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Manhattan Institute

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Renew Mayoral Control, No Strings Attached

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Renew Mayoral Control, No Strings Attached

New York Daily News June 16, 2017
Urban PolicyNYCEducation
EducationPre K-12

An opponent of de Blasio's school leadership says this is an easy call

The state Legislature is yet again considering whether to renew mayoral control of New York City’s schools. It should reauthorize the system for an expansive period of time and without condition.

I write this despite having been among the more vocal critics of the de Blasio administration’s education policies. My research has demonstrated that the administration’s gutting of the Bloomberg-era accountability system eliminated a powerful and effective incentive for the city’s lowest performing schools to improve.

I’ve written extensively about the administration's unnecessary and counterproductive war against the city’s charter school sector. More fundamentally, I’ve been continually disappointed by this administration’s disregard for high quality empirical research that produces findings that are inconsistent with its worldview.

But the structure by which the nation’s largest school system operates is a bigger issue than this or any mayor. Mayoral control is the most effective governance structure for a large and complex urban school system. The mayor is simply in a better position to lead and be held accountable for the performance of a major city school system than is any other elected official or legislative body.

Public education is an essential service that takes a massive portion of the city’s budget. A substantial proportion of citizens have either direct or indirect contact with the city’s schools. Consequently, similar to the way the Presidents are held accountable for the economy, the mayor gets the credit or the blame for the school system’s performance in the eyes of the public, regardless of his actual influence.

But while Presidents likely have at best only a marginal impact on GDP growth, mayoral control aligns this unavoidable incentive to focus on improving education with the authority to enact the administration’s vision for doing so.

Mayoral control is a far superior system to the decentralized system it replaced in New York City. Dispersed authority makes sense within the context of expansive choice and competition where parents can vote with their feet for the best schooling option. In such an environment, lack of a central authority allows for the creation of a variety of schooling options and provides for a natural check on quality as ineffective schools fail to attract students and are forced to close.

The experiment with such a system in New Orleans has thus far produced substantially better results than what was there pre-Katrina.

Maybe Gotham will have that someday. But not today. As long as we have a massive bureaucratic school system, it is essential that there is a single captain steering the ship.

Mayoral control shouldn’t be set in stone, though. Good ideas can eventually outlive their usefulness. And the rest of the state’s taxpayers have a right to check in now and again instead of simply writing an unending series of blank checks to New York City’s schools.

But the yearly spectacle of asking the mayor to justify control over the city’s schools is a plainly politically motivated distraction that unnecessarily introduces uncertainty into the already difficult problem of operating the nation’s largest public school system. A rolling reauthorization period of four to six years would buttress confidence in the structure while also providing the legislature an opportunity to intervene if things really come off the rails.

This piece originally appeared in the New York Daily News

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Marcus Winters is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and an associate professor at Boston University. Follow him on Twitter here.

Photo by Pool / Getty
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