Chancellor Walcott: Change That Kids Can Believe In?


On his first full day in office, the successor to Cathie Black and Joel Klein told a City Council hearing: “I believe in what we’re doing and I haven’t had any evidence that what we’re doing is wrong.”

But after the hearing, Sarah Porter, the mother of a public school student in Brooklyn, called the new chancellor “another mouthpiece for the mayor” (New York Times, April 9).

Shouldn’t she give the guy a chance? Yet on the very day of his appointment, Dennis Walcott had pledged, “We’re going to have a deepening of the mayor’s reform” (>Daily News, April 10).

Having continually reported on the Bloomberg-Klein command of the nation’s largest public school system for the Voice, I was dimly aware that Walcott, for nine years, was deputy mayor for education, but I cannot recall any public opposition by him, let alone deep concern, for such “reform” as persistently overcrowded classrooms. At St. Francis Lewis High School in Queens (4,200 kids crammed into a building designed for 2,400), some students go to lunch around 9 a.m. (New York Times, April 15).

Nor did I hear any response through the years from this officially “very well qualified” new chancellor when forced school closings funneled special-needs students into other buildings also incapable of giving them the confidence that they can learn.

Surely, over nine years, he must be aware of the English-language strugglers, special-ed and over-age students getting closer and closer to dropping out.

And in many Voice columns, I documented how Police Commissioner Ray Kelly’s School Safety Agents were teaching kids to fear the police. There was no reaction from Walcott. Bloomberg and Klein had given Kelly total control of this operation so that parents—furious at their manacled kids being taken away in front of their classmates to be interrogated—could only complain at the police precinct, not to the principal or the Department of Education.

Thanks to the New York Civil Liberties Union lawsuit that finally moved the City Council to mandate some steady illumination and supervision of these raw civil liberties abuses—largely inflicted on black and Hispanic students—there has been brief attention paid to this additional shame of our largely segregated school system. But police invasions continue.

How will Chancellor Walcott respond to a current lawsuit reported this April 2 by the Daily News: “A 10-year-old Bronx student . . . Sofia Bautista, a third-grader at Public School 132 in Morrisania, sobbed as officials paraded her past schoolmates and placed her in back of a squad car on April 30, 2010—says the lawsuit filed yesterday in Manhattan Federal Court.”

A kid at the school had mocked Sofia about her grades, and they got into a tussle. After Sofia had been cuffed to a bench at the stationhouse and her distraught mother was finally allowed to see her, the child was released. No charges. But, says the mother, “my daughter feels afraid all the time now.”

Any comment from Chancellor Walcott? Does he plan to have a chat with Police Commissioner Kelly about any need for remedial education to acquaint his police, including the army of 532 School Safety Agents, about something called the Bill of Rights and how it applies to schoolkids? Was the arrest of a 10-year-old Sofia based on probable cause for her perp walk before her fellow students? She wasn’t brought before a judge.

Also, Chancellor, do you have anything to say—or to do—about this April 1 New York Post story: “Parents at an elite Chinatown school are livid after learning that city investigators have pulled kids as young as 9 from class and interrogated them without notifying their families.”

Is this still America, Mr. Walcott?

This middle school is a dual-language, dual-culture English and Mandarin public elementary and middle school. What are the multicultural students there learning about the unique culture of individual constitutional liberties in this land where their school is located?

Their parents, the Post reports, say “Department of Education officials refuse to divulge—in any language—the nature of its ongoing Office of Special Investigations probe. . . . Department of Education attorney Carlyn Turner-Beverly indicated that the unannounced interviews will likely continue, to fulfill the vital purpose of protecting student welfare.”

Aren’t you now in charge of the Department of Education, chancellor? Got anything to say to the Department of Education attorney?

There are questions, sir, from parents and other close observers of the school system, about your accommodating but passive nature during your nine years as the Education Mayor’s confidante in developing what he claims is a national model of education reform.

“My experience,” says a member of the City Council afraid to give her name for fear of offending you and your commander-in-chief, “has been that he [Walcott] does call back and will say, ‘Yes, yes, yes,’ but follow-up is wanting” (New York Times, April 8).

Adds another former colleague masked in anonymity lest he bruise the chancellor’s feelings: “Any question that needed to be danced around, Dennis [Walcott] did the dancing. Any person that got upset or exercised, Dennis did the calming.”

He must have been effective. In the same April 8 Wall Street Journal profile: “Hundreds of Department of Education staffers gave [Walcott] a rock star welcome when he took the podium in the ornate, five-story rotunda at the department’s headquarters in the former Tweed courthouse. . . .”

Dennis Walcott has taken one clear, admirable position—by contrast with the dancing Governor Andrew Cuomo. He is forthright about the damage to kids in the state’s teacher tenure law that mandates this city—when firing teachers—first lay off those who were first hired. I hope that Mayor Bloomberg’s also admirably intense opposition to LIFO is not the primary cause for the chancellor’s loyal agreement. Let us see if he remains independently insistent against the state and New York City’s teachers’ union’s fierce support of tenure protection by seniority.

I voted for Governor Andrew Cuomo with anticipation, but this caving by him to one of the bastions of his voting and campaigning base brings me intimations of regret. Having reported in the Voice on Governor Mario Cuomo for years, I do not believe he would have locked in teacher seniority at the expense of kids finding teachers, whenever hired, who actually learn who each one of them is—and needs.

As a longtime critic of former chancellor Joel Klein, I do, however, salute what he said in this vital regard in the May 2011 issue of the libertarian Reason magazine about his current education gig with Rupert Murdoch: “Using technology, software, distance learning, platforms, individuation, so that we focus on each child, rather than think one teacher can figure out the sweet spot in a class of 26 kids” (emphasis added).

Chancellor Walcott, do you agree with Joel—and if you do, what are you going to do about it, regardless of what the Education Mayor believes? You are now in a historic position to enlarge and deepen the lives of millions of kids—not only in New York—if you stop dancing and energize the city’s teachers to focus on each student rather than lessen their futures on the basis of collective standardized tests.

Think of these children as your children!