The Underside of Bloomberg's School Reform

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

The elite clubby attitude that developed at Tweed included hiding the salaries and titles of consultants under the lid of a secretive foundation grant and awarding two no-bid contracts, totaling $17 million, to the same company, involving services like supplying high-priced math consultants to Bronx schools. Caroline Kennedy has her own entire Tweed wing. Bush literacy adviser Reid Lyon pushed the chancellor to deliver a major phonics contract to a Texas company partly led by the president's onetime state education commissioner. And Klein, who gave up a $2 million-a-year job at Bertelsmann to become the $250,000 chancellor, relishes Regency breakfasts, Barry Diller's yacht, and dinner companions like Barbara Walters and Henry Kissinger. It's all too gaudy.

Similarly, bringing the central staff to Tweed has had the advantage of putting it in the mayor's backyard, but yanking it out of Brooklyn sends another Manhattan-centric signal from an administration already saddled with that baggage. Rather than moving into the most elegant, city-owned property, refurbished at a $100 million public price, Klein and company would've been wiser to locate in an outer-borough public school, and Bloomberg would've been wiser to get himself there, often and openly. The marble majesty and bubble élan of Tweed, so distant from schools with overloaded classes in bathrooms, just makes it all the more difficult to build frontline acceptance for all the change, much of it salutary, that Klein is forcing simultaneously. Closing community offices within blocks of most parents' homes and concentrating real power in a fastidiously secure Manhattan castle (visitors must wear the picture ID guards take) is neither smart politics nor democratic education. It will eventually breed boisterous public frustration.

When Bloomberg's school reforms got their national moment in the sun on 60 Minutes in April, the mayor told Lesley Stahl: "There's just a limit to how much you can consult. The way to stop any progress is to say, 'Yes, I love it, but'—and there's always a but." Contending that his and Klein's predecessors "consulted an awful lot but never did anything," Bloomberg declared: "Maybe this will work." No matter how much the mayor hates "buts," here are 10 of them, evenly balanced with the 10 positives listed last week. Since Bloomberg insists he's got six more years on the job, he's got plenty of time to correct course:

1. The 32 new community councils replace the old elected boards with new panels of appointees.This unmistakably dilutes the rights of minorities in violation of the Voting Rights Act, though the state legislature and the Bloomberg administration cynically assume that John Ashcroft's Justice Department will approve it anyway. In an end-of-the-session maneuver in June, the legislature unveiled a bill that nixed the key recommendations of its own 20-member task force. Rather than allow parents to elect the nine parent members of the councils, the new law empowers a district-wide handful of Parent Teacher Association officers to name them. The task force also endorsed a parent role in principal selection and evaluation, but the legislature ignored that recommendation as well. Klein "commended" the legislation as "consistent with our reorganization plan."

2. Instead of letting parents play a decisive role in the hiring and evaluation of the 1,185 Parent Coordinators, Klein gave the exclusive power to principals. Instead of requiring that coordinators be parents from each school, he opened the position to anyone with a high school diploma and a limited background in community work. These decisions undercut any chance that the coordinators could build independent parent bases in their schools to make principals and teachers more accountable. "I think an independent force can destabilize a building," the chancellor who's turning schools upside down told the Voice. "I don't think an oppositional structure works." The truth is that the corporate Bloomberg team does not believe that democratic tensions—with parents organized to demand results—make schools better. It does not want schools more accountable to consumers; it wants schools more accountable to themselves.

3. Klein's legal settlement allowing community superintendents to retain their powers under the decentralization law has created an impossible maze of conflicting authority. That law gives superintendents the exclusive power to rate principals whereas Klein's reorganization has his new 113 Local Instructional Superintendents evaluating them. Klein minimizes the effect of the deal, insisting he's only giving 32 of his LIS's the title of superintendent. "It is absolutely a conflict. We will not permit" an LIS to evaluate a principal, warns Jill Levy, the head of the principals' union who's already filed a September 2 grievance challenging an LIS's request for a performance review meeting with a principal. Levy notes that superintendents can only legally delegate authority to a subordinate but that "LIS's are the superintendent's peers" so "the union won't abide by their evaluations." The settlement does permit the superintendent to get input from other LIS's, but even Klein concedes: "Would I prefer the original structure? Yes."

4. The Panel on Educational Policy (PEP), Bloomberg's substitute for the Board of Education, has no pep. When the mayor announced his majority appointments on the 13-member rubber-stamp board (the rest originating with borough presidents), he said anyone who talked to the press would be bounced. It's chaired by the chancellor, usually meets at Tweed, and has only voted on 17 resolutions at its first 13 meetings, perhaps half the tally of a single session of the old board. Its minutes are typically a single page, its meetings sometimes last less than two hours, and Klein has decided to not even present key matters—like the new parent boards—to it. Brooklyn member Donald Weber says that when UFT president Randi Weingarten called it a "Board of Bobbleheads," she "wasn't far off." To kill the bureaucracy that came with the old board, the mayor did not have to kill the concept of real citizen participation.

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