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12th May
2003

First Published in The New York Sun, May 12, 2003

By Andrew Wolf

The Bloomberg administration is desperately trying to salvage its Children First education initiative in the face of opposition from the teachers, the principals, the legislators who gave the mayor control of the schools, and, most importantly, the electorate. And it is clear that the administration will stop at nothing, even outright deception, to save its sinking ship.

Yesterday, Department of Education officials fanned out to black churches throughout the city, trying to restore support in the community for the mayor’s education initiative — the most recent Quinnipiac College poll shows that only 24% of blacks approve of the mayor’s handling of the issue. This followed an outing Friday where Schools Chancellor Klein engaged in a clumsy effort to preempt the president of the United Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, who was set to attack the Children First initiative on Saturday. Mr. Klein held a press conference at Tweed Courthouse, the Department of Education’s new headquarters, with a number of well-known groups such as 100 Black Men, the Urban League, and Aspira.
Not disclosed was the fact that the vice chairman of 100 Black Men, Fermin Archer, is a top Department of Education official working for Mr. Klein. Nor did Mr. Klein reveal that the Urban League was headed by Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott, the Bloomberg administration’s highestranking black official, until he joined the administration. Nor did anyone mention that Aspira and some of the other groups standing with Mr. Klein are recipients of lucrative education contracts.

The dog and pony show failed to scare Ms. Weingarten away from withdrawing her union’s support from the Bloomberg-Klein program on Saturday. Ms. Weingarten characterized the initiative as “Control First,” and called the new Bloomberg-controlled Educational Policy Panel “bobble-heads,” not allowed to exercise statutory oversight over the city’s school system.

Clearly the UFT has an interest here, and it is easy to attack it for protecting its turf, as Messrs. Klein and Bloomberg immediately did. But it was the support of this powerful union that helped give Mr. Bloomberg control over the schools last year. The union didn’t attack the appointment of Mr. Klein, a non-educator, nor did it criticize the selection of a deputy chancellor for instruction, Diana Lam, who has a long record of poor relations with the teachers unions in her previous jobs.

The union was supportive through January, when the mayor released his plans. Ms. Weingarten cautioned at that time: “What we have to ask ourselves is, ‘What does any reorganization plan do to advance teaching and learning in classrooms? How are we going to help more kids learn to read and do math?’ Any structure has to support these primary goals. What people should be asking is, ‘What is the instructional agenda?’”
However, rather than engage the teachers, who are critical to successfully implementing any program, the chancellor and mayor chose to ignore them. Even in areas where the union is wrong, such as protecting the jobs of ineffective teachers, the Bloomberg administration acts as if the union doesn’t exist.

Instead, the administration proposes to pay for what is emerging as a huge new bureaucratic structure in part by eliminating the jobs of thousands of paraprofessionals — represented by the UFT — and school aides who work directly with children. Mr. Klein defends this as a budgetary necessity and claims that Ms. Weingarten doesn’t show how she would pay to save these jobs. But he never mentions the $250 million cost of implementing his plan, none of which goes to the classroom.

More important than the political crisis, however, is the legal crisis faced by the Bloomberg-Klein program. Later today, in New York State Supreme Court, a decision is expected on an application for a restraining order that could halt the restructuring dead in its tracks.

The lawsuit, brought by a Brooklyn state senator, Carl Kruger, has been joined by Assemblyman Steven Sanders, who, as chairman of the Assembly Education Committee, wrote much of the law in question. The Council of Supervisors and Administrators, the Chancellors Parent Advisory Committee, as well as an increasing number of elected officials have also joined the suit.

Even if the restraining order is denied, the administration is still on shaky ground. People on both sides of legislative aisle at Albany — the people who wrote the law giving the mayor control of the schools — agree that Mr. Bloomberg has exceeded his authority by illegally eliminated the 32 community school districts and replacing them with 10 mega-regions of more than 100 schools each.

Here again the administration tried for a preemptive strike, using misleading figures to make the case that the reorganization will save money. The Department of Education leaked details of the reorganization to the New York Times, which published a story Friday as the restraining-order case was being argued in court. The districts that were used as an example — Bronx Districts 9 and 10, which will be combined into Region 1 — are by far the most bloated and wasteful in the city. The figures purport to show that the Bloomberg-Klein program will save money, but they use the least efficient districts as opposed to the most efficient to illustrate the point.

District 10, with 44,000 students, reportedly has 167 district office employees. But this bloat is the exception, rather than the rule. Compare District 10 with District 8, in the east Bronx, which has 26,000 students and fewer than 50 employees. Using District 10 and the nearly as bloated District 9 is simply deceptive.

But let’s take this a step further. Despite the considerably smaller staff, District 8 has better overall results in both reading and math than District 10, with similar demographics. And let’s not forget that it is home to the newly crowned No. 1 middle school in the city — according to the recently released reading scores — M.S. 101. District 10, on the other hand, has the distinction of being the home of the school that is dead last on the city list — number 214 of 214 — M.S. 399.

Maybe the answer is not creating a new centralized structure that will be bloated from day one, but reducing the size of the current district staffs to emulate the lean and mean success stories like District 8.

© 2003 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

 

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