By Sydney H. Schanberg
New York Newsday, May 6, 1986
It doesn’t take an expert on education to determine that the New York City school system has grave problems. The dropout rate is 35 percent overall and double that for black and Hispanic students. These are statistics that guarantee, in human terms, the creation of a separate population group — one that is idle, frustrated and highly likely to get into social trouble, not excluding the criminal life.
What brings this to our attention are the elections being held today for community school boards. For this electoral event, unfortunately, is not so much an affirmation of the blessings of democracy as it is a reminder of the failures of the public school process.
It is also a needed reminder to beware of ideas that promise solutions simply by changing a structure.
Sixteen years ago, a new school structure called decentralization went into effect. It grew out of the deeply held conviction of parents and community activists, particularly in poor, minority neighborhoods, that if control over schools were shifted from the central Board of Education to local bodies, the schools would be more responsive to students’ particular needs and the quality of education would automatically improve.
Now we know that the only automatic result was the descent of all 32 community school boards into ward politics. The children, as usual, became a secondary concern. The primary game was, and is, the scramble for control of these nine-member bodies, whose attractions include large budgets and numerous patronage jobs. So political clubs, church groups and school employee unions have divvied up the spoils.
The original idea was that parents and others devoted to developing strong schools would serve on these boards. What has happened instead is that parents, like the students themselves, are usually treated as second-class citizens and are swept aside by special interests.
I have no simple remedy for the serious flaws in the present system, nor do I know anyone who does. All one can say with some confidence — though it provides no instant gratification — is that throwing out decentralization in its entirety and replacing it with some newly anointed panacea is no more a solution than was the Legislature’s enactment of decentralization in the first place in 1969.
One approach that carries substance for me is to upgrade the quality of the seven members of the central Board of Education, which itself has degenerated into a political swamp.
Appointed by the mayor (who gets two members) and the borough presidents (one each), they are supposed to function as shapers of board policy outlines for the chancellor. They have chosen to be something quite different: time-servers, masters of trivial pursuits and lobbyists for the pet projects or patronage wishes of the elected officials who appointed them.
Back in the 1960s, members were, essentially, $1-a-year people — professionals and philanthropists and other prominent citizens who took the posts as a public service duty. They did not need these positions for either money or prestige.
The present board — with the exception of two recent appointees of the mayor — has evolved into something quite opposite. The members have turned what should be part-time functions into full-time patronage plums.
They are paid $160 a day up to a maximum of 210 days (or $33,600). Three of them claimed and received the maximum last year. No member claimed less than $30,000.
The president of the board gets a slightly higher per diem — $174. The present occupant of the seat, James Regan, says he spent 204 days on board work last year, collecting $35,700. he also has a supposedly full-time state job, a post that pays him another $52,100 a year. This is known as creative double-dipping.
But the salary issue is far less important than the board’s mediocrity and incompetence.
To try to deal with these problems, Mayor Edward Koch recently changed his two appointees, naming prestigious replacements — Richard Beattie and Robert Wagner Jr.
Wagner, a former deputy mayor whom the mayor hopes to maneuver into the board presidency, waited only four months in his new job before going public with sharp criticism of the board’s conduct. He said it was not quite correct to call the board, as some have, a “rotten barrel;” it was more accurate to say “there is no barrel.”
Wagner said the board spent its time on everything but education issues — on minor budget items, on a controversy over flea markets, on whether to keep the schools open on Passover.
Once again, it must be said that there is no single easy solution to the school problem. Strengthening the Board of Education will not be a magic potion that restores the schools to vibrant health. But it’s a start.
If the city’s governing educational body is neither strong nor respected, if it is nothing more than a patronage fiefdom, then the community boards will have every excuse to run rampant as patronage fiefdoms, too.