The Education Emperor Wins, Kids Lose


From his first purchase of the mayoralty, Michael Bloomberg pledged that his legacy as mayor would be judged by his reform of the school system. Now, choosing Cathie Black, someone from his social circle, to replace Joel Klein as chancellor—without any search beyond his own cranium—he immediately ordered her not to talk to the press. Picking up the cue, when the state released her college transcripts, her grades were omitted, allegedly to respect her privacy (Daily News, November 23).

Startled by angry resistance to his regal decision from irreverent parents and teachers, Bloomberg was told by State Education Commissioner David Steiner that Black, without any meaningful background in education, could only get a waiver to educate New York City’s 1.1 million students (70 percent of whom are black and Hispanic) if she were backed up by a chief academic second-in-command.

For that role was chosen Shael Polakow-Suransky, who has indeed risen through the city school system, most recently as Deputy Chancellor for Performance and Accountability. Craftily, Bloomberg credited Black for selecting him, but an insider—anonymous, of course—says, to no one’s surprise: “It was the mayor’s call” (Daily News, November 29).

There was no immediate response to the press from Polakow-Suransky, in keeping with the mayor’s disdain for transparency when he decides it’s not the public’s business. A key broker in the deal, Merryl Tisch, chancellor of the State Board of Regents, said: “The issue for us is, can we create credibility around this position?” (The New York Times, November 27).

The mayor made a pass at credibility in his letter to the education commissioner agreeing to his condition for the waiver. The real-life educator supporting Black would have “the broadest scope for the exercise of independent initiative and judgment.”

Of course, the only person who will have the final judgment on what either Black or Polakow-Suransky do is the Education Mayor. In all of this minuting of authority, Bloomberg remains in control. But as for the independence of Black’s second-in-command outside the throne room, Fernanda Santos of The New York Times reported on November 27 that Aaron Pallas—a professor of education Teachers College, Columbia University—saw through the con by reminding us that while Polakow-Suransky surely has the credits for the job, “his years as part of Mr. [Joel] Klein’s inner circle ‘will leave other people skeptical that he can show independence.’ ”

Does anyone believe that Black herself will dare show independence if the supermayor disapproves as they try to continue what he regards as the “transformative” legacy of Joel Klein? Said Klein’s former boss: “Did he stir things up? You betcha. That was the job, and the great beneficiaries of that stirring were our children.”

Joel Klein heartily agrees. A day after he resigned, he told Yoav Gonen, an education reporter for the New York Post on November 11 that he had “accomplished the most far-reaching [and] transformative—whether you like it or not—set of reforms in America. . . . It’s indisputable [that] we played big and got big results.”

I have disputed Klein’s assessment of his triumphs in a series of I columns, which I’ll continue in my next one here.

But, to begin, in the same Post story, headed by Klein’s self-celebration, here is Tisch: “I think obviously we all are frustrated by the graduation rate. Even though it’s climbing, we know that 40 percent of the youngsters are not graduating—we also know that 75 percent of the youngsters who are graduating need to be remediated.”

So how to explain the national hosannas for our triumphant education reformers from around the country, including from Obama’s Education Secretary Arne Duncan? I wish I knew the answer. It’s one of the biggest hypes in the history of education in America.

I do credit such New York City exposers of this scam as the Coalition for Educational Justice;; and Leonie Haimson, public school parent and head of Class Size Matters. In a searing, partial litany of what Bloomberg and Klein have done to make many of this city’s schoolchildren believe they are dumb—their parents know damn well they’re not—Haimson says of Klein: “He is leaving us with a legacy of classroom overcrowding, communities fighting over co-located schools, kindergarten waiting lists, unreliable school grades based on bad data, substandard credit-recovery programs, and children starved of art, music, and science—all replaced with test prep” (The New York Times, November 10).

I add that Klein is leaving children starved of learning why they are Americans. When he used to talk to me, I kept asking when he was going to bring back civics classes—the dramatic stories of why we have First and Fourth amendments and the rest of our individual liberties against government in the Bill of Rights—and how much of a continuous struggle it is to keep them working for us. Where are they?

Does Black know the five freedoms of the First Amendment? Is she going to have them taught in our schools? And Donna Lieberman, head of the New York Civil Liberties Union, has some vital questions for her and her second-in-command. (I doubt they interest the Education mayor because he’s made clear that he himself needs remedial education in elementary civics.) Asks Lieberman: “There are more than 5,000 cops in the schools. This poorly trained police force does not answer to school principals or the chancellor. What would you do, Ms. Black, to make sure that police do not undermine the school environment?”

Bloomberg and Klein have succeeded in teaching many of our schoolchildren to fear the police. Police Commissioner Ray Kelly also needs educational remediation.

Lieberman continues: “What steps would you take to make sure that minor disciplinary issues like writing on a desk or wearing a hat in school do not lead to youth having a criminal record? Suspensions are soaring, particularly for black youth and students with special needs. Is that a matter of concern for you?”

It certainly hasn’t been for the Education Mayor.

Another big question from Lieberman: “How will you promote parent involvement in public education?” Klein had little time or interest in parents’ concerns.

And yet another one: “How will you hold charter schools accountable for how they educate at-risk youth, such as English-language learners and those with learning disabilities?” Lieberman asks.

In my next column, what about the persistent “racial gap” in learning under Klein and Bloomberg? This blights the present and future lives of students all over the country—as in this largely segregated school system. It’s not segregation by law, but rather by de facto residential segregation and white flight from the city.

But the impact of the racial gap in education is on kids of all colors. That led to Brown v. Board of Education. The Supreme Court has abused that decision, too.

And do tell us, Ms. Black, how you will lower the grim number of dropouts from our schools?