Thursday, March 19, 2009

Bloomberg's School Glaze

Buried in the middle of a brilliant piece by Jacob Gershman in today's NY Post is the following observation on the educational version of money for nothing: "Mayor Bloomberg's budget essentially froze public education spending. The stimulus wipes out about 80 percent of the cuts that he and Paterson proposed, pouring nearly another $1 billion on the city's schools. Bloomberg's total education budget is now expected to grow by 3.5 percent. To puts things in perspective: The state and city will be spending 78 percent more on our schools than when Bloomberg took office.

Now, what Gershman is commenting on is the Albany version of the Shell game-nice, huh? This is the game that uses the sense of economic crisis to increase taxes while simultaneously doing absolutely nothing to trim the fat out of the state budget. It devolves from the Alinsky style crisis mongering that the WFP's Dan Cantor is mimicking to great effect: "When pressed, Cantor added some clarity: "Like Rahm Emanuel, we don't believe in wasting a crisis." He's sure about one thing, however: "Every dollar we get means some poor kid somewhere doesn't get hurt so badly."

But, as the education scenario above underscores, more money is rarely the sine qua non of enhanced service delivery. This is the Social Democratic version of Roberto Michel's dissection of the bureaucratic impulse. Michels, in his classic work Political Parties, observed that: “The social revolution would not effect any real modification of the internal structure of the mass. The socialists might conquer, but not socialism, which would perish in the moment of its adherents’ triumph.”

Along with the educational prospects of the poor child who is still, without the choices that the children of Obama, Bloomberg and Klein are offered, left to suffer within the confines of well-funded, but under performing, NYC educational bureaucracy. Which brings us inevitably to the upcoming battle over mayoral control; something that WNYC has focused a keen eye on (via Liz).

What the station does is to examine the make up of Learn NY, a supposedly independent group formed to back re-authorization of mayoral control of the schools. As one skeptic points out: "Learn NY is being funded inadvertently, not directly, through the mayor. He’s done great P.R. I think its very sad that he’s using parents in this way, and that the real fact is we have to look to see if the mayor has been successful in what he says that he’s brought to New York City. And if you look at the facts, not the spin, the eighth grade scores in math and English are totally flat."

Well, the scores may be flat, but the budget's certainly robust-and if the team is way over the salary cap, but it's winning championships, who could complain, right? Apparently, however, the city school performance is closer to that of it's local NBA team; where huge spending sprees in the pursuit of excellence, have given the fans very little to cheer about.

But the skeptic is correct; the mayor does great PR-and is aided and abetted by the lack of curiosity in the local media. So what about the "funded inadvertently" claim? How inadvertent does anyone who examines the situation think it really is? "Learn NY has filled other assembly hearings with parents, many of them from charter schools. It’s hired the political consulting and polling firm Global Strategy Group, which worked for Attorney General Andrew Cuomo and Congressman Charles Rangel. Learn NY claims to have raised $3 million. But it won’t say who’s funding its campaign and because it’s a non-profit it doesn’t have to. The group DOES maintain it’s NOT funded by Mayor Bloomberg."

Quite the grass roots outfit, no? A three million dollar budget, and the mayor's an innocent bystander/recipient of the sweat equity of neighborhood folks. All that's missing here is the orchestra: "Geoffrey Canada chairs the board of Learn NY. He’s also Chief Executive of the Harlem Children’s Zone – which runs a network of services for families, plus two charter schools. Canada says Learn NY is supported by private foundations who don’t wish to be identified, but which are longtime contributors to the schools. A spokesman for the mayor also says the group gets no money from Bloomberg and is completely independent. Canada says he incorporated Learn NY last summer, before Bloomberg declared his intention to seek a third term. He says it’s an important issue for him in Harlem, because too many people were passing the buck before the mayor took charge."

Canada's a good guy, but to claim he's a free agent is to test the credulity of even the most gullible: "Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Childen’s Zone has received almost $388 million in contracts from the city and the Education Department over the past decade, according to records from the comptroller’s office. Two other board members of Learn NY are Reverend Calvin Butts of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, and Sister Paulette LoMonaco of Good Shepherd Services. Their organizations have done almost $400 million worth of combined business with the city over the last decade. Canada acknowledges that raises legitimate questions about what he stands to gain or lose."

Which makes him, at least in comparison to Mike Bloomberg, a regular Diogenes: "Last year, Canada was also among a group of non-profit leaders who supported Mayor Bloomberg’s call to abolish term limits. That led to questions about whether they were pressured by City Hall, something they denied. But Chris Keeley, Associate Director of Common Cause New York, sees a similar pattern in this campaign to keep mayoral control of the schools."

And Keeley's not alone; particularly since the mayor's wealth insinuates itself into all of these public policy debates that ultimately redound to Bloomberg's own self interest: "The underlying message when the mayor would ask for participation in a board is, what if you say no? The implicit message, and that’s not to say that the mayor does that, but it is a power dynamic that exists. If somebody is providing finances for your organization and they ask you for a favor it can be difficult to say no. About 40 community based organizations and charter schools have joined Learn NY. Many of them get city funding. There’s no evidence Mayor Bloomberg pressured them to join. But last September, Klein, Bloomberg, and Geoffrey Canada hosted a breakfast at City Hall with foundation heads and business leaders. Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott was also there. He says no one was asked to campaign for mayoral control – though attendees were shown a powerpoint presentation about the system’s success."

And since Bloomberg now wants to masquerade as a Republican, can we call all of this astroturfing the real elephant in the room? After all, if Bloomberg went to sell this stuff in Albany by his lonesome, how does anyone think it would work out? Say West Side Stadium three times: "Coalitions may be especially important for Bloomberg, whose relationships with Albany lawmakers have been strained. His signature plans for a West Side stadium and congestion pricing on the East River bridges died in Albany. April Humphrey represents a group that is fighting to put checks and balances on the mayor’s power, called the "Campaign for Better Schools". She concedes it’s politically smart for someone as respected as Geoffrey Canada to lead a group supporting mayoral control, instead of Bloomberg and his chancellor."

All of this is purposefully designed to put a populist patina on the mayor's school and re-election agendas; while at the same time gilding a rather wilted school performance lily. WNYC deserves kudos for this piece, and we hope it sets a trend in the needed deconstruction of the Myth of Mike.