The most important action the Legislature must take in the waning days of its session is to pass a three- or four-year extension of mayoral control of the New York City school system, which expires on June 30. After the terrible educational losses that many students have suffered during two years of the pandemic, failure to continue what has been a largely successful reform of school governance would be completely irresponsible.
Prior to mayoral control being enacted in 2002, responsibility for public education was split between the mayor and a seven-member Board of Education that was appointed by six different elected officials. The mayor was responsible for negotiating labor agreements and the budget, while the board hired and fired the chancellor and oversaw education policy and operations. Community school boards throughout the city were their own fiefdoms, where petty politics and corruption were all too common.
That arrangement was the height of dysfunction, which distracted from the educational agenda and contributed to declining student outcomes. Because no elected official could be held accountable, the diffuse, permanent bureaucracy almost always carried the day. Ultimately, the reported high school graduation rate for Black students fell to less than 20% in the 1990s.
I attended public schools in Southern Queens and got a pretty good educational foundation back in the 1960s. I was lucky. During the 1990s, as the CEO of one of the city’s large employers, I looked to our schools to produce graduates who could go on to college or other advanced training and move into successful careers. The system let me, and the students, down. As a result, businesses were recruiting talent from everywhere but our local schools.
Mayor Adams and Schools Chancellor David Banks, both products of the city’s public school system like me, understand that we can’t have an equitable economy unless the schools prepare children from all income levels and backgrounds to excel. All kids need to be prepared to get good jobs, including in the fast-growing sectors that are likely to dominate over the coming generation.
Our legislators often lament the inequality of opportunity ingrained in our city. I submit that there is no better way to attack the problem at its roots than to give our school system the tools to combat the deeply unequal educations kids receive, almost entirely based on what neighborhoods they happen to live in.
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Sometimes we get stuck in long debates about whether a certain policy idea works. In the case of mayoral control, there’s really no question. During the two decades since we consolidated school management under the mayor, we have seen significant improvements in student outcomes and the quality of school leadership. Using the state’s methodology for calculating graduation rates, the citywide graduation rate has increased more than 30 percentage points under mayoral control. The high school graduation rate for Black students improved to 76% in 2021, and the gap between graduation rates for Black and Hispanic students compared to white students contracted from 25 points in 2005 to four points in 2021.
And it would be strange indeed if a Legislature that gave mayoral control to Mike Bloomberg and kept it under Bill de Blasio, both of whom hailed from Boston and from comfortable middle-class homes, were to suddenly yank it from Adams and Banks.
These two leaders not only graduated from New York City public schools; they come from the communities of color that have suffered the most from decades of mismanagement. Banks made his career as an educator building a network of schools to lift up young Black men.
Since they took over, Adams and Banks are already taking the actions necessary to repair the damage of the pandemic and bring students to new levels of achievement. In recent discussions with both the mayor and the chancellor, I have been impressed with their combined commitment to improving educational outcomes for our schoolkids. For example, their recently announced expansion of the city’s gifted and talented program will make this important program available to students in every community citywide for the first time.
So too, their push to improve literacy instruction and help kids who are struggling with dyslexia as early as possible is important, and, if well-executed, should pay huge dividends in reading proficiency.
In this and other areas, they have acted quickly and in unison—something that is only possible with centralized and coordinated control of the school system. Any action by the Legislature that dilutes their ability to be held fully accountable and make decisions without political interference will jeopardize the progress that has been made over the past 20 years. The Legislature absolutely must extend mayoral control. In fact, it should make it permanent and stop requiring majors to go begging to Albany every few years to maintain the accountability that should come with the job.
Parsons is senior adviser at Providence Equity LLC.