Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Black's Coke Fiends Divert Us

Talk about being cross pressured. That's what we are by the news that Cathie Black has served for years on the board of the Coca Cola Company-and the NY Times has reported on this because of the contradiction between her service there and the mayor's anti-soft drink stance: "By her own account, Cathleen P. Black, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s choice to be the next New York City schools chancellor, has had almost no experience with the public education system. But for nearly 20 years, she played an influential role in a company that did: Coca-Cola. As America awoke to a national obesity epidemic and schools tried to rid their hallways of sugary drinks, Coca-Cola emerged as the biggest and most aggressive opponent of the scientists, lawmakers and educators who tried to sound the alarm."

Which leads to the fact that the mayor has been leading the crusade against soda in schools: "In New York, where Ms. Black is the chancellor in waiting, her likely new boss, Mr. Bloomberg went well beyond school grounds, trying to curtail soda consumption with a new statewide tax on sugary drinks. Coca-Cola and Pepsi bottlers, joined by the American Beverage Association, a trade group, spent heavily on an elaborate television campaign featuring hard-up mothers and children stocking the family refrigerator with beverages. The proposal was defeated."

Well, if the Times was looking to find something to change our mind about Ms. Black, they might have actually done it-nah, just kidding. But really, all this shows that when it comes to singular policy issues, Bloomberg's support is often a mile long but only an inch deep. If he were a Texan, we'd say that he's all hat, no cattle.

On the other hand, if consistency is the hobgoblin of mediocre minds, than the mayor is a stone genius-just look at his posturing on reducing the city's carbon footprint (he's actually come out for a carbon tax) while promoting car dependent-particulate spewing-malls all over the city; not to mention his enthusiasm for the ultimate auto dependent retailer: Wal-Mart.

So the mayor's inconsistency-better phrased in the corporate term of compartmentalization-isn't really surprising. In our view, Black's work for Team Coke doesn't make her more or less fit for a job that she has no training or background for-and her Coke critics do little but endear her to us, particularly since one of them is the loathsome Michael Jacobson from the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

As the Times points out: "Normally, I would think that somebody who served for 18 years on the board of this junk-food producer is tainted,” said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “If you’re judged by the people with whom you hang out, it’s not a good sign,” said Dr. Jacobson, whom Mr. Bloomberg recently nominated for a national health “hero award” and who received it last month. “But I wouldn’t say it’s disqualifying. I don’t know what role she played on the board. It could be she was pushing them to cut the sugar or sell fruits and vegetables. It’s hard to know.”

Oh, good grief! Jacobson's attack-egged on by the Times' pointless scrutiny of her Coke board service-is a classic non sequitor here-and it only serves to dramatize CSPI's anti-capitalist rantings. But if it does, however, it serves the mayor right in a classic poetic justice kind of way.

It was, after all, CSPI's calorie posting/menu labeling attack on fast food that was the progenitor of Bloomberg's foolish policy replication of the idea in NYC-so Mike owns this sucker! (lying down with dogs and getting fleas, you know). All of which gives the Times the opportunity to go off on an anti-soda/Coke tangent: "The company unleashed a flurry of lobbyists, donations and advertising to fight the efforts, prompting local officials to describe it as “bullying” and “unconscionable.” Even as other large food manufacturers embraced the public-health measures, Coca-Cola dug in its heels, rewarding schools that kept selling its products and threatening those that would not, officials said."

Right along with Jacobson's, "junk food producer," snark: "During Ms. Black’s tenure, pressure intensified on soda companies to limit sales in schools after Dr. David Satcher, the surgeon general, in 2001 declared obesity a national crisis with “tragic results.” He urged local communities to lead the fight. And much to the beverage industry’s chagrin, they did. In 2003, California and New York City banned the sale of soft drinks in elementary and middle schools. At the same time, a coalition of lawyers who had successfully sued tobacco companies began developing strategies for taking on food companies, threatening a barrage of lawsuits. By 2006, when Connecticut tried for the second year in a row to join the wave of local governments barring sugary drinks at schools, Coke and other companies pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into a bare-knuckle battle to stop the legislation."

Of course, the role that Cathie Black played in all of this isn't clear-as even Jacobson admits: "I don’t want to be naive, because I don’t know what she pushed for, if anything — or was it easy money?”  Doesn't stop the Times-and the NY Daily News' Juan Gonzales-from using her appointment as a Coca Cola battering ram.

All of this is, in our view, a distraction, and takes away from the argument over Black's limited education resume. Sol Stern brings us back to the central issue of the weakness of her appointment: "As the news circulated around New York City last week that Joel Klein was resigning as schools chancellor and would be replaced by Hearst Magazines executive Cathleen Black, I was deluged with e-mails from friends and colleagues. All expressed surprise at Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s pick of the unknown Black: “Cathie who?” “Is Bloomberg serious?” The public reaction was best summarized by a New York Daily News front-page headline the morning after Bloomberg’s announcement: the single word HUH? in large type, followed by a subhead alluding to Black’s lack of education experience. By the end of the week, even New York Times reporters were poking fun at Bloomberg’s claim that his selection of Black was the result of a careful search for the best available candidate.":

But Stern underscores something deeper and, we believe, more meaningful: the weaknesses in the underlying pedagogical philosophy of the Bloomberg/Klein approach to school reform-something that Black will inevitably replicate: "To give the mayor his due, this description of qualifications for the chancellor’s job is consistent with everything he has said since taking over the schools in 2002. Bloomberg always insisted that the managerial and entrepreneurial skills needed to run a successful private-sector company were perfectly applicable to the task of improving the schools. And that renders moot the question of whether Black needs to know anything about education and instruction. The national adulation that Bloomberg has received (some of it self-generated) for his “breakthrough” school reforms has obviously confirmed him in this fundamental belief."

Well, with Bloomberg's money it isn't hard to find people swearing to check laden proclamations. The issue, however, goes deeper: "Though significant doubts have now surfaced about the extent of academic gains made by the city’s students during the Bloomberg era, there is little question that Gotham has become the nation’s most visible example of what I have previously called the “incentivist” approach to education reform. For education incentivists, what matters most is efficient management, backed by a series of internal market interventions to maximize the productivity of the workforce (that is, teachers and principals), which will produce better results (higher test scores)."

There is another model, however, that has greater resonance for us-and for most educators as well: "In sharp contrast to Bloomberg’s New York, Massachusetts has been the nation’s leading exemplar of what I have called the “instructionist” approach to education reform. Starting in the mid-1990s, a coalition of reformers pushed the state’s board of education to mandate rigorous curricula for all grades and created demanding tests linked to those curriculum standards. In its English Language Arts curriculum framework, the board even dared to say that reading instruction in the early grades should include systematic and explicit phonics. Guess which school system has produced greater and more meaningful academic achievement gains on the unimpeachable national NAEP tests?"

Mike, no doubt with both hands covering his ears, has no use for this approach-or any capacity to appreciate it: "Since Bloomberg clearly remains convinced that Klein, a chancellor without a background in education, oversaw eight years of achievement gains simply by creating the proper incentives, there’s no reason for him to believe that Black ought to know, say, the difference between phonics and whole language."

All of this serious debate is lost in the current furor over Black's qualifications-and, as Stern points out, her critics have only themselves to blame: "In truth, there’s no reason for anyone to be surprised by anything the mayor does on education policy, certainly not those influential New Yorkers who pressed the state legislature last year to reauthorize mayoral control of the schools entirely on Bloomberg’s terms...Those who urged exempting the mayor from any checks and balances last year can hardly object to the way he exercised his powers this year. Nor should anyone be shocked that Bloomberg believes he has the complete authority to appoint a new schools chancellor, even if—as in Black’s case—that decision was based not on a thorough search but on a seeming whim."

All of these issues should, as we argued last year, been the subject of serious scrutiny and debate over legislative reauthorization of mayoral control. It didn't happen-and the reason it didn't is starkly revealed in a Bloomberg money talks article in the NY Post this morning: "Mayor Bloomberg contributed an eye-bulging $420 million to his charitable foundation last year, catapulting it to the 17th largest in the United States, with assets of more than $2.2 billion, according to IRS filings released yesterday."

When you cede local political control to a wealthy parvenu, don't act surprised when he exercises droit du seigneur. All of which makes the Coke slurpping of the NY Times a diversion from recognizing the sad supplanting of democratic politics by wealthy elitism in this country's supposed liberal bastion