The Underside of Bloomberg's School Reform

How the Mayor's Top-Down Revolution Locks Out Communities

It wasn't until Mike Bloomberg's senior year in 1960 at his blue-collar, Medford, Massachusetts, public high school that he discovered the thrill of learning. That's when the school created its first honors courses in literature and history, opening Bloomberg's eyes, he recalled in his 1997 memoir, "to a whole new world."

"I developed a sense of history and its legacy," Bloomberg wrote, "and remain annoyed at how little people seem to learn from the past; how we fight the same battles over and over; how we can't remember what misguided, shortsighted policies led to depression, war, oppression, and division."

Ironically, it's a lesson the mayor forgot himself when he took on the grandest challenge of his life: overhauling the city's shipwreck of a school system, which services 1.1 thousand times as many students as attended his alma mater. Bloomberg's chancellor, Joel Klein, the antitrust lawyer who's busily reorganizing his biggest monopoly since Microsoft, says he got his own education on the history of this conflict-ridden and complex system in part by reading Diane Ravitch's The Great School Wars.

He must have skipped the references to the strike of 1967, when the United Federation of Teachers first outraged minority leaders, insisting on the right to remove so-called "disruptive students" from their classes. Klein confessed in a Voice interview that he knew little about the 1967 controversy, though his and Bloomberg's revolutionary vision for the system, called Children First, contains a program that empowers teachers and principals to isolate "disruptive students" at out-of-school facilities.

The disruptive-student issue was so hot-button it triggered the UFT's dispute with a black-run experimental school district in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville section of Brooklyn, leading to the cataclysmic strike of 1968, which pitted the union against the community control movement. That strike, convulsed with charges of racism and anti-Semitism, shaped the 1969 decentralization law and invented the community-based system Bloomberg and Klein are now so dramatically reshaping.

This 32-year-old and 32-district system had its searing scandals and chronic failings. But the Bloomberg revisionists do not seem to recognize that it changed the face of the city system from the nation's whitest urban supervisory and teaching staff to one integrated all the way to the top. Neither do they acknowledge that the percentage of kids reading at grade level went from 34 to 50 in the decentralization era. It is one thing to junk another generation's reform that's failing half the kids; it's another to do it without so much as a whisper about any value it might have had. In Klein's luxurious new Tweed headquarters, flush with every kind of top-dollar consultant, no study of decentralization's pluses and minuses was even commissioned. Its gravestone has no true epitaph.

Faced with the Voice question of whether he and Bloomberg believe that "the entire community control/decentralization era was a mistake in almost every way," Klein made no effort to deny it, responding: "I guess, maybe, I would answer this way. I think that the movement that we need to go toward is much more a school-based movement." When Klein looks back at decentralization, all he sees is that "it became highly politicized," with "40 independent districts"—including high school, special ed and other divisions—"run by political sub-entities." That "won't work," he says, the revulsion apparent in his tone.

In fact, in some compartment of the collective Bloomberg mind, school decentralization, Brooklyn boss Clarence Norman's judicial scandal, and the near-theology at City Hall about the cleansing power of nonpartisan elections are all parts of the same piece, and a sewer of a piece at that. It is as if everything that rises up out of a neighborhood nexus has a clammy, grabby, clubby smell or feel to it.

Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott, who is the omnipresent third member of Bloomberg's ongoing education conversation, says that "the lack of real parent involvement" in the decentralized districts—which were frequently controlled by local oligarchies—"overrode the good." Deeply rooted in the patronage-obsessed politics of Southeast Queens, Walcott has his own sense of the history: "We see a lot of the bad. I don't see that as a negative. It allows us to view the role the community plays from a fresh point of view, rather than that of those who romanticize it."

There are in fact advantages to fresh points of view, but usually those also informed by the past, and Walcott's point of view was both fresh and informed when he was David Dinkins's pro-community appointee on the Board of Education in the early '90s. Rather than a bridge to that history, Walcott now appears to be more of a conduit for the mayor's revisionism. Likewise, Klein picked several former community superintendents—who certainly know decentralization history—to serve in the pivotal new capacity of regional instructional superintendents. He is happy to point to their collective institutional savvy, as well as the 30-year experience of his new community deputy, Lester Young, who was a teacher, principal, and superintendent under decentralization. But neither Young nor the regional superintendents were even on the team when the major elements of Bloomberg's plan were put together.

In fact, with Young not starting full-time until March, the UFT was fond of pointing out that Klein's eight-member cabinet didn't include "a single person who taught or supervised in a NYC school." Even now, it is stacked with an investment banker, a foundation executive, a telecom CEO, a music industry lawyer, a former state deputy comptroller, and the son of Klein's former law partner, with Young and Diana Lam, the former Providence superintendent, the only educators in the group. Perhaps even more influential than the cabinet in shaping Children First were the 15 corporate consultants, led by Ron Beller, a Goldman Sachs partner who recently returned to his London office.

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