Thursday, October 22, 2009

Getting an Education

NYC voters are getting an education-a lesson in mendacity as the Bloomberg campaign, not simply satisfied with a 16-1 spending advantage, is now using some Bloombucks to tar Bill Thompson's record when he headed the old BOE. As the NY Times reports, however, the attack is mendacious. And the effort by the mayor's campaign is both mean spirited and smacks of desperation.

As the Times describes, Thompson, with little statutory power, played the skillful role of middleman between rival factions and a headstrong Mayor Giuliani:

"Mr. Thompson is running for mayor now, and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg regularly excoriates his educational leadership. Mr. Thompson, the mayor has suggested, must answer for virtually every failure, from board infighting to low graduation rates, leaky roofs and test-grading scandals.

But Mr. Thompson’s role, interviews and a review of records show, was sometimes greater and often less than this critique suggests. The conciliatory Mr. Thompson rarely lost his footing, counted votes with a mathematician’s care and supported chancellors, including Mr. Levy, who broke the power of local school boards, took over failing schools and concentrated power in their hands. Test scores over all rose for four straight years as the reforms took hold."

Not only that, but Thompson's abilities were recognized and supported by one Rudy Giuliani: "In his book “Leadership,” Mr. Giuliani expressed something like affection for Mr. Thompson. The Brooklyn Democrat, the mayor explained, was in the pocket of the United Federation of Teachers and opposed to reform. And yet: “I often thought his reasons were wrong, but to his credit he didn’t try to finesse us; that’s why I always asked my two appointees to support Bill for board president.”

Let's remember, as the Times article helps us do, that the old BOE was so unmanageable that even a Giuliani often found himself helpless to control its direction: "Each borough president appointed a board member. The mayor appointed two, and controlled its budget. The board elected the president and hired the chancellor. A strong cup of coffee like Mr. Giuliani could influence but not control the board, and his feuds with chancellors made for antic political theater. (Four chancellors were chosen in Mr. Giuliani’s eight-year reign; all but the last left, figuratively, feet first.)"

In fact, if the Bloombergistas want to level attacks of this kind on Thompson-and any attacks that single out individuals out of context are basically dishonest-they might just as well demonize America's Mayor for haplessness in the face of Board chaos. But only the chancellor can really be seen as the face of education in NYC during the reign of the old BOE: “If you think back to any point in the history of the city’s schools, the chancellor is the name that comes to mind, not the board president,” said Diane Ravitch, an education historian at New York University. If the chancellor, structurally and often temperamentally, was the star of the opera, the board president was the stage manager. To the extent he tended to politics efficiently, he remained in the shadows. “Thompson had not a lot of power, a strong-willed chancellor and a very difficult mayor, and he wanted to walk the road least fraught with land mines,” said former Assemblyman Steven Sanders, the chairman of the powerful Education Committee for a decade. “To say that he ran the schools is kind of silly.”

And, of course, Bloomberg knows this very well-after all, his entire rationale for mayoral control rests on the assumption that the old system was dysfunctional; and that no one, not even a Giuliani, could rein it in. Which underscores the current Bloomberg dishonesty-a conscious effort to not only mislead, but to take the voters' attention away from the fraudulent testing benchmarks that are being used to to tout the city's current educational achievements.

But the political game is tough, and when you're putting politics over progress, a little mendacity is to be expected-as it is with the anti-Thompson comments of a leading Bloomberg toady: "His was a long tenure, and Mr. Bloomberg and his aides heap scorn on it. “A true warrior speaks out and fights for mayoral control,” said Christopher Cerf, a deputy schools chancellor now working for the Bloomberg campaign. “Bill Thompson did none of that.”

Of course, if honesty was to prevail here, it would behoove Cerf to recognize that as long as Rudy Giuliani was mayor, calling for mayoral control was as pointless as peeing up a rope. But then this kind of honesty would highlight just how divisive Bloomberg's predecessor and ally really was: "Legislators suggest this criticism is not apt; they were not going to hand over control of the schools until Mr. Giuliani exited. And Mr. Thompson’s epitaph lists accomplishments, including test scores that rose for four years."

All of which underscores just how disappointing this campaign for mayor has become. Imagine if Thompson had thirty or forty million to dramatize the fraudulent test scores-or to highlight how spending on education has leaped without any real concomitant rise in achievement? But that's not gonna happen, and Bloomberg will continue to use every monetary advantage in his effort to cling to power.

Piling on, or running up the score, is not a pretty sight-but just maybe, this mendacious effort at demonizing Thompson comes from the Bloomberg campaign's own polling showing that the mayor's support is really very soft. In any case, no matter what the explanation, this kind of strategy to maintain power could very well backfire-as an unloved chief executive buys his way into a questionable third term only to face a fiscal and political reality that will, in our view, unmask the Myth of Mike unlike any opponent could ever do.