The Underside of Bloomberg’s School Reform


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.

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.

5. Placement in the “New Beginnings” disruptive student program is arbitrary, with teachers requesting removal and principals making the final determination. The 16 schools, already serving 930 high school students, are run by the Office of School Safety, which contracts out with organizations like the Police Athletic League and the YMCA. Students get two fewer regular credit courses a day than their mainstream counterparts and are theoretically returned to their original schools after short stays. Yet there are no written placement criteria, and the assigned nonviolent students are chosen mostly because of “attendance, cutting and hall-walking problems,” according to a program supervisor. Despite an upside of classes as small as 10 to 1 and parent consultations prior to placement, the program’s wide discretion makes it likely that behavior tolerated in one high school will lead to removal in another.

6. The layoff of hundreds of paraprofessionals flies in the face of the mayor’s stated desire to protect classrooms. While 625 of the 864 laid-off, UFT-represented, paras have already been rehired, their terminations were a transparent attempt to punish Weingarten, who’s stonewalled the mayor on a host of labor fronts. As brutal as the simultaneous layoffs of school aides and family assistants were, that action did not involve vital in-classroom positions like paras. Weingarten was so “burned,” as she put it, by the para layoffs that she indicated a possible willingness to sacrifice teacher sabbaticals to protect them. Though she never put a formal sabbatical offer on the table, Bloomberg et al. never pushed it either. She is now grieving the administration’s unilateral denial of almost all sabbatical applications. Declaring that a busted city can’t afford to finance a year off with two-thirds pay for hundreds of teachers makes sense; firing paras doesn’t.

7. As innovative as much of the instructional reform is, training principals already on the job and supporting teacher creativity are hardly Bloomberg priorities. Jill Levy, whose union represents most of the system’s supervisors, testified at a city council hearing that her principals and assistant principals were getting no targeted training in the new standardized math and reading curriculums mandated for their schools. Weingarten tells teachers that the lockstep curricula “forces you to abandon the successful instructional practices you’ve developed over the years.” These complaints have been confirmed by fair observers. Klein’s excellent Leadership Academy is focused on trainees, not principals in the field. Klein may have nothing to do with the classroom excesses exposed in the tabloids—like banning blackboards—but he still needs to make it clear how much he values creative teaching.

8. The 2002 Bloomberg/UFT contract granted the largest raises in history in exchange for puny increases in teaching time; the next negotiations cannot repeat that disaster. To get his mayoral control bill out of Albany, Bloomberg was forced to sign off on the 2002 contract by Assembly Speaker and UFT hostage Shelly Silver. It did nothing about the most odious elements of the contract-salary scales that equate gym and geometry teachers and seniority transfers that allow bad teachers to move from school to school. It did include a change in the procedures for dismissing teachers for misconduct that has improved the numbers—with cases charged going from 95 in the 2002 school year to 143 in 2003 and cases closed going from 188 to 261. Terminations, as well as forced resignations and retirements, were up. While misconduct cases are moving more quickly, Klein says “if you’re trying to terminate a teacher for incompetence, that’s still a very protracted process.”

9. Overcrowding is undercutting the Bloomberg reforms, provoked in part by Bush’s No Child Left Behind. Federal law allows students to transfer from failing to better schools, which has triggered chaotic congestion in some schools. While Chicago is denying most transfers and still getting Bush’s federal aid, New York State officials required the city to approve the transfers and Klein complied, initially at least, with some enthusiasm. The UFT has filed a mountain of class size grievances—partly related to the federal transfers and partly to the space crunch afflicting selected schools. George Sweeting of the Independent Budget Office says that last year—before the transfer policy went into full effect—the citywide class average “looks like” it declined a “little less than half a kid.” Another example of a damaging mandate is the state legislature’s ban on Parent Association officers serving on the new community councils, which parent leaders like Robin Brown say will disqualify the most activist parents.

10. Real concerns about the new curriculum are bubbling up from apolitical professionals who genuinely support the reforms. Klein’s press office selected Murray Bergtraum High School in Manhattan for a Voice visit, yet teachers and administrators there expressed concern about the first book they were required to read aloud to ninth graders, Monster. A finalist for the National Book Award, Monster is filled with rape, stabbings, suicidal talk, and even a reference to the insertion of a butt plug. Lily Vero, one of the teachers using it at Bergtraum, says the officials who picked Monster don’t want fairy tales, “so instead we’re reading a book that will keep them up at night.” Author Walter Dean Myers insists that 13-year-olds are ready for it, adding that “teachers who are embarrassed by it” aren’t embarrassed “when they turn out classes of nonreaders.” Far beyond Monster, there is also considerable unease in the schools about the core phonics program; Klein needs public forums where every stakeholder feels comfortable freely reacting to the new curriculum.

Union bombast from Levy and Weingarten has made it almost impossible for Klein and Bloomberg to dispassionately consider legitimate complaints. Just as Weingarten used her Albany leverage over the mayoral-control legislation to win the UFT’s 2002 contract, she may well be using her power to obstruct implementation of the reforms to try to win a 2003-2004 contract. One of the history lessons the Bloomberg team missed is that the professional unions have fought every effort to reform schools as vigorously as they’ve championed every effort to fund them. A mayor and chancellor more committed to real change than any predecessor in decades must find a way to separate constructive stakeholder critics from shakedown powerbrokers, and must open their ears to the voices down below who care. If this revolution is to take root and last, it will have to find a constituency in classrooms and communities, a challenge that has no corporate parallel.

Research assistance: Michael Anstendig, Tommy Hallissey, Cristi Hegranes, Ruth Mantell, Sarah Ruffler, Jessica Silver-Greenberg