25 April 2010

Educational 'Reform' Haunts Rochester

On occasion I have posted here on educational reform in a general way. Well, reform is on the agenda in Rochester. The mayor and several other local politicos are pushing hard to institute a scheme (still fairly ill-defined) of "mayoral control" over the city school district. The district currently is governed by a superintendent and an elected school board. The new scheme - as I understand it - would dismantle the board and keep the super. It has some significant support and, a while back, the President's of three dozen local colleges and universities endorsed the Mayor's plan.* This is viewed as a get tough move, a dose of realism. In fact it is a mistake - dramatically anti-democratic and based (politely) on scant evidence that the new governance structure is relevant to addressing the pressing needs of students, parents, teachers and staff in the Rochester school district. In responses to critics of his plan the mayor typically adopts a burden shifting stance: the critics, he complains, don't offer a plan for addressing the ills of the school system. The premise of such complaints - and it is a false premise - is that mayoral control itself is a plan for addressing the failures of school system. That is where the mayor is wrong.

Here is an open letter, published yesterday in the Democrat & Chronicle opposing mayoral control. You will note that it includes several suggestions about how to proceed. I am among the impolitic 35.
Dear Rochester Community:

As many of you may already know, Rochester Mayor Robert Duffy has proposed to eliminate the city school board and bring the school system under mayoral control for a five-year trial period. On Feb. 23, the presidents of 19 Rochester-area colleges and universities submitted a letter (to the Democrat and Chronicle) endorsing Duffy's proposal and joined a small group of high-profile supporters including Monroe County Democratic Committee Chairman Joe Morelle and state Assemblyman David Gantt. We certainly respect their right to free speech and we appreciate working at institutions with leaders who are willing to engage in pressing public issues. As faculty and staff from Rochester-area colleges and universities, however, we oppose mayoral control.

We can all agree that the Rochester school system is in a dismal state. We agree with the presidents fully when they conclude that, "The stakes are high." We agree with the underlying motivation of the area colleges' letter. The future of investment and growth in the region is linked to the fate of Rochester city schools. The presidents of area colleges should certainly care about these issues. However, they should use their considerable influence to seriously examine and address all of the factors that militate against a vibrant, sound and effective education for all city students. Mayoral control is not the answer. The reasons for our opposition to mayoral control are threefold.

First and most fundamentally, it will tear away an important layer of democracy. Routine school board meetings provide transparency and opportunities for parents and community members to register their views on important policy decisions. Mayoral control would eliminate a valuable mechanism for citizen participation. We should find ways to make the board more democratic, responsive and accountable. Such reforms might include term limits for school board members, more representation of parents and students on the board, and the creation of a rotating leadership structure. If Duffy is so confident that the residents of Rochester are on board with this proposed change, he should call for an advisory referendum and a legitimate poll involving a representative sample of city residents.

Second, mayoral control has too often served as a prelude to the privatization of public schools through voucher programs, increased proliferation of (for-profit) charter schools (which funnel public funds to the private sector) and the elimination or dilution of collective bargaining agreements, measures which do not necessarily improve classroom instruction and authentic academic growth. In one city after another, whenever mayoral control has been instituted, it has been met with resistance from students, parents and educators for the resulting loss of transparency and fairness and the erosion of basic labor rights of teachers and support staff.

Third, we are not convinced that mayoral control will yield the kind of radical improvements in school performance touted by its advocates. The implementation documents released by the mayor on March 15 and 29 include a number of guaranteed services and promised outcomes, including the following: the promise to staff schools from 7 a.m. until 8 p.m. each day; the commitment to provide "the best after-school program in the country"; the guarantee of school bus service to all elementary students who request it; and the provision of "the best behavioral and psychological support for disruptive students..." We applaud the mayor for recognizing some of the core areas that must be addressed for city schools to be successful. Many of these initiatives are indeed long overdue and vital to the educational well-being of city students. However, the mayor has not indicated how these initiatives will be funded given the painful cuts in state and municipal education budgets.

The most recent results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) contradict this claim made in the area colleges' letter that there is "considerable evidence that mayoral control improves outcomes." Of the urban districts that have been tracked by NAEP since 2002, the highest performing districts, Austin and Charlotte, are not mayor-controlled, while the lowest performing districts, Chicago, Cleveland and Washington, D.C., are under mayoral control. (In fact, Chicago and Cleveland have been mayor-controlled for almost a decade). Atlanta, the district that saw the most improvement since 2002, is not mayor-controlled.

Even though it mentions the problem of concentrated poverty in passing, the area colleges' letter stops short of providing a progressive solution to the enduring matter of segregation in the region's public school systems. How can we continue to profess equality of opportunity in a nation where geography and class largely determine the quality of education children will receive? The area college presidents might have embraced other remedies, such as more equitable funding schemes, better health services and jobs, regional consolidation of school districts or resource sharing between urban-suburban districts. Such progressive remedies have been touted in recent years by academics (many who work at the very institutions these presidents represent), parent associations, public school reformers and advocacy organizations like the Campaign for Fiscal Equity and the Alliance for Quality Education here in New York.

Those of us who want to improve the quality of public education and maintain democracy have a serious fight on our hands. The future of young Rochesterians and our right to self-governance are well worth fighting for. Thank you for your time and consideration of these issues.

— 35 Concerned staff and faculty of Rochester-area colleges and universities

* The plan has significant, articulate opponents too.

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Blogger Public Squalor said...

Kudos to you and the other 34 who signed the letter.

Looks like you're getting a heavy dose of the Rich Daley/Arne Duncan (and now Pres. Obama) plan to privatize the schools and reduce accountability at the top.

Has the mayor proposed to convert any of Rochester's high schools to military academies yet?

- peace

25 April, 2010 14:22  

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