Last Tuesday, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg won an important victory, and no, I’m not referring to his narrow reelection for a third term over Democrat William Thompson. Rather, Bloomberg proved to the nation that mayoral control of schools works — not only is it effective, but it also provides accountability to voters. If only New Haven and its mayor understood this lesson.
Just as he did in 2005, Bloomberg made education a pivotal campaign issue on which he asked voters to judge his record. In campaign ads and speeches, Bloomberg pointed to increased graduation rates and higher state test scores as proof of his success since he took control of city schools in 2002. During mayoral debates, as New York Times reporter David Chen wrote, “Again and again the debate returned to education.”
Perhaps more important, the mayor asked voters to hold both him and his opponent accountable. Before Bloomberg’s tenure, Thompson served a short stint as president of New York’s Board of Education, and as Chen wrote of the second mayoral debate, “Mr. Bloomberg [told] voters that if they thought the schools were better under Thompson, they should vote for Thompson.” Indeed, according to a Times exit poll, after the obviously pressing issue of the economy and jobs, education mattered most to voters when making their decision.
Just as voters hold the mayor accountable for policing the streets and picking up trash, they now expect him to provide their children with a quality education. Opponents argue that the mayor’s outlandish campaign spending and reversal of term limits detract from this democratic process, yet Thompson’s near-win demonstrates exactly the opposite. New Yorkers were appalled at Bloomberg’s deep pockets and city council manipulation, and gave Thompson 46 percent of their votes though he was outspent 14 to one.
The same process of accountability becomes a farce as we travel up Interstate 95 to New Haven, where Mayor John DeStefano Jr. won an unprecedented ninth two-year term with 74 percent of the vote. To be fair to the mayor, the joke of an election was not all his fault. The absurdly Democratic electorate of the city means the real vote happened in the primary last September, in which all credible candidates declined to challenge the mayor. The result was a collection of pathetic independent opponents, none of whom raised any real money, formed campaign organizations or had any coherent position platform during the dismal mayoral debates. With the outcome already decided, turnout this past Tuesday was staggeringly low (about 16 percent). Amazingly, only 7,715 people actually voted for the mayor, out of almost 64,000 registered voters and a total population of about 125,000.
As the News suggested in an editorial last week, New Haven should move to a nonpartisan election system (“Nonpartisan elections for New Haven,” Nov. 3). With no candidate able to run on a party ticket, voters of all or no parties would get an equal voice on Election Day. More important, a campaign for mayor would not mean taking on the powerful establishment of the city’s Democratic machine — rather, campaigns might become civic forums for issues crucial to New Haven’s future, not least of which is education.
But DeStefano should not be let off the hook for his lack of accountability on school governance. In 2001, when the mayor last faced a serious challenger in the primary, DeStefano was loathe to take responsibility for New Haven’s schools. When his opponent, State Senator Martin Looney, attacked the mayor’s education record, it was the superintendent, Reginald Mayo, who hit back in the New Haven Register as the mayor hid in the background. The mayor even distanced himself from Mayo by hinting at a bloated central office bureaucracy, which DeStefano blamed on the superintendent.
More to the point, unlike Bloomberg or other mayors like Boston’s Thomas Menino, DeStefano has never explicitly proclaimed himself in control of city schools. Rather, he has used his indirect control of the school board to shield himself from criticism, while somehow taking credit for nominal accomplishments like the Citywide School Construction Program.
All of which brings us to the current school reform plan, all the rage in New Haven politics. During a town-hall meeting a few weeks ago with Garth Harries, the mayor’s newly appointed reform czar, I asked who should be held accountable for the success or failure of the mayor’s latest gambit. His answer was tentative, and at one point indicated he, Harries, should be held accountable. The problem is, nobody voted for Garth Harries. Then again, almost nobody actually voted for DeStefano on Tuesday, but with election reform and a serious candidate, we can make education a real issue in a real election. As in New York, mayoral accountability for schools could be at least one meaningful legacy of the school reform plan.
Sam Brill is a senior in Trumbull College.