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NYC Comptroller William C. Thompson Speaks Out on Education

By Emily Sherwood, Ph.D.

Although he is widely known for aggressively safeguarding the public purse, rooting out waste and mismanagement in dozens of municipal agencies each year that run the gamut from banking to health care, New York City Comptroller William C. Thompson, Jr. is no slouch when it comes to the subject of education. In 1994, the Brooklyn-born Thompson was appointed to the New York City Board of Education, where he served five consecutive terms as its President until being elected City Comptroller in 2001, championing parental rights to greater accountability and leading the charge for improved student achievement. As he nears the end of his second four-year term as City Comptroller, Thompson, whom many view as a leading candidate for NYC Mayor in 2009, has not only sought to improve school management through rigorous audits of Department of Education (DOE) programs, but he has strong ideas on how to improve the quality and accountability of education in the nation’s largest public school district.

During Thompson’s seven year stint as a self-proclaimed “fiscal activist” for the city, the DOE has not been immune from his penetrating spotlight. Indeed, a series of recent audits has revealed troubling instances of administrative ineptitude and fiscal mismanagement within the agency’s sprawling bureaucracy. As recently as June, the Comptroller announced that the NYC DOE had performed only 42 percent of its required vision screenings and 20 percent of required hearing screenings. “It’s an atrocious number,” decries Thompson in a telephone interview with Education Update. “And there’s no follow-up with parents to make sure students who are found to require vision and hearing services actually receive them.” Other recent audits have found ineffective management of DOE’s special education services (including a lack of written formal policies and procedures for monitoring, tracking and documenting the provision of special education services), “paltry oversight” of DOE travel expenses, and lax school bus complaint protocols. While the vision and hearing audit may result in legislation to correct the problem, other audits will be monitored one to two years later to insure that the Comptroller’s recommendations are being implemented.

Since his early days on the Board of Education, Thompson has been a strong advocate for accountability, and in cases where the public is denied transparency and fairness, the Comptroller is intransigent. “Next year when Mayoral control is up for reauthorization – and I support Mayoral control and support its reauthorization – I strongly suggest forcing fiscal transparency upon the Department of Education,” he says vehemently. Among his recommendations for improving such transparency are reinstituting school-based budget reports: “The smaller the units of appropriation, the greater the transparency,” he sums up succinctly. “The Department of Education has units of appropriation in the $7 to $10 billion range. That’s too big. Parents are entitled to know how much their school is getting. How does it stack up and compare to others? It is a question of openness and fairness,” he adds forcefully.

Thompson has thought a lot about the issues facing inner city schools. The son of a judge and a teacher (his mother taught third grade at P.S. 262 for over twenty years), Thompson himself was a product of the New York City school system and grew up with “a strong emphasis on education in the home.” Were he to be elected Mayor, he’d look carefully at some of the innovative ideas guiding the city’s more successful charter schools (“I like some of them, I’ve visited some of them,” he adds) and he’d potentially scale them up. He’s against the narrowing of curriculum brought about by No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and its test-driven focus: “Standardized tests are not the only measure of success. I’ve been vocal and supportive of physical education in our schools, of art and music education in our schools, because those are things that keep young people involved and interested. Driven by NCLB, the focus on only standardized exams is a mistake,” he concludes. Thompson has an exhaustive list of indicators he’d look at in addition to “skill and drill” metrics: “It is about graduation rates. It is about dropout. It is about the number of students and what they are learning. Have we increased the knowledge base of teachers, as well as what students can learn? Are we turning out more competitive students to compete in a global economy?” he adds passionately.

Thompson would also use his leadership to strengthen the current structure of schools in the city: “Schools are very loosely tied together. They’re not utilizing the superintendents in oversight or as support mechanisms for the principals. Parents need an opportunity, if they are not satisfied with their principal, to be able to go to a superintendent and talk to him or her...Right now parents are lost,” he explains. Thompson would maintain and empower parent committees, and he’d also give them the opportunity to evaluate their principal. “You’d like to give parents a voice and let them understand that someone listens to them,” he sums up.

While Thompson is quick to point out that he’s “not ready to roll everything out,” he leaves no doubt that, were he to be elected Mayor, he would be a passionate advocate for high quality education in New York City and a caring steward for the 1.1 million students within its public schools. “I’d want to look at best practice across the country, and shape it to fit New York City,” he concludes thoughtfully.#



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