Barrett on the Mayoral Race: Thompson Comes Unglued About schools, Bloomberg Tries to Paddle Him


If the latest poll numbers are to be believed, Bill Thompson is now a real candidate for mayor. So it’s time for all of us in the media to start treating him like one, and for him to start sounding like one.

He hardly sounded like the measured and thoughtful man we know him to be when he called for Joel Klein’s dismissal and branded the Department of Education the “Enron of American education” last week.

I said on NY1 Friday that Thompson had gone from hibernation to hyperbole, disappearing for so long we weren’t sure he was running, and then exploding with outrage over audit findings that raised meaningful questions about the Department of Exaggeration, but bore no resemblance to counts in an indictment (Enron was a criminal fraud after all).

Of course, the comptroller’s audits did not prove that the department was cheating on graduation rates and test scores. DOE set up that straw man to distract from Thompson’s actual findings. No audit in this city or state ever has exposed that level of manipulation. It’s an impossible standard for an auditor, whose job is to examine the system DOE has in place to make sure its diplomas and test triumphs are earned, as these audits responsibly did. I have read the 158 pages of Thompson’s audits and DOE’s response—DOE won the paper chase, accounting for 96 of those pages—and my conclusion is that Thompson has established that DOE’s system of checks and balances tilts suspiciously in favor of the best possible result for Klein and Bloomberg.

That would mean, for example, that instead of the claimed 10 percent hike in the graduation rate since 2005, it might have gone up something less than that, hardly a rationale for dumping Klein (or Bloomberg for that matter), but sufficient reason to wonder if Klein considers it part of his job to co-produce Bloomberg’s commercials. Despite all of DOE’s smoke, it doesn’t directly challenge Thompson’s top conclusions on the first and second page of these two audits.

I asked DOE’s Andrew Jacob, who was actually barred from one Thompson audit press conference, if the department disputed these four core findings, and he swore they did. I’m linking to the email and you see if you think he did. To me, DOE has deliberately and smartly huffed and puffed and appeared to blow Thompson’s house down, without ever really disputing his central findings.

In fact, Jacob actually proves one key Thompson finding while attempting to rebut it. Thompson charged that “schools are given considerable authority with minimal oversight by DOE” in determining if students are meeting graduation standards. In Jacobs’s answer to me, he lists several ways that schools decide, even though their funding is partially determined by maximizing these numbers, to “update” and in fact upgrade student records right before and right after graduation. The individual schools just do it Nike-like. If Mike Bloomberg were running against an incumbent whose re-election rationale pivoted around such school-by-school decisions—wide open to unchecked, home-court, advantages—his tabloid-owner allies would be jumping up and down, crying foul.

The tabloids predictably echoed the Bloomberg campaign’s portrayal of the audits as political, with the Daily News calling the Thompson findings “the most cynically fabricated accusations in many a political season.” But DOE’s responses pointed out that the testing audit started in December 2007 and the graduation audit started in July 2008, long before anyone thought that Thompson would be running against Bloomberg or that Bloomberg would be running at all. In fact, in December, Bloomberg was telling reporters he wouldn’t seek a third term if the term-limits law changed because “I am a believer that a new person can do it better,” and Thompson was so friendly with Bloomberg he called the mayor’s budget in January “a testament to prudent fiscal planning.” As late as July, Thompson was still heaping the praise on Bloomberg, citing the $6.6 billion surplus that the mayor had accumulated and insisting that because of it, the city was “relatively well-positioned to cope” with the economic downturn.

Thompson also did not release the audits until last week, scheduling them for after July 1, when everyone presumed the legislative fate of the mayoral control bill would have been decided. I asked Jacob if he thought the audits were “political or professional,” laying out the timing issues that suggest they were apolitical, and he did not make a choice, saying “I agree with your assessment about the presentation of the audit.” In fact, DOE’s written responses use far heavier-handed and politically-loaded language than the audits do themselves. Howard Wolfson, the campaign mouthpiece for Bloomberg who used to be a Thompson campaign adviser, issued a statement minutes before the comptroller started the press conference announcing the first audit results, denouncing Thompson’s decade-old record as chair of “the old dysfunctional Board of Education” and cutely asking why we would “ever want to go back again” to Thompson’s “failed record on education.”

Wolfson is making a joke an argument, pretending that the board chair, not Rudy Giuliani nor the chancellors he installed, ran the school system from 1996 to 2001. But that’s what wizards of campaign spin do. What’s odd is that DOE echoes him. The department’s official response invoked Thompson’s Board of Ed history three times, launching a personal attack unheard of in governmental replies to official audits. Klein and Wolfson have effectively morphed into a single redundant sound bite.

Each of three historical references in the response was a cheap shot. DOE patted itself on the back for asking Ernst & Young to do outside audits of the graduation rate, noting that “previously, including when the Comptroller was himself the President of the Board of Education, no such independent audit was conducted.” Then the department tried to turn upside down the audit’s questions about annualization, which is the practice of annualizing a student’s performance in a two-semester course and retroactively passing a student in both semesters if he got a passing score in only one. Rather than rely on the substantive arguments for annualization the response made—some of which were compelling—DOE appended a letter to the response that demonstrated that annualization had been practiced for decades, “including during the comptroller’s terms as President of the NYC Board of Education.”

Even more uncharacteristically, DOE did its own investigation of what the Board of Ed did in the Thompson years about something called “erasure analysis”–a study of erasure patterns to identify test cheaters. Since the audit noted that the city school system used to employ erasure analysis but that it no longer does, DOE contacted a former top official who oversaw the system’s assessment office to prove that it was dropped “because it was unproductive.” Thompson, the response notes, “was President of the Board of Education at the time this decision was made.” These pointed and personal attacks—none of which are supported by any evidence that Thompson as board chair even knew about the decisions made a decade ago, much less participated in making them—politicize what are, in many factual respects, reasonable DOE responses.

Asked whether these references in the response were “political,” Jacob reduced this pattern to the single example of the erasure analysis. Pushed about whether the department had ever before pointed to Thompson’s personal history in response to an audit, Jacob said it had, citing an exchange of letters over no-bid contracts this spring. Jacob wrote that DOE noted at that time that some of the questioned contracts followed “a practice the Board endorsed while he was its president.”

Obviously, DOE’s letter about the contracts was written after the mayoral contest between Bloomberg and Thompson began. Jacob cited no example or allusion like it before the campaign. In fact, the DOE reference in April to Thompson’s personal history was also done in synchrony with Wolfson, who was simultaneously responding to the Thompson report about no-bids by reminding everyone that Thompson “presided over billions in cost overruns while running the old dysfunctional Board of Education,” auditioning the first one-two, Klein-Wolfson, punch.

The supercharged DOE responses also included ruminations about the comptroller’s “most distressing” efforts “to cast aspersions on the hard work and achievements of the students, teachers, counselors and administrators of NYC high schools,” the kind of rhetoric Wolfson gets the big bucks to bandy about, but that I’ve never seen in an agency answer to an audit.

When the department had no answers to audit findings, it dismissed them as “minor quibbles” or “trivial debater points,” and when it might have been satisfied by simply questioning the accuracy of a Thompson charge, it preferred to call them “egregious” and “irresponsible,” or “misrepresentations.” The conspiracy theories of the response were so evident that it used language like “the plot reaches its thickest point” to deride the professional determinations of professional auditors who will be working for a new comptroller in six months.

The DOE response even countered Thompson’s analysis of truancy records by charging that “the Comptroller has given up” on students who miss many successive days, considering them effective dropouts for statistical purposes, “and contends the schools should have done so as well,” turning Thompson into as modern-day version of George Wallace, slamming the door on kids who want an education.

Since this has become a schoolyard fight, it’s worth remembering who threw the first punch. The responses were written on June 16 and June 22—a month before Thompson went over the top at his press conference and on NY1. No one, not even Thompson perhaps, knew then that he would become a Klein executioner inflamed with Enron metaphors. DOE went this crazy about the audits themselves, which are written in a far more professional tone than DOE’s answers. DOE went this political and personal because Bloomberg and Klein, emboldened by their tabloid cheerleaders, believe all criticism of their grand success is unfair.

Who knows if DOE’s tone—Thompson press secretary Jeff Simmons claimed at one point that a DOE official conveyed a direct threat to him if the comptroller came after the department—helped provoke the understated Thompson to be so overstated.

Research credit: Johanna Barr, Georgia Bobley, Tom Feeney Jr., Lucy Jordan, Jane C. Timm