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20th February

First Published in The New York Sun, February 20, 2004

By Andrew Wolf

The first clue that perhaps the concept of Mayor Bloomberg controlling the public schools might not have been such a grand idea after all came less than three weeks after Mr. Bloomberg formally assumed control of the schools, at a press conference in the Blue Room at City Hall on July 18, 2002. Introducing his seven appointees to the city’s Panel for Educational Policy — the chancellor, at that point unnamed, is the eighth mayoral member, while the borough presidents pick one member each — the mayor shocked many in the room by declaring, “I do not expect to see their names,ever,in the press answering a question either on the record or off the record.” 

    The mayor went on to say, “They don’t have to speak, and they don’t have to serve. That’s what serving ‘at the pleasure’ means.” 
    And what would happen if the panel’s members should offer an opinion on an important issue confronting the schools? “I would not tolerate it for 30 seconds,” Mr. Bloomberg warned. 

    So the panel, which should offer a forum for discussion and reflection of issues that are crucial and complex, has become an empty shell, its meetings devoid of substance, ignored by the public. 

    This set the pattern for the heavyhanded way that the city’s Department of Education is run. To teachers, principals,and bureaucrats in the regional and central offices, the school system has become the Ministry of Fear. Department employees are warned never to talk to the press and broadcast industry, the implication being that there will be repercussions for those who do. Reporters on the education beat have gotten used to being begged by their sources, “Please don’t use my name.” Some avoid using the Department of Education e-mail system for fear that Big Brother is checking their correspondence. 

    This came to a head earlier this week when the office of the public advocate, Betsy Gotbaum, was served with a Freedom of Information Act request by the DOE to turn over “all documents,including correspondence, e-mails, [and] reports”used in preparing a critical report on the city’s efforts in special education, which she released last week and which received its first public exposure in The New York Sun. 
    The FOIA request is a shocking, perhaps unprecedented, intrusion on the 
operation of the office of an independently elected public official, whose role in part is to act as a watchdog over city agencies on behalf of the public. 

    To many, the message was clear. This was nothing more than an effort by the 
chancellor and the DOE to identify the “whistle-blowers” and then extract revenge. For her part, Ms. Gotbaum vowed to “go to jail rather than divulge my sources.” At the very least, the idea that the identity of department employees making complaints to a public official could possibly be disclosed may well dissuade such candor in the future. 

    The response of the department’s chief counsel, Chad Vignola, rings hollow. “The information we have requested is related to our children’s educational needs and is intended to help staff understand the basis of her claims.” 

    The truth is that Mr. Klein should know perfectly well the validity of Ms. Gotbaum’s complaints. In case he doesn’t, an article in Wednesday’s New York Times substantiates in detail many of charges raised by Ms. Gotbaum last week. 

    This is just the latest in a long string of incidents that have poisoned the atmosphere in the public school system. 

    Just last Friday, Newsday reported that the city’s local instructional superintendents, who each supervise 10 to 12 schools,have been ordered to “serve up” three principals each by giving them “U” ratings.“They said to me,‘You have to. The chancellor wants it,’” Newsday’s Ellen Yan reported, quoting a local instructional supervisor “who did not want to be named, citing concerns about possible reprisal.” 
    This is reminiscent of Chancellor Klein’s vow last year to fire the 50 principals of the lowest-performing schools, a promise he ultimately backed away from. 

    Undoubtedly, in some of the “networks” run by the LIS’s there may be more than three principals not performing adequately. However, in other networks, it is more than conceivable that all of the principals are doing just fine. The establishment of a quota, as with all quotas, is arbitrary.This kind of thinking is meant to generate fear. 

    According to Newsday, some principals have carried the same “quota” concept down to their teaching staffs. 

    Much has been written about the city’s new inflexible and retrograde “literacy” and math programs, particularly with regard to the enforcement of the petty dictums surrounding them. 

    To make sure that principals don’t permit departures from orthodoxy, and perhaps to provide fodder for the U ratings, the Manhattan Institute’s Sol Stern, writing in the fall CityJournal,noted “Agents of the chancellor (euphemistically called “coaches”) operate in almost all of the city’s 1,200 schools to make sure that every educator marches in lockstep with the Department of Education’s approved pedagogical approaches. There is now only one way,the Tweed way,to teach the three Rs in the schools.” 

    These newly created coaches, who work in the schools,are not appointed by nor do they report to the principals, but are selected by the local instructional superintendents. And lest a coach decide to let his or her principal slide and depart from the approved ideology coming down from the Politburo at Tweed, private “consultants” from companies such as Aussie or institutions such as Columbia University Teachers College (paid as much as $1,000 a day),are there to check on them as well. 

    This is apparently the “business model” being used by Messrs. Bloomberg and Klein to run the schools. But the schools are not businesses.Their success or failure hinges not on the degree of fear between “employees” and their bosses, but on something the Tweed crowd has yet to understand: the degree of trust and respect shared between children and their teachers.

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

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