Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and Mayor Michael Bloomberg seem determined to throw the baby out with the bath water in their quest to reform the New York City school system.
In 1996, the state legislature removed the power to hire principals and other administrative personnel from community school boards. Last year, Albany lawmakers vested Bloomberg with sole authority over the city’s schools.
Bloomberg, in turn, instituted sweeping reforms of the city school system. The central Board of Education was done away with entirely and replaced by the Department of Education. He and Klein implemented the "Children First" plan, abolishing the 32 community school boards. The districts, which are co-terminant with the school boards, are to be incorporated into 10 regional divisions, several of which cross county lines. Regional Division 3, for example, would incorporate Queens Community School Boards, Districts 24 and 30 and Districts 8, 11 and 12 in The Bronx and District 32 in Brooklyn. District 27 would join Brooklyn Districts 19 and 23. The only regional division which would remain entirely in Queens is Regional Division 4, which would meld Districts 25, 26, 28 and 29. This prospect satisfies no one sending a child to school in any of the four districts.
Parental concerns are legitimate and sound. The supposed complexities attendant upon 32 community school districts, each with its own headquarters, superintendent and staff, pale when compared to the prospect of 10 Regional Divisions and 100 local instructional supervisors, each of whom will oversee 10 to 12 schools. The possibilities for instructional programs, educational policies and children themselves getting lost in the shuffle abound.
Establishing regional divisions superseding community school districts would also result in a marked decrease in parental involvement. It has been proven, not only in New York City, but in municipalities around the nation, that successful schools are schools with high numbers of parents actively involved. Nor need a school be located in an affluent neighborhood. Schools operating on shoestring budgets in some of the poorest neighborhoods in the country still turn out children who score consistently higher on tests, have a lower dropout rate and are more likely to complete secondary and post-secondary education. Almost all the students at some of these schools come from families whose income levels qualify the children for free breakfast and lunch at school. Parents work two, sometimes three, jobs. Yet on Open School nights and at other events calling for parent participation the buildings are filled to capacity. These parents know that their active concern results in their children’s above-average performance.
Teachers, administrators, legislators and parents fear that in contrast, under the "Children First" program the role of parents in the education process would be diminished—indeed, almost completely eliminated. Their misgivings appear to be justified. Parent representatives from the Panel for Educational Policy, which under Bloomberg’s and Klein’s plan, replaced the central Board of Education, say they are consistently kept uninformed about policies instituted by Klein, finding out about them only when asked to rubber-stamp them at monthly meetings. They get most of their information from the mass media. One parent representative keeps her files in the trunk of her car. Another has had to use her dining room table and floor to store her paperwork. The only parent representative with an office is Evita Belmonte, who was provided with office space in Queens Borough Hall by Borough President Helen Marshall--over Bloomberg’s objections. Under state law, the rules governing the facilities accorded parent representatives were implemented to avoid the perks attendant upon the cronyism of the past. Well and good. But the parent representatives are as vital to running the schools as the Chancellor and should be treated that way.
Yes, there has been cronyism and corruption in some school districts. The reforms of 1996 largely eliminated that problem. The 2002 legislation putting the mayor in charge of the schools commendably places accountability where it belongs-on the shoulders of the man in charge. These are positive developments. But creating 10 huge districts, each with more than 100,000 students enrolled in more than 100 schools is not the way to solve the problems besetting education in New York City. We support state Senator Frank Padavan’s legislation to keep the 32 districts, their superintendents and staffs, and we call for maintaining local parental involvement with the schools. The system as it presently exists doesn’t function perfectly, but it works. There is no reason to throw it away.