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There was a quiet coup at 110 Livington Street this summer. In early June, the city's public school system underwent its most dramatic overhaul in more than three decades. Mayor Michael Bloomberg regained control over the Board of Education, and oversaw the demise of thirty-two community school boards.

John Fager, who teaches at an alternative high school in Manhattan, is thrilled. The recent bill, which was passed by the State Legislature in June, reverses what he sees as a thirty-three year mistake: the Decentralization Act of 1969.

A self-described pain-in-the-side of the Board of Education, Fager started teaching in 1968, the same year that the controversy over community-based control first erupted. At the time, a coalition of activists, former civil rights leaders and representatives from the city's growing Hispanic population were fighting to abolish the Board of Education and replace it with local community boards. They hoped that a decentralized system would be more responsive to the city's needs. The idea gained the support of Mayor John V. Lindsay, and in 1967, as part of an experiment in community control, three district boards were formed and allowed to break away from the central administration.

But when one community board fired 19 faculty members in 1968, over 90% of teachers citywide went on strike. Fager, who was teaching at P.S. 175 in Harlem that year, remembers the period as "devastating to the city. People were expected to choose between the union and serving the community and it just ripped apart the schools."

When the Decentralization Act was passed by the state legislature the following year, the bill created thirty-two community boards to help govern the schools. Seen as a victory for the teacher's union, the legislation failed to bring about the level of local control that many had hoped for. The community boards became subdivisions of the central administration, with the power to hire district superintendents, contract for repairs, select textbooks, and submit local budgets. But they had little say over teaching assignments and curriculum. The legislation also stripped City Hall of its power to appoint the school's chancellor.

Fager believes decentralization was a "hopeful idea" that failed because of "a bad political deal," and thinks the 1969 act partly brought about the troubled educational system he's encountered in his thirty-three year career as a teacher, activist and parent.

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"Show me the math scores, show me the reading scores...Let's see the results. That's the only thing that's going to tell us whether we succeeded or not."
   -- Sheldon Silver

In regaining control of the Board of Education, Bloomberg succeeded where three of his predecessors failed. Political commentators attribute the mayor's success to deft political maneuvering and his strong relationship with the New York State Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver, who sponsored the legislation. Another factor was a growing consensus that the city's broken school system was in need of drastic reform. "Our politics have failed to educate a majority of children in New York City," Fager believes, "and that is a failure of our political system, but in some way it is a failure of all New Yorkers." But with the recent reform in school governance, for the first time in decades Fager feels optimistic. "Maybe it's going to change ... maybe we can do it this time."

To learn more about the politics behind the overhaul at 110 Livington Street, read a partial transcript of Rafael Pi Roman's interview with Speaker Silver.

Read the full text of the recent legislation online, or the City Hall press release summarizing the new bill.

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