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12th March

First Published in The New York Sun, March 12, 2004

By Andrew Wolf

The idea that the forced resignations of the deputy chancellor for teaching and learning, Diana Lam, and general counsel Chad Vignola has somehow resolved the problems at the Department of Education is one that should be resisted. The underlying problems that caused the scandal are still there and must be addressed. 

On Monday, Ms. Lam was asked to resign following revelations made in a report issued a week ago by the special investigator for the New York City Schools, Richard J. Condon. The report outlines the events surrounding Ms. Lam’s attempt to secure a job with the Department of Education for her husband, Peter Plattes. Mr. Vignola was implicated by the report as having coordinated efforts to cover up the hiring of Mr. Plattes, by terming him a “volunteer.” He resigned Wednesday evening.

Mayor Bloomberg has shown great leadership in demanding this swift action, even as his chancellor, Joel Klein, has left the impression that he is less than decisive, unwilling to recognize the gravity of the situation. What needs to be done? 

    Unless some systemic changes are made, it is a sure bet that there will be similar incidents in the future. Top employees must know and obey the law, and their underlings must have the confidence that they can bring problem such as this to the highest levels without concern for their jobs. 

    There is a climate of fear at the Department of Education. That is why the department employee who first blew the whistle on this matter did not take up these concerns within the department, but raised them in an anonymous e-mail to me. There was enough information in that communication to give me the confidence that this person indeed was an employee, and the information checked out. 

    I am proud of the role I and my colleagues at The New York Sun played in revealing this matter to the public, just as I’m flattered that one of my readers turned to me with this information. But I would sleep better at night knowing that we had a Department of Education, the folks to which we entrust our children, that valued the truth above all else. 

    Had the department simply told the truth when confronted, this story would have been a one-day wonder. Embarrassing, unnecessary, but in the final analysis yesterday’s news.Why in the world did they choose instead to cover it up? 

    The critical moment came on Thursday, July 31, 2003. I learned that Mr. Plattes would be making a presentation as part of an all-day meeting of key regional personal at their office on Zerega Avenue in the Bronx. The Sun dispatched an education reporter, Kate Lucadamo, and a photographer to check out this promising story. When Ms. Lucadamo arrived, she announced her business but was denied access. 

    Meanwhile, inside the offices, Mr. Plattes was making his presentation to about 50 of his colleagues. While speaking, he was interrupted by a visibly agitated regional superintendent, Laura Rodriguez. She whispered urgently in his ear and led him from the room. Thus abruptly ended Mr. Plattes’s first effort to sell his services to the Department of Education, in mid-sentence. 

    As Ms. Lucadamo waited outside, Mr. Plattes was spirited out a back entrance. Later in the day, when Ms. Lucadamo spoke to a press officer at the Department of Education, she was then told that Mr. Plattes was an “unpaid volunteer.” 

    “He’s not being paid and will not be,” said the spokesperson, Kevin Ortiz, who has since left the Education Department. “He’shelping Laura out on a temporary and voluntary basis. At some point, he did consider taking the job full-time, but he decided that given Diana’s job with the department, it didn’t make sense.” 

    If Mr. Plattes was indeed a volunteer, there would have been no reason to stop his presentation and whisk him out the door the instant a reporter made an inquiry. The Tweed Ring knew that public knowledge of this appointment would cause a problem — so they lied. 

    That there was a cover-up at all is distressing, but not surprising. The department has systematically engaged in presenting news — even good news — deceptively. To bring reporters to P.S. 172 in Brooklyn to introduce the new curriculum choices and maintain that the success of that school resulted from those program was simply not true. This is deception, and has no place in our school system. 

    Similarly, the attempts to use the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests to justify those same curriculum choices, was totally unjustifiable.This is the kind of assertion that would usually get by education reporters who are rarely familiar with that level of technical detail. But in New York, there are experts who can decode intellectual dishonesty, and the department was snagged. 

    This alarm was raised by an educational historian, Diane Ravitch, who is a member of the NAEP Board of Governors. The public record now stands corrected (although still not acknowledged by the chancellor). But why was the disinformation put forward in the first place? 

    Finally, the mayor must take advantage of the opportunity afforded by the departure of Ms. Lam to reverse her ill-advised pedagogical decisions. Last Saturday, the United Federation of Teachers held a “Reading Summit” that brought together top experts to discuss the latest research-based scientifically validated innovations in the teaching of reading. 

    As the Manhattan Institute’s Sol Stern points out, this Republican mayor should be embarrassed that these programs, favored and funded by the Bush administration, are being advanced by the UFT, despite their liberal Democratic ties. Meanwhile, his own Department of Education continues to push the failed touchy-feely educational philosophy favored by the far left. 

    If made permanent, yesterday’s appointment of Carmen Farina as interim acting Deputy Superintendent, would compound the initial error Mr. Klein made by choosing Ms. Lam. Ms. Farina may be even more radical than Ms. Lam, if that is possible, and was complicit in the use of P.S. 172 as the venue for the introduction of Month-by-Month Phonics as the city’s reading program. In public statements, Ms. Farina implied that the National Reading Panel had good things to say about Month-by-Month Phonics, which was not true. In this crisis caused by systemic deception, Ms. Farina is part of the problem, not part of the solution. 

    In this space, I have often urged Mr. Bloomberg to listen to his own good instincts and act on them. In this adversity lies opportunity. Seize this opportunity, Mr. Mayor.

© 2004 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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