The Puppet Chancellor


The total centralization of control of the school system has created a new culture of lackey behavior. . . . The system does not have the checks and balances to protect whistleblowers, nor even to tolerate a word of dissent. This is a symptom of a sick organizational culture.

Diane Ravitch, research professor of education at New York University, author of The Great School Wars, the definitive history of New York’s schools, New York Post, March 10

There is a climate of fear at the Department of Education.

Andrew Wolf, The New York Sun, March 12-14

Everyone who talks to us—teachers, principals, parents—they are scared.

Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum, Daily News, February 23

In the swashbuckling style of Rudy Giuliani, his successor summarily fired the dissenting members of the Panel for Educational Policy on March 15 to rig the vote for his own imperious plan to end social promotion. It was as if the mayor were a mob chieftain ordering a hit on soldiers suspected of disloyalty. But Bloomberg never really left the corporate, top-down culture. Deeply disappointing, however, was the role of Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott—who earned great respect in his years with the Urban League in New York. He is now the hatchet man who told two of the mayor’s former appointees to the panel to get lost.

The highly respected author and professor of education Diane Ravitch, whom I have learned from in my many years of reporting on schools, says Bloomberg has turned the school system into a “lackey” culture.

And what of the chancellor, Joel Klein? When he returned to New York from the corporate culture of the Justice Department and then the private sector, I had no doubt he earnestly wanted all the kids to know they could make their way in the world because of what they’d learned in school about their potential.

So how did the chancellor react when UFT president Randi Weingarten said that what the mayor did to dispose of the heretics on the Panel for Educational Policy was “similar to the Watergate Saturday night massacre”? It was as if Bloomberg had put on a Richard Nixon mask to commemorate that enforcer’s cleaning out of the Justice Department. That did Nixon no good. He was eventually forced out of office.

Was Joel Klein, himself once a respected member of the Justice Department, concerned about the fixing of the vote?

“I think it is a legitimate vote,” Klein told The New York Times the next morning. “I don’t think it was rigged.”

One of the student representatives on the panel disagreed with the chancellor, whom she did not see as a model of instruction in civics. “People,” she said of the vote that the mayor had so obviously rigged, “shouldn’t be fired for what they believe in.”

I don’t know how many students read the newspapers, but many of their parents do, and it couldn’t have been much of a surprise to them to witness the chancellor again becoming the mayor’s lackey.

When Deputy Chancellor Diana Lam’s post-graduate exercise in nepotism came to glaring light—although Sol Stern of the Manhattan Institute and Andrew Wolf at The New York Sun had broken the story long before—Chancellor Klein rigorously expressed full confidence in her. But when the mayor made it evident that she had to go, Klein swiftly forced her resignation.

Similarly, when the role in the Lam cover-up by the department’s general counsel, Chad Vignola, began to loom heavily, Joel Klein expressed full confidence in him too. But the mayor frowned, and Vignola was also gone—not to sleep with the fishes, but forbidden to dwell in the Tweed Courthouse again.

The mayor’s comment when Diana Lam was removed underlines how clueless he is about the education “reforms” he keeps insisting will make or break his administration. Bloomberg told Newsday that Lam’s banishment “had nothing to do with her performance in terms of her duties as deputy chancellor.”

But as Diane Ravitch has trenchantly noted, during Lam’s last year and a half in office, “she has imposed one disastrous policy after another on the schools. . . . [She] picked an experimental, virtually unknown reading program for the city’s elementary schools . . . ‘Month by Month Phonics,’ [which] has no track record, no evidence that it has been successful in any other big city.”

There were more of her systemic mistakes, as Andrew Wolf keeps chronicling in The New York Sun. But in all the media attention to the Monday night massacre on March 15, not enough attention has been paid to Diane Ravitch’s warning about what Lam has left in her wake.

“Hundreds of elementary schools remain saddled with Lam’s favored [reading] program. . . . [Her] influence on the schoolsystem remains intact. Her legacy lives on in the hundreds of people that she personally picked for the school system’s top supervisory positions and in the misguided programs that she personally selected.”

Yet after Diana Lam was fired by the feckless Klein at the mayor’s bidding, Bloomberg said to Newsday about the chancellor: “He’s standing with me, and he’s going to be standing right with me for the next six years. Make no mistake about that.”

Actually, the length of the tenure of both the mayor and his faithful chancellor depends on the New Yorkers who intend to vote next year, when the mayor is up to succeed his kingly self.

After the mayor sandbagged the vote on social promotion, Norman Fruchter, director of NYU’s Institute for Education and Social Policy, told Newsday: “You don’t solve instructional problems by holding kids back. If you knew what to do with them in the first place, you would have done it.”

Neither Bloomberg nor Klein knew. To be continued.

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