Voices in Education

The End of Exceptionalism in American Education
In the late spring of 2011, the New York City Council delivered a message. Mayor Michael Bloomberg had announced a plan to eliminate 4,100 teaching jobs through layoffs, and about 2,000 through attrition. This would represent “the first significant layoffs of teachers since the fiscal crisis of the 1970s.” Council members were offended—not just on the substance of the issue, but also by what they took to be the cavalier way it was announced, with the mayor delegating the shorter-than-usual presentation to his budget director. “His attitude was like, ‘gotta go,’” one council member told journalists. “It reflects the mayor’s disdain, his disrespect and his lack of coalition-building with the City Council.” Three weeks later, the council fired back. Christine Quinn, the council speaker and normally a close ally of the mayor, announced that the council had other plans. She presented the council’s own set of budget changes designed to minimize layoffs, sending “a clear signal that big differences remain between the City Council and City Hall when it comes to bridging the city’s multibillion-dollar budget gap. Faced with this pushback, the administration reconsidered. An agreement was negotiated that averted all teacher layoffs other than by attrition. The mayor put a positive face on the agreement, but at least some speculated that the deal threatened to “undermine his credibility, given that he has declared for two consecutive years that layoffs were inevitable, only to see them averted in a budget deal.”

New York City under Mayor Bloomberg presents the nation’s starkest example of strong mayoral control of public schools. The mayor’s formal authority to appoint—and remove at will—the majority of the city’s school board (the Panel for Educational Policy) led that body to consistently acquiesce to the decisions of the mayor and the chancellor he appointed. Add Bloomberg’s informal political power to the mix— supercharged by his personal wealth, philanthropic activity, and the support of a local business community that saw him as one of their own—and the Big Apple stands as the apotheosis of the end of exceptionalism: public schools as one among other agencies reporting to an elected executive with a multi-issue portfolio and constituency.

Strong as he was in this extreme case, Mayor Bloomberg could not inscribe his vision of public education into practice without risk of being challenged. The school board may have functioned as a rubber stamp as critics charged, but checks and balances within the governing system remained. Significantly, these checks and balances lie within other corners of general-purpose governance and politics.

This is an excerpt from The End of Exceptionalism in American Education: The Changing Politics of School Reform by Jeffrey R. Henig (Harvard Education Press, 2013)

About the Author: Jeffrey R. Henig is professor of political science and education at Teachers College and professor of political science at Columbia University.  He is the author of The End of Exceptionalism in American Education: The Changing Politics of School Reform (Harvard Education Press, 2013)