Friday, January 30, 2009

Out of Control

The debate over continued mayoral control of the schools has begun-with hearings starting in Queens yesterday. And from the looks of things, changes in the governance system may be in the works. As City Room reports: "If anyone thinks the debate on the mayor’s control of the schools is a staid affair, witness the crowd at the State Assembly’s first public hearing on the law, which comes up for renewal in Albany at the end of June."

And the Public Advocate is right in the middle of the debate: "Betsy Gotbaum, the city’s public advocate, was the first to testify, echoing many of the points made in a report her office released in September that endorsed mayoral control but called for more checks and balances, particularly from parent groups. Ms. Gotbaum said she was particularly concerned that the 32 school districts have, for all intents and purposes, been eliminated. She said it was hard for parents to get answers from central offices and often relied instead on her office or those of community elected officials."

The mayor's supporters would like everyone to see the debate as an all or nothing one between those who want the accountability of the mayor's rule versus those who want to revert back to the bad old days: "Deputy Mayor Dennis M. Walcott, who oversees the Education Department, testified on behalf of City Hall, continuing to push the message that things have never been better in the city schools. Much of his opening remarks recounted what life was like when the independent Board of Education was still in charge. “I remember the inequities inherent in 32 mini-school systems — some run capably, some corruptly,” Mr. Walcott said. “No systemwide curriculum, even in math or reading. A system where school funding was opaque and based more on politics than on needs. I remember a 27 percent lag behind the state in math and a 23 percent lag in English. Too many students who could not read promoted from grade to grade, with graduation rates below 50 percent and much lower for students of color.”

What's instructive here in Walcott's, "who are gonna believe, me or your own lying eyes" world, is how the idyllic picture he paints is unrecognizable to those closest to the system: teachers, parents and administrators: "Mr. Walcott’s testimony was occasionally punctuated by boos from parents in the back of the room who had come to the meeting with a group called “Campaign for Better Schools,” which is advocating changes in the way mayoral control is set up, including more checks and balances and public participation."

And as one City Room commenter says: "Ask the people working in the schools what they think…this myth of improvement is just that, a myth. The exams have been dumbed down so that people such as Klein and Bloomberg can brag about “improvements.” The morale of the professional staff has never been so low. Everybody who can gets out as soon as they’re eligible to retire. Everything is the fault of the staff. Even the idiotic topic they decided up for their strategy, Children First, shows how conceited they are."

Also of interest is how the mayor's vaunted lobbying effort is floundering: "When close allies of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg banded together last summer to create a political organization to push for the renewal of a 2002 state law that gave New York City’s mayor control over its public schools, the initial buzz was that it would become a powerhouse lobbying group, raising as much as $20 million and helping shape the debate over the year. Instead the group, called Learn NY, has raised less than $3 million from several foundations. Rather than producing flashy television spots, it has placed simple ads on Web sites of news organizations and, and tried to spread its positions by posting on education and community listservs and blogs."

Not to get too excited, however. As soon as this gets the mayor's real attention-or that of Wolfson and Sheinkoff-watch how the money begins to flow in; flabbergasting as it might be to all of the floundering not-for-profits in the city. But watch out for the parent push back: "But in its early, largely low-key campaign, the leaders of Learn NY have drawn the ire of some of the most active and vocal parent-advocates in the city. When David M. Quintana, a Queens father whose blog features a clock counting down to the end of the mayor’s term, received an e-mail message this week asking him to post a letter introducing Learn NY to his readers, he instead sent it to a listserv that is often critical of Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein. “I just suspected that they were sort of a Gal Friday for the mayor,” Mr. Quintana said in an interview. “They tried to recruit parents and they just picked the wrong parents to recruit.”

What the mayor and his minions resist in all of this back and forth, is any real oversight role for parents-or anyone not appointed by Mike Bloomberg: "Dennis M. Walcott, the deputy mayor who oversees education, said the administration opposed any change in the Panel for Education Policy, which is appointed by the mayor and largely serves as a rubber stamp, in part because it believes most of the mayor’s controversial initiatives would never have passed had he not had full control over the schools."

At the end of the day here, we hope that the legislature closely examines the reality vs. the spin in this debate over governance. As one Queens lawmaker points out: “No one wants to go back to the old system of finger pointing and no one being in charge and there’s an appreciation of the line of authority,” said Michael N. Gianaris, a Queens assemblyman. “That being said, there’s a wide belief that parents are real stakeholders, and that has not been appreciated as much as it should be, and too often parents are shut out of the process.”

Ultimately, however, the issue will be all about Mike Bloomberg-and the ire of so many folks is directed at his overturning of term limits; along with an animosity to the chancellor that grows stronger every year:

"Learn NY organizers said they hope lawmakers and the public could separate their views on Chancellor Klein from the concept of mayoral control, but such a distinction can be difficult to make in the political world. “If the mayor was not running for re-election, one could be more objective about it, but I think people see that the chancellor hasn’t made a lot of friends in the last several years and that’s part of what happens when you have one person having this level of authority,” said Randi Weingarten, the president of the teachers’ union, who has sparred with Mr. Klein repeatedly in recent years and is influential in Albany."

This fight is just getting started; and we can't wait to see the deconstruction of the Myth of Michael in the process. The more folks know, the less they appreciate Bloomberg's grandeur.