s educational success, MUST have a true voice in the decisions that impact their children’s schools. … Every study indicates that parental involvement equates with student achievement.

The DOE has failed to ensure that School Leadership Teams have an effective role in influencing school policy. … Last year, the department’s own Office of Family Engagement and Advocacy found that only 51 percent of the schools it surveyed have a functioning leadership team.

Indeed, most parents do not even know what School Leadership Teams and Community Education Councils are. … I recommend that State Education Law require that all parents receive a brochure, translated into relevant languages when necessary, at the start of each school year explaining what these bodies do.

I also recommend that State Law require that schools post their Comprehensive Education Plan — the school’s blueprint for setting its goals and identifying specifically how it will achieve them — online, maintain a copy of the plan in the school’s general office, and inform parents by letter where they can review the CEP.

We must also nurture the development of Parent Teacher Associations in our schools.

When the Chancellor’s Parent Advisory Council asked the Chancellor in 2005 to publish a monthly account of how many schools have functioning PTAs, it received press coverage in the New York Times, but no response from Chancellor Klein.

It is high time for the DOE to begin publishing monthly tallies.

This failure to involve parents in the education policy process has reinforced a widespread perception that the department is arrogant and out-of-touch.

With its top-down approach, the current administration has sought to avoid debate and public scrutiny, while fundamental decisions regarding education reform have been made by executives with no education background.

The Department of Education has gone through three reorganizations in six years. … As chief investment advisor to the New York City pension funds, I would identify a company that had gone through three fundamental reorganizations in six years as a high-risk investment.

Let me be clear: mayoral control of the schools, when exercised wisely, is a means of bringing efficiency, transparency and accountability to decision-making, but it was never intended to be a green light for unchecked executive power.

With greater authority and control also comes greater responsibility — responsibility to parents, responsibility to the taxpayers who help to fund our schools, and finally — and most importantly — responsibility to our kids, whose educational achievement and advancement are directly tied to the future economic growth and prosperity of our city.

That is an assignment we cannot, we must not, and — with the leadership and foresight of this committee and others — we will not fail.

Thank you very much.

[1] And 4th grade math results reflect twice the number of students with accommodations than the administration initially acknowledged.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”