(Class) Size Matters, but Power Matters More

Leonie Haimson

Leonie Haimson needs help. New York’s most passionate education blogger has not appreciably changed the way the city’s public schools are run. A persistent critic of Mike Bloomberg’s educational policies, and president of a group called Class Size Matters, Haimson gets noticed but continues to be shrugged off by City Hall.

It doesn’t matter how many “ordinary” New Yorkers agree with Haimson. City voters have almost no power to shape municipal policy. They lost most of their clout two decades ago when they approved a new government structure that gave the mayor almost sole control over the city’s budget, land use, contracts, and, de facto, over the City Council itself. (Most Council members would deny this.)

Even a local referendum to change the city charter can be preempted by the mayor. Today, New Yorkers usually must resort to litigation or to state intervention to derail an initiative the mayor truly wants.

And with the 1989 loss of the Board of Estimate, the mayor’s historic partners — the city comptroller, the City Council president and the five borough presidents — lost the control over resources they needed to give their board of education appointees teeth.

Faced with this strong-mayor reality, in 2002 the state legislature capitulated to Bloomberg’s arguments to extend mayoral control to include the school system. The board of education was replaced with a Panel for Educational Policy, dominated by mayoral appointees. Bloomberg’s firm grip on the system got renewed in 2009.

Once he had this authority, the billionaire computer systems and business communications magnate used it to “corporatize” the school system. He hypercentralized the education department bureaucracy, marginalized the teachers union, and vastly expanded the role of technology and testing in the public schools.

With the help of Federal education programs such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top and a fiscal stimulus called the New Markets Tax Credit program, which supports charter school construction, Bloomberg has been able to put his imprint on K-12 education in New York City, close marginal traditional public schools, open more charters, and dramatically increase the Department of Education’s use of private sector services.

To critics such as Haimson, this transformation has been largely destructive.

But as compelling as Ms. Haimson’s writing may be, she has had limited impact — probably because her focus has been more on symptoms than on the underlying cause: the huge concentration of municipal power in the mayor’s office.

She needs a counterpart who can focus on a political strategy to convince Albany to rescind or diminish mayoral control and replace it with a more moderate alternative.

This doesn’t need to be a frontal assault. One of the beauties of political power is that it is fungible, so any partial transfer of control from the mayor to other elected officials — over land use, the budget, ethics rulings, franchises, or contracts — could force him to negotiate for political support when he’s making major education policy decisions.

Of course, that may frighten other elected officials. Once they are perceived as affecting school policy decisions, they, like the mayor, could be blamed for anything that goes wrong. The borough presidents, the comptroller, the Council, and the public advocate may be more content to stay out of Leonie Haimson’s sights and let the mayor be her sole target.

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