There is no service provided by government more important than public education and no aspect of government over which the public has less control. Under the current system, there is no one who can be held accountable for the quality of our public schools. This has to change.
Compare education with the host of services in New York City that are under the direct control of the mayor. If the streets are dirty, the finger is pointed at the Department of Sanitation. Since the mayor appoints the Sanitation commissioner, the responsibility for clean streets belongs to City Hall. When crime raged out of control in New York City, the voters blamed Mayor David Dinkins. When crime was nearly cut in half, Mayor Giuliani took the credit. When it comes to public safety, economic development and even potholes, the buck stops on the mayor's desk. But when the discussion turns to overcrowded schools and low reading scores, no one is held accountable.
Yes, there was talk about the failures of Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew when the central Board of Education voted 4-3 recently not to renew his contract. However, no one, not even Crew's most outspoken enemies, believes that the schools chancellor has the authority or power to run the school system. Crew had to answer to a seven-member board, five of whom are there to do the bidding of the city's five borough presidents. As such, each board member represents a special interest group and the welfare of all of the children in the city's public schools always comes second. This is a system born of good intentions but destined to fail. Imagine how police would be deployed if a board such as this ran the NYPD.
The quagmire grows even more murky when one examines the School Construction Authority. The SCA was created to take the building of new schools out of the political arena. That sounds good, but like most authorities, the SCA is accountable to no one.
Nearly everyone agrees that the mammoth bureaucracy at 110 Livingston St. is not working. Whether one favors burning down the house or just selling it, the central Board of Education has to go.
Currently there are at least two proposals on the table for changing the system that runs the city's public schools. The first is to make education a mayoral agency. The mayor would appoint an education commissioner and, if the schools are not doing well, the people would know exactly whom to blame. Should this happen, there would be no more important issue in future mayoral campaigns than the quality of the schools.
Under the second proposal, the central Board of Education would be divided into five independent borough boards. The principle here is that the city's public school system is much too large to be run by one centralized board. A Queens board would be empowered to deal with the unique challenges facing a borough that continues to grow. At present, there is no plan to compensate for the influx of immigrants into this borough, even though the problems we are experiencing today were clearly foreseeable.
Both proposals have their merits. Either would be an improvement and would add a measure of accountability. The question now is whether the state Legislature can do the job. We have little hope that a body that has not delivered a budget on time in 15 years will find the courage and energy to enact the needed reforms. For the most part, our state senators and assembly members are content to busy themselves with photo ops and other ceremonial duties. Little of substance gets accomplished and reforming the school system would present a monumental challenge complicated by powerful competing interests. It is likely that nothing will get done unless the voters make it clear that breaking up the city's Board of Education is something that has to be done.
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