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Los Angeles Times


PR But Not the 3 Rs

March 25, 2006

By Sol Stern

RESIDENTS OF Los Angeles and other cities in the L.A. Unified School District are understandably frustrated by the sorry state of their public schools. But before they turn over control of the school system lock, stock and barrel to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, they ought to consider the New York City experience with mayoral control. It's not quite as rosy as Villaraigosa would have you believe.

New Yorkers also came to support mayoral control after years of frustration with a dysfunctional board of education. The theory was that a mayor's political future would be endangered if voters felt that he presided over continued education failure, thus motivating him to press harder for school improvement.

But what mayoral control has given New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is the means to shape the education debate on his own terms -- to deflect criticism, dominate the media and use the schools as campaign props. After all, he now has absolute power over a $17-billion education empire that doles out jobs and no-bid contracts and that spends millions on a well-oiled public relations machine while disdaining independent research and evaluation of its new classroom programs.

His administration has cut off the flow of essential information to the media, to education reform groups and to scholars -- the institutions and people that citizens normally count on to help them make informed judgments on school performance. Thus the mayor could sell most New Yorkers on the falsehood that students were making significant academic progress.

The most egregious case in point: the administration's hyping of fourth-grade reading scores just a few months before last year's mayoral election. In 2005, the percentage of city fourth-graders who demonstrated proficiency on statewide tests rose 10 points, to 59.5%. Bloomberg trumpeted this rise as "historic" and "record-setting."

But the fourth-grade test-score gains proved to be illusory. For starters, 2005 scores rose significantly throughout the state. In large urban districts, such as Rochester, Syracuse and Yonkers, they went up by even higher percentages than in New York City. Because none of these districts had switched to mayoral control or used the Bloomberg administration's new programs, there's no logical reason to credit Bloomberg for the city's gains.

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