This Thursday, The Senate will reconvene to vote on its version of the New York City school governance (‘mayoral control’) bill. By all accounts, the Senate bill, which was the subject of intensive negotiations within the Democratic conference and between the Senate and Mayor Bloomberg, looks significantly different from the version passed by the Assembly in June.
The Senate version is slated to pass with a chapter amendment that would require the establishment of a parent training center, an arts advisory committee, public meetings on school safety, and quality of curriculum and instruction as a component of the principal review process, none of which are included in the Assembly version.
In most state legislatures, the two chambers would convene an open meeting of a conference committee comprised of members from both chambers to reconcile the differences between the two bills. In New York, differences are usually worked out in closed-door meetings that often cut legislators out of the process. If rank-and-file members want to open the discussion, they’re usually out of luck – the current rules of the New York legislature vest the Assembly Speaker and Senate Majority Leader with sole authority to convene a conference committee.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has expressed reluctance to use this option, instead stating that he will bring the issue up with his conference when the Assembly reconvenes in September. Last week, Silver said the Senate can probably rely on Mayor Bloomberg’s promises to implement the reforms contained in the amendment regardless of whether they become law, stating that the changes in the chapter amendment "can be done by the City of New York Board of Education without any legislation, anyway."
If the Mayor’s verbal commitment is not sufficient for some in the Senate – and I suspect it won’t be, given how contentious the issue has been – there is little that rank-and-file members can do. But there’s a better way. Both chambers should amend their joint rules to allow bill sponsors or the chairs of the committees of a bill’s original jurisdiction to call a conference committee. Open and robust debate with the aim of crafting the best possible legislation should not end until a bill is signed into law.