Last week one state politician said he would revamp mayoral control by changing who makes decisions about school policy. Two others said they are proposing legislation that would take a different approach to reforming school governance, by clarifying the constraints under which current decision-makers must operate.
Two state politicians, Assemblyman Rory Lancman and Sen. Daniel Squadron of Brooklyn, announced last week that they have introduced legislation that would require the city Department of Education to be treated just like any other city agency when it comes to budgeting, oversight by the comptroller and public advocate, and public notification about policy changes. Currently, the department occupies a no-man’s-land between city and state authority, a position that has allowed the DOE to escape some of the scrutiny regularly applied to other city agencies and to avoid following laws passed by the City Council.
Lancman and Squadron say their bill is not meant as a comprehensive way to address the school governance question, which lawmakers must tackle by the end of next month. Instead, they say, it’s meant to close a big loophole in the law that has been open since 2002, when the state gave control of the city schools to Mayor Bloomberg. The loophole allowed the nonprofit organization that raises money for the DOE, the Fund for Public Schools, to avoid disclosing its donors, saying that disclosure rules apply only to groups working with city agencies. The DOE has also used the loophole to justify its decision not to follow state law that says elected parent councils must be consulted before the department can close schools.
Lancman told me he doesn’t expect the bill to become law, in part because it addresses only one component of the school governance question. The final school governance bill will deal with other issues including the makeup of the school board, currently known as the Panel for Educational Policy, and how much input parents should have in DOE decisions. Lancman told me he sponsored a partial bill to raise awareness about the particular issue of whether the DOE should be a city agency. “This legislation is a vehicle for driving this issue into the final bill,” he said.
Lancman and Squadron’s bill would firmly establish the DOE as a city agency. It would rename the chancellor the commissioner of education. It would also give the comptroller and public advocate the power to audit the department’s records and budgets. And it would enshrine the City Council’s right to legislate over the city schools on everything except matters that are part of the DOE’s core educational mission. That exception would mean that the City Council could compel the DOE to put in place an anti-bias program, as the council has twice tried to do, but that it could not prevent the chancellor from putting into place a new promotion policy, Lancman told me.
The bill has already gotten kudos from Steve Sanders, the architect of the original mayoral control bill who announced in October that he would lobby to reform the city’s version of mayoral control. In a press release about the bill, Sanders called the move “important and logical” and said it would not undermine the integrity of mayoral control. “This proposal is eminently reasonable without diluting the Mayor’s decision making prerogatives as provided for in State law,” he said.
And the New York Civil Liberties Union, which has lobbied for more transparency, is also supporting the bill.
“The mayor runs the school system as an unaccountable extension of the executive branch,” said NYCLU Advocacy Director Udi Ofer in a press release last week. “New legislation must require the DOE to operate like other city agencies, subject to the same transparency, accountability and public oversight. New York City’s children suffer terribly when our schools are governed with utter disdain for these core democratic values.” NYCLU released its own mayoral control recommendations today, and making the DOE a city agency figured prominently among them. (I’ll post more about NYCLU’s recommendations later today.)
Lancman and Squadron’s bill follow growing attention to the issue of who has authority over the DOE. Last month, the City Council moved to require the DOE to follow the same contracting rules that other city agencies follow. The department has also ignored some laws passed by the City Council, including one allowing students to bring their cell phones to school, saying the council does not have authority to make laws about the city schools.