NYCLU Report: Civil Rights, Transparency, Accountability Suffer Under Current Mayoral Control Scheme

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May 14, 2009 —  Download full report(PDF)The New York Civil Liberties Union today released a report urging the State Legislature to emphasize basic democratic principles of transparency, accountability and shared decision-making as it evaluates and adjusts the mayoral control system of governing New York City’s public schools.

“The Price of Power: Civil Liberties and Civil Rights Under Mayoral Control of New York City’s Schools” documents the NYCLU’s experiences working on civil rights and civil liberties matters in the schools over the past seven years, and draws lessons from those experiences to recommend improvements to the mayoral control system.

“The current regime of absolute, unfettered mayoral control is incompatible with a safe, effective educational environment,” said Donna Lieberman, NYCLU executive director. “For our schools and our children to be as successful as they can be, parents must be a part of the educational process and the core democratic principles of transparency, accountability and public participation in government must be respected. The Legislature must close the loopholes that have given Mayor Bloomberg and the Department of Education unfettered discretion over education policy.”

While the NYCLU does not take a position on whether to renew mayoral control, it is clear that a school system without sunlight or oversight cannot properly serve its students, parents and teachers. The report highlights some important examples of the DOE’s lack of transparency and disregard for the public’s legally mandated role in policymaking. As a result of the lack of transparency and accountability, the DOE has pursued policies that are hurtful to New York City’s children.

The NYCLU’s analysis is based on obstacles it has faced while working on three public policy issues affecting the safety and constitutional rights of New York City’s children: bias-based harassment, overly aggressive policing and unregulated military recruitment.

For example:

  • The DOE refuses to enforce the Dignity in All Schools Act, legislation the City Council passed over Mayor Bloomberg’s veto in 2004 that seeks to protect students from bias-based harassment, bullying and discrimination. It took several high profile incidents of violent student harassment for the DOE, with minimal public input, to adopt a Chancellor’s Regulation addressing bias-based harassment. This regulation still does not fully implement the law or protect students from harassment in their schools.
  • Mayor Bloomberg has spent millions of dollars to increase police presence in the schools, with no input from parents, students or the public. Yet the DOE and NYPD refuse to create rules governing school safety, allowing thousands of police personnel to patrol city schools with little oversight or clarity about what their role is. As a result, NYPD agents are now enforcing basic discipline in many schools and children are being pushed out of the classroom and into the criminal justice system. Moreover, the DOE and NYPD have been reluctant to disclose information on student arrests, suspensions and expulsions.
  • The DOE has ignored the concerns of parents and children in its unwillingness to engage in public dialogue about aggressive military recruitment happening in the city’s schools. Mayor Bloomberg has demonstrated a deliberate indifference to the problem by refusing to adopt formal policies regulating the activities of military recruiters in the schools. Recent policies that actually made it easier for recruiters to access students’ personal information were established without notifying the public.

The report also documents the NYCLU’s tremendous difficulty in obtaining basic data and records on these issues from the DOE and NYPD through the Freedom of Information Law. The NYCLU’s experiences are not unique. The DOE routinely withholds from parents, the media and elected officials raw data on student performance, student safety and the education budget.

“Mayoral control was supposed to build transparency and accountability into a vast school system, but under it the DOE has become one of the most secretive agencies in the city,” NYCLU Advocacy Director Udi Ofer said. “It is essential for parents to be informed about what’s happening in our schools. State lawmakers must build transparency into whatever system they adopt to allow for informed debate and scrutiny of policy decisions. Ultimately, it will lead to better schools.”

Under the current mayoral control system, Mayor Bloomberg and the DOE flout state and local statutes intended to assure public oversight of agencies with rulemaking power. For example, new Chancellor’s Regulations – rules that affect the lives and education of New York City’s children – are never subject to the 30-day public notice and comment period required by the City Administrative Procedures Act.

Additionally, both the mayor and DOE largely ignore or circumvent the legislatively created bodies meant to ensure parental involvement in education.

The Panel for Education Policy (PEP), the oversight board created by the State Legislature in 2002, functions largely as a rubber stamp for DOE policy decisions. The 32 Community District Education Councils (CECs), the other primary avenue for public participation in the school system, are likewise mostly powerless.

“While the DOE ought to drive education policy, parents, children and educators must be heard,” Lieberman said. “Education policy is extremely complex and to allow one voice on complicated issues is shortsighted. State law must ensure that Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein can no longer ignore these essential voices.”

The report recommendations to state legislators include:

  • Clearly delineate the position of the DOE within the existing structure of city government. The DOE cannot continue to act as its own autonomous agency, even if mayoral control is extended by the State Legislature.
  • Increase public oversight by an empowered PEP. The PEP must have meaningful authority to ratify or reject major DOE policy proposals.
  • Bring school safety policies in line with education policy. The New York State Education Department and the DOE must be granted clear authority to investigate and oversee all school safety practices, including the activities of NYPD personnel in city schools.
  • Strengthen the parental voice in policymaking. CECs must be given responsibilities and authority that ensure parental involvement in the setting of school education policies.
  • Institute practices to allow for public engagement in the decisionmaking process. The DOE must abide by basic requirements of open government in the policymaking process. All Chancellor’s Regulations must be subject to a public comment period. The PEP must also open its policymaking and adjudication process to the public.
  • Mandate transparency of data. The DOE must end its practice of withholding from the public raw data on student performance, student safety and the education budget, and the DOE must meet its statutory obligation to provide the public with access to records.
  • Create a DOE inspector general. In order to promote the integrity and effectiveness of the DOE, the State Legislature should create an Office of Inspector General within the DOE to conduct independent audits and investigations into DOE practices. The inspector general will investigate systemic problems that impact the educational environment.
  • Allow the law to sunset again in seven years. The debate over the appropriate school governance structure for New York City has led to passionate discussions among policymakers and the public. The State Legislature should ensure that whichever system it chooses, such a system expires in seven years, thus allowing for a continuous public debate.