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Op-Ed: New York city Mayoral Control: A Call for Action Now

August 3, 2009

Image removed.I came to this country from Lagos, Nigeria because, like many immigrants, I wanted my children to have a better education. I assumed this would be accomplished by registering them for attendance in the local City schools.  I quickly learned, however, that the school system was rife with problems: low-test scores, overcrowding, high-crimes rates, low-teacher-student morale and overall poor management.   This was 1993, the system was decentralized with 32 local school districts, each with its own school board.  Each district had its own curriculum, with competing interests and priorities. Some districts had more power and influence than others.  Those districts were able to get more resources for their schools.

 When it came time for decision-making there was a lot of chaos and infighting. When things went wrong, which they did often, there was a lot of finger pointing.  No one took responsibility. Not surprisingly, many low-income districts suffered.

My experience as President of the Community Education Council in District 32, and as the PTA President and Vice President of District 32s Presidents Council, has shown me that a primary reason for the system’s failure was lack of accountability. Control of the schools was spread out among so many people and offices that no one had to claim responsibility. Trying to hold someone accountable was like trying to grab hold of moving water: impossible.

 Fortunately in 2002, the law governing control of the schools was changed, putting the mayor in charge and making him fully responsible for its failures and successes.

 Since that time I have witnessed the steady improvements brought about by mayoral control.  Graduation rates have improved, math and English test scores have risen, school crime has gone down, and that stubborn problem here in America referred to as the achievement gap between black, Hispanic and white students, has diminished.

There is also less classroom overcrowding, a more uniform curriculum, and all teachers must now be certified to teach in their subject areas.

Most importantly, teachers, principals and all who are involved in the school system know they will be held accountable for the successes of the children and schools in their charge.  Principals also know where to turn when things go wrong:  To the mayor’s office.

It is for all these reasons that I was deeply troubled when a month ago the New York State Senate failed to vote on a measure renewing mayoral control.  This caused the law to expire and our city to enter dangerously uncertain territory about who would govern our schools come September.  Would it be a return to the old failed system of decentralization or would the Department of Education be locked down in litigation about exactly who would govern and how?

Though it is not yet a done deal, there is now cause for hope with the announcement late last week that the Senate and the mayor’s office have reached a tentative deal to continue mayoral control.  All that’s left is for them to reconvene—they’ve adjourned for the summer—to vote on the new law.  Until that happens New York’s children and parents cannot afford to rest easy.

 The new law will include greater transparency of school finances and policies and an independent audit board to evaluate test scores and other school performance data—all measures in response to parent concerns.  It will also require a parent training program to teach parents how to become involved in their children’s education; as well as more clarity regarding district superintendents’ review of their principals.  Schools will be required to hold at least one public meeting on school safety per year, and an arts advisory committee will be created to review the role of the arts in education.  

Educators from across the spectrum agree that the proposed legislation is in the best interest of New York’s children.  President Obama’s Education Secretary Arne Duncan has endorsed it, and Randi Weingarten, the former President of the United Federation of Teachers helped in the negotiations.

We Africans have a vested interest in this issue. We have traveled great distances and endured many challenges to get a new start in this country.  We know that our children must begin with a solid foundation if they are to enter the playing field properly equipped to compete.  Governance of our schools is central to that success.

It is for this reason that I believe the Senate has acted wisely in agreeing to continue mayoral control. I, my children and the children and parents in my community, commend them for supporting a policy that the majority of New Yorkers have said we want for our children.

Still, it is past time for the final signoff.  The Senate needs to meet quickly and resolve this matter.  The future of our children hangs in the balance. With only several weeks to go until the start of the new school year educators need a resolution so they can properly prepare for the coming school year and get back to the business for which they were hired: teaching your children and mine.

Parents who are interested in contacting their senators about this issue should visit, look up the name of your district representative and call or e-mail his or her office. Let your representative know that we applaud their decision to renew but need them to sign the law into being before the school year begins.

 Abiodun Bello is the Educational Chairman of the UAC and a member of the Board of Directors.

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