An Examination of Public Education through the Experiences in New York City - Mayoral Control is not the Solution

When a change of the bureaucratic management system is the avenue pursued to bring about change in public schools, the new bureaucrats must remain focused on what needs to change to improve the student's education rather than just get caught up in changing the structure. A highly publicized bureaucratic change over public education is continuing to unravel in New York City. The Board of Education was considered inept: “The New York City Board of Education has failed to prevent the local decentralized school districts from mismanaging their budgets, ignoring ethical standards and often placing politics ahead of educational concerns, education officials, union leaders and representatives of community watchdog groups say” (Buder). It is this great mismanagement that led to only 50% of New York City students graduating from high school within four years (Greene). The main source of the problem might very well be the bureaucracy, yet changing forms of governmental management and style has done little to change the performance of the students. Mayoral control over education, although gaining popularity, is not the answer to the problems facing the public educational system in New York City nor in other cities around the nation.

Different approaches to improving education have been tried throughout the United States. Some cities have tried to bring about positive change by placing successful professionals (businessmen, lawyers, government officials, politicians, etc.) into authority to bring about positive change in failing public education systems (Ravitch, The Brookings Insitution). It is thought that a different perspective will bring about positive change. Another alternative that is being implemented throughout the United States is to free school systems from the government bureaucracy through charter schools, freeing the principal to experiment, or offering school vouchers. Lastly, the approach that is currently in vogue among many cities is to shift control of public education to the mayor.

During his campaign in 2001, the future Mayor Bloomberg ran on a platform to reorganize and streamline the educational bureaucracy, install back to basics in math and reading, eliminate bilingual education, increase parental choice, institute merit pay for teachers, demand greater accountability for teachers, principals, and the heads of education, give teachers greater control over how they teach, and reduce the educational system red tape. Although the ideas for change were lofty and exciting, the disconnect between idea and implementation caused the New York City school system to produce the same results - a lackluster graduation rate and inferior scores on nationalized tests. According to the most recent report released by the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics, New York City has shown no gains in 4th grade reading, 8th grade reading, or 8th grade math during Bloomberg's tenure as mayor and head of the public education system (Lutkus, Grigg, and Dion). “There were significant gains in 4th grade math, but the rate of 'accommodations' (eg. giving extra time) was so high for NYC (25% of the students taking the test received accommodations), that some testing experts doubt the validity of the gains” (Ravitch, “Re: A Question for Diane Ravitch”).

Despite all of the planning, bills passed, reorganization, and heavily-promoted press conferences, the New York City public school student is in the same situation that he or she was before the many changes that Bloomberg implemented. Through his initial changes in the Children First Initiative of 2003, Bloomberg overhauled curriculum to focus on the basics of math, reading, and writing, streamlined the bureaucracy to make it more efficient, provided parent coordinators in every school to give the parents a line of communication to the new Department of Education, and began a leadership academy to recruit and train new principals (Ravitch, The Brookings Insitution). In early 2007, Bloomberg revisited some of the previous changes and made further changes. The most dramatic of these new changes was to give principals more power, base teachers tenure on the test results of their students, and equalize the spending per student to also include the salary of the teachers (Garland).

This last change might be one of the most critical in that with more money, the less desirable schools can reduce the class size for the students. The Brooklyn High School of Science has math classes with an average size of 32.5 students per class for ninth graders and 29.2 students per class for twelfth graders while the El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice has an average math class size of 19.3 students per class for night graders and 16.0 students per class for twelfth graders. The difference in class size is staggering. There is no consistency throughout the system. The average math class size in the city is 27.1 students (New York City Department of Education). The National Education Association recommends class sizes of no greater than fifteen students in regular programs (National Education Association, “Class Size”). Only a few of the math classes in the city of New York meet that standard. The city numbers for class size are in stark contrast to the state's numbers. According to National Center for Education Statistics, the state of New York averaged 14.3 students per class during the 2001-02 school year (McGraw Hoffman 16).

This last round of changes differs greatly from the first round in that they are focused more on what happens in the local public school rather than in the transformation of the Board of Education into the Department of Education and other lofty changes; however, the mayor still seems to be missing the main changes that needs to take place to really improve the NYC public schools: He does not address what is a great teacher and what creates a good education. The bureaucratic structure is irrelevant as long as a good, solid education is connecting with the students in the classroom. Cities are using many different forms of bureaucratic structure from mayoral control, to board control, to any sort of compromise in between. There are successes and failures in every system. Education will not improve based upon a change in bureaucratic structure.

The root problems of Bloomberg's system run much deeper than a failure to improve national test scores or to actually increase the citywide graduation rate. He has instituted changes that create an environment of educational totalitarianism. The removal of a lay board has removed any transparency to the educational system. No longer are budgets or plans presented to the public prior to approval. They are discussed behind closed doors and then unleashed on the public during a highly publicized press conference. This prohibits any constructive criticism from opposing viewpoints to be included in the budget or policy changes. Bloomberg has brought in business practices from his successful business background; many teachers feel that these changes have amounted to micromanaging the time they are given to instruct their students (Ravitch, The Brookings Insitution). The other problem is that education decisions are being made by people who are only being advised by educators and have no educational experience themselves. This might result in a better business structure but has done nothing to improve the conditions of the education received in the classroom. The final major flaw to note in Bloomberg's system is the lack of accountability. He ran for mayor with a stance that the teachers, principals, and the heads of the educational system should be more accountable, yet he has failed to implement a way for the electorate to hold a second-term mayor accountable in a two-term limit system. Bloomberg's power is untouchable. He even sacked people from his appointed board when they disagreed with him on holding back failing students (“Teach Us, Mr. Mayor”).

One of the disturbing elements of the failure of the New York City schools is that Mayor Bloomberg and chancellor Joel Kline spin the lack of progress in New York City as a success; other cities are believing these tales. Bloomberg has been invited to speak at mayor conferences around the nation and is currently being regarded as an expert on how to turn around a school system (“Teach Us, Mr. Mayor”). Across the nation, many mayors are proposing to take over the school system from the hands of the school board. All of this despite Bloomberg's mayoral takeover not bringing about tangible results.

There should be enough money in New York City to enable an adequate or even better education of children in the city, yet the school system has had failure after failure. There is a general public education epidemic in New York City that changing the bureaucracy has not been able to remedy. There was failure under the previous board system, a seven member board that consisted of two politically appointed members by the mayor and one each from the five boroughs. This board had no budgetary control, they were seven people overseeing 32 different school districts, and they were known for political grandstanding (Ravitch, The Brookings Insitution). Then Mayor Bloomberg came in to change the failing system. He was focused on the bureaucratic structures in which education takes place and has ignored the main goal of how to properly educate students.

The evidence shows that the departments and boards of education on the national, state, and local level within the United States are doing something wrong with their education policies; public funding of private education might be the improvement the educational system needs. “Of the thirty nations that are part of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, only seven do not permit any government funding of K-12 private schools; in addition to the United States, they include Greece, Ireland, Japan, Mexico, Portugal, and Turkey” (Ravitch, “The Right Thing”). Of these thirty nations in the Programme for International Student Assessment's (PISA), five of the bottom six in mathematics were from the group of seven that do not permit any government funding for private schools (PISA 53). Of the same thirty nations, the bottom four in science were from the same group of seven (PISA 22). The United States also did not fare too well on the survey: In science the United States students finished 21st out of 30; in math they finished 25th out of 30 (PISA 53, 22). These students were not graded in the reading results. All of this despite the United States spending the second most out of the thirty nations at $11,152 per student (Sharek).

Removing bureaucratic control is the most valid alternative to improve the city schools in monolithic bureaucratic systems like the New York City Department of Education and other large cities. Vouchers have only been implemented to any major degree in the United States in the inner-cities of Milwaukee and Cleveland, yet they show great potential (Ravitch, “The Right Thing”). Publicly funded private schools has been a success abroad. Seventy-six percent of all public spending in the Netherlands was given to private schools, yet they finished 3rd out of 30 in math and 6th out of 30 in science (Ravitch, “The Right Thing”, PISA 53, 22). Belgium, who comes in second of the thirty nations by spending 58% of all their public money in private schools, finished 8th out of 30 in math and 16th out of 30 in science (Ravitch, “The Right Thing”, PISA 53, 22).

The evidence shows that publicly funding private schools is not a recipe for disaster. In cities like New York City, where only 50% of the students graduate in four years, vouchers would be worth checking into since current attempts at change have not produced positive results. Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, NJ, and neighbor to New York City, believes that his city could turn around education much faster than NYC if he is given mayoral control and the use of vouchers (Garland, “Booker Seeks Vouchers”). Vouchers allow a variety changes to be implemented at the same time, and these changes are focused on the classroom as well as administration.

Vouchers, despite being argued against as a violation of separation of church and state, are in actuality a liberating program that provides religious freedom. This is the reason publicly financed private schools are popular in the Netherlands (Ravitch, “The Right Thing”). In a private school, the government does not need to decide what religious holidays are celebrated or ignored, whether the science classes teach intelligent design along with evolution or not, or make any decision in regard to any other religious topic. Vouchers provide an actual separation of church and state in that the state would not have to make religious or anti-religious decisions in regards to a student's education while allowing parents to educate their children with the religious or secular convictions they hold.

Vouchers provide inner-city schools the option to receive a better education than the public education system currently can provide them. Even with the growing school of choice programs, many inner-city students do not have the means to take advantage of the ability to go to a better neighboring school district if one exists. These students would benefit from vouchers because private schools would be able to open up in the inner-city to provide a valid alternative within their community to the public schools that are failing them.

In any educational system, accountability and control are needed. The questions that need to be furthered studies are how to control and what to control. Looking at successful nations like the Netherlands would show us how to use vouchers and still insure that student's are being educated. Education systems need to be separated from politics. It is the natural state of politicians to spin everything into successes in order to raise more money and win the next election. There needs to be a divide between politicians and educators in order to insure that educators are free to educate (Ravitch, The Brookings Insitution). Diane Ravitch concluded her speech at the Brookings Institution with the phrase “The 'public' needs to be involved in public education” (Ravitch, The Brookings Insitution). The recent trend, especially in NYC, to make decisions in isolation from the public and away from any scrutiny is the opposite extreme of public involvement. Finally, ineffectiveness or effectiveness can occur in any system. It should be paramount that systems are focused on students and their education; everything else is just a means to that end.

Works Cited
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Greene, Jay. “High School Graduation Rates in the United States.” Civic Report. 2002. Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. 6 Dec. 2007. <>.

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---. The Brookings Institution. Falk Auditorium, Washington D.C. 1 Jun. 2005. 3 Dec. 2007 <>.

---. “The Right Thing: Why Liberals Should Be Pro-Choice.” The New Republic. 8 Oct. 2001. 3 Dec. 2007 <>.

Sharek, Dylan. “U.S. Drops in International Education Rankings.” Mosaic. 20 Oct. 2005. 9 Dec. 2007 <>.

“Teach Us, Mr. Mayor.” Economist. 18 Jan. 2007. 3 Dec 2007. <>.