Sunday, March 08, 2009

Mayoral Control improves schools

But teachers' unions are still hostile

Mayoral control of public education has gained currency in recent years, including in Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit and Washington, D.C. Results vary from place to place, but one clear success story has been New York City, where the policy deserves to be extended.

Upon taking office seven years ago, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg waged a campaign to abolish the city's 32 community school boards; hire and fire the schools chancellor; and appoint a majority of members on the city's Board of Education. Prior to the change, two out of three public schools in Gotham were underperforming and graduation rates were stagnant. Meanwhile, the Board of Education would blame the mayor, who pointed to the schools chancellor, who cited the Board of Education, and so on.

Mr. Bloomberg sought to end this circular blame game by taking responsibility for school performance in return for more control over education policy. In the event, test scores have improved and more kids are graduating. The New York State legislature has until June to reauthorize mayoral control, and it would be a breeze if not for teacher-union hostility. "Today, more than 10,000 additional students are graduating than we took over in 2002," said schools Chancellor Joel Klein last month. "Today, many more students are meeting and exceeding standards in math and reading. And today, the gap separating African-American and Latino students from their white and Asian peers is shrinking."

Mayoral control has also been a boon for reformers looking to expand school choice for low-income families. In 2002, New York City had fewer than 20 charter schools; next year it will have more than 100. This is a direct result of charter-friendly policies pushed by the mayor that would have been blocked by teacher union control of the school board. Mr. Klein's long tenure -- now seven years -- also makes for more policy staying power.

Eva Moskowitz, whose Harlem Success Charter Network operates four schools, says the change has been "fundamental" to her efforts to offer disadvantaged kids an alternative to failing schools. "The only way to fix the problem of the education monopoly is competition," said Ms. Moskowitz, a former member of the City Council. "And you can't have competition unless you have mayoral control. The local forces -- the teachers unions -- are fundamentally opposed to competition, whereas the mayor is responsive to the voters and the parents."

The United Federation of Teachers, the local union, claims to favor mayoral control. Yet it's urging state lawmakers to scotch the mayor's ability to appoint a majority of school board members -- a modification that would increase the union's influence and end real accountability. State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a union ally, says he favors renewing the law but also wants to give parents a greater voice in the system, whatever that means. In fact, a recent poll found that parents with children in public schools favor mayoral control by 57% to 39%.

The way to truly empower parents is to let them decide where their children attend school. Mayoral control is no education panacea, but to the extent that it is aiding competition and raising standards in New York it is saving thousands of kids from the tyranny of union-dominated failure.


Identical British twins go to schools 18 miles apart

Adam and Luke Bolton are identical twins who do everything together, but this week they were told that not only have they been allocated places in different secondary schools, but also that the schools are 18 miles apart. The news has come as a bombshell. The ten-year-old boys read the same books, play the same computer games and, although they have separate bedrooms, have sleepovers in each other's rooms every weekend. They have different hobbies - Luke plays piano and is a footballer, Adam prefers reading - but most of the time they stick together. To date their biggest anxiety has been being asked to sit at different tables in their class at Tewin Cowper Primary School, in Hertfordshire.

Their mother, Ann Connolly, said: "When we applied to secondary school we tried to prepare them for the fact that they might be put in different classes. That would be a huge step for them. So for them to find themselves in different schools is very distressing. "Twins are not like other children. They have a total reliance on each other to be their primary friend and they look to each in stressful situations."

Adam and Luke are a living example of a problem highlighted this week by Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary. Hertfordshire is one of 25 local authorities that use a lottery system to allocate places in oversubscribed schools. The aim of the lottery is to make school admissions fairer and prevent middle-class parents from playing the system by buying or renting homes close to the best schools.

Ms Connolly said that the thinking behind the system was muddled. "It makes it impossible to make a rational choice of school because you can have no idea in advance what will be your chances of getting in," Ms Connolly said. "I asked the local authority if they could allocate places to two children together via the lottery process but they said that would bias its random nature and so couldn't be allowed. It is ludicrous."

Mr Balls agrees and has asked the Schools Adjudicator to look at the issue of twins being split in lottery-based systems. "I am asking the Schools Adjudicator to look at how we can make crystal clear in guidance and in the [School Admissions] Code that splitting up twins when parents don't want them to be split is the wrong thing to do," Mr Balls said.

Luke was allocated a place at the twins' first choice, Richard Hale school in Hertford, which is a six-mile (9km) bus ride from the Bolton home, while Adam was given a place at their second choice, Verulam School in St Albans, which is 12 miles from the house in the opposite direction and an hour away by train and bus.

Ms Connolly, who works in the pharmaceutical industry, said: "All I can do is put Adam on the waiting list for Robert Hale and hope that a place becomes available, but it could be months before we hear and in the mean time we just have to sit and wait." What is particularly frustrating to her is that now that one twin has been allocated a place at the Robert Hale, the family can take advantage of the school's sibling rule to get the other one in. This effectively means that Adam will be higher up on the waiting list than he otherwise would be. Ms Connolly said that it was bizarre that the boys counted as siblings only after the first round of applications but not when they first applied. [Indeed. British bureaucracy at its best]


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