Volume 22, Number 22 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | October 9 - 15, 2009
Mayor Bloomberg at the New Amsterdam Plein and Pavilion under construction near Lower Manhattan’s Staten Island ferry terminal last month.
Only some school issues are for parents, mayor says
By Julie Shapiro
Parents do not need a role in decisions like new school sites or school zoning, Mayor Michael Bloomberg told Downtown Express Friday.
Bloomberg said parents need only be involved in the micro issues of their child’s education, like the child’s attendance, behavior and grades. It does not make sense for parents to be involved in larger issues like overcrowding, because those issues take years to resolve, Bloomberg said.
“When you’re talking about siting schools, you’re not talking about parental involvement,” he said, “because the process from deciding you want to build a school, siting it and building it and moving your kid in, your kid’s going to be through graduate school by that time. These things don’t happen overnight. You’re talking about a different group of people who want to have some input: community activists. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s not parents.”
Bloomberg drew the distinction between parents and activists during an hour-long interview Friday with reporters and editors from Downtown Express, The Villager, Gay City News and Chelsea Now, owned by Community Media.
Earlier this year, the state renewed mayoral control of the city’s schools, keeping Bloomberg in his position of oversight and responsibility. Some parents opposed the renewal because they wanted a greater voice in the city’s education policies.
In Lower Manhattan, parents pointed to the persistent elementary overcrowding and the Dept. of Education’s incorrect population projections. Those parents, who raised the problems months before the city acknowledged or addressed them, and who have sometimes suggested the solutions the city ultimately implemented, said the city could benefit from being required to listen and respond to parents.
For example, it was a local parent who first identified the site for P.S./I.S. 276, the soon-to-open green school in southern Battery Park City. And it was parents, together with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who successfully advocated for the city to open kindergarten classes this fall in Tweed Courthouse when it became clear that P.S. 89 and P.S. 234 would not be able to handle the influx. In many cases, the parents fought for the new school seats even though their children did not directly benefit.
The new version of mayoral control does include provisions for parents to have more input in Dept. of Education decisions through the Community Education Councils, but many parents still want a larger say. Asked if the new version of mayoral control gives parents enough input, Bloomberg replied, “I don’t know what enough is.”
He continued, “Parent involvement should not be parent control. We have professional principals, administrators and teachers — experts. They should design the classroom.”
Bloomberg then described the improvements he has made in sharing information with parents about their children’s performance and their children’s schools, including parent coordinators, school report cards and surveys. Parents have more input now than they had under the old school board system, Bloomberg said.
“For the first time, they really are involved,” he said of parents. “Is it enough? You know, most parents say yes.”
But when asked about parental involvement in larger decisions, Bloomberg said parents could have influence through the city councilmembers and mayor they elect.
“You would never build Central Park, you would never build anything, if you always had nothing but community involvement,” Bloomberg said. “We have a democracy, not a republic, and the reason is you don’t want to have a referendum on every single thing. You would never do anything that way.
“And if that’s the complaint,” Bloomberg continued, “if they’re talking about siting schools and that sort of thing, I’m not unsympathetic, I think they should be involved, in fact they are, but it’s not parents.”
Bloomberg said that whatever people’s criticisms of mayoral control, they cannot argue that test scores are up and this system of governance is better than the previous one: a politically hampered Board of Education.
Comptroller Bill Thompson, who is challenging Bloomberg’s bid for a third term in the Nov. 3 election, argued in a separate interview this week that Bloomberg’s control of the schools has not been successful.
“I don’t think they’re better,” Thompson said of the schools. “I think the public relations is better.”
But Thompson, who led the Board of Education in the 1990s, also said the two systems could not be compared, because the governance is so different now and the annual budget for the city’s schools has nearly doubled to $20 billion since Bloomberg took over. Thompson had much less influence as head of the Board of Education than Bloomberg has now, because of the political structure of the old system.
Thompson also questioned the rise in student test scores over the past eight years, pointing to a recent report of fraud as supervisors feel pressure to show improvement. He also questioned the usefulness of focusing on test performance.
“You’re taught to memorize things,” Thompson said. “It’s not about critical thinking or comprehension…. I don’t think our children are being prepared…to be able to compete.”
LOOK FOR MORE DETAILS FROM DOWNTOWN EXPRESS’S EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEWS WITH BILL THOMPSON AND MAYOR BLOOMBERG NEXT WEEK.