Pushback growing over mayoral control of NYC schools with renewal up for debate in Albany

As state lawmakers reconvene for a new legislative session, one of the tasks they’ll face is reviewing school governance at New York City public schools.

Now, in what’s known as “mayoral control,” the mayor and his hand-picked chancellor control the public schools. That has been renewed multiple times since it was first passed in 2002, viewed by proponents as a way to effectively run the nation’s largest school district.

But support for the status quo is facing increased challenges, as frustrated teachers and parents at a series of public hearings have questioned its effectiveness and demanded a more representative structure, including more checks and balances on the mayor through school boards or other elected officials.

If not extended, mayoral control would expire at the end of June.

“I want the same thing that my former mayors had,” Mayor Adams told reporters Tuesday at City Hall. “We have a public school mayor and a public school chancellor. We understand the importance of a quality education, and both of us had two different experiences. So I would like the same thing they had. They were allowed to turn around the school system.”

“We sense a real productivity in the Department of Education, everything from giving our children quality food to what we’ve done with Summer Rising to the test scores outpacing the state. So we’re seeing some real W’s. I think give us the opportunity to continue, like we gave to other mayors.”

Barry Williams for New York Daily News

Mayor Eric Adams speaks during in-person media availability at City Hall Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2024, in Manhattan, New York. (Barry Williams for New York Daily News)

Last time mayoral control was renewed, in 2022, Adams was granted power over the school system for two years — with some caveats.

The Panel for Educational Policy, the city’s school board with most members appointed by the mayor, was expanded to include more parent representatives. State education officials were tasked with hearing from the public, as well as issuing a report on the last two decades of mayoral control and other public school systems, such as Chicago, that are phasing it out.

The study is expected by the end of March and may push an agreement in Albany until after state budget negotiations.

“I suspect that we in the Legislature,” said State Sen. John Liu (D-Queens), chair of the NYC education committee, “and perhaps the Governor as well, will take a serious look at that study. And that study would and should inform our decision-making as to how New York City public schools should be run in the coming years.”

The boroughs weigh in

Two of the city’s five boroughs have hosted public hearings so far, with the rest scheduled for this month.

Schools Chancellor David Banks defended the school governance structure as more functional than the pre-2002 school boards, and it allows the city to act decisively during a public health or an illiteracy crisis — and hold mayors responsible during a general election if they fall short.

“I know from firsthand experience the flaws of the previous system,” Banks said in the Bronx last month, “and the ways that our students suffered as a result. Mayoral accountability, in contrast, is as close as we can get to a system that is the most manageable, least politicized and most impactful.”

A representative for State Assemblyman Michael Benedetto (D-Bronx), chair of the education committee, said he could support at least six more years of mayoral control with tweaks “kept to a minimum.”

Michael Benedetto

New York Assemblyman Michael Benedetto

Hans Pennink/AP

New York Assemblyman Michael Benedetto. (Hans Pennink/AP)

But the vast majority of speakers who chose to attend the hearings were no longer content with the status quo.

They described mayoral control as undemocratic and with little to no checks on the mayor’s power. The structure, critics say, is too removed from the classroom and leads to shifting priorities with each new administration and their signature programs.

While some speakers called for the elimination of mayoral control, others called for the mayor to have fewer appointees to the Panel for Educational Policy.

“We have said that there has to be watchdogs and seeing how that goes,” United Federation of Teachers Vice President of Education Mary Vaccaro said in Queens last month, “and so that the PEP is not voting in unison without really understanding what they’re voting on.”

DC 37 publicly backed an extension for Adams in 2022, the last year mayoral control was renewed — whereas the UFT skipped a rally in support. DC 37 represents education department staff including cafeteria workers, parent and community coordinators, crossing guards and child care workers.

Both unions last month sued the city over unpopular budget cuts.

DC 37 did not return a request for comment of whether it will back Adams for another renewal.

Class size law

It was not immediately clear what, if any, role the city’s approach to the recent class size legislation, which was passed alongside the most recent school governance law, would have on an extension of mayoral control.

While education officials have defended they’re in compliance with the law’s five-year, phase-in period, critics point to data trending in the wrong direction as class sizes grow with the arrival of migrant students.

Migrant children prepare to board a school bus while guided by their guardians in front of the Row Hotel that serves as migrant shelter on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2023, in New York. It could be a cold, grim New Year for thousands of migrant families living in New York City's emergency shelter system. With winter setting in, they are being told they need to clear out, with no guarantee they'll be given a bed elsewhere. (AP Photo/Andres Kudacki)
Migrant children prepare to board a school bus while guided by their guardians in front of the Row Hotel that serves as migrant shelter on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/Andres Kudacki)

Adams hinted Tuesday that the classroom caps, which set limits of 25 students or fewer depending on grade level, would be a focus of the administration’s during this legislative session.

“The ideal of that legislation gets in the way of the real, of making sure we’re not taking resources from those schools that are in greater need,” he told reporters. “That’s going to be part of our agenda when we go to Albany.”

A schedule of upcoming mayoral control public hearings is available on the New York State Education Department’s website. 

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