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31st January

First Published in The New York Sun,  January 31, 2003
By Andrew Wolf

Little more than two weeks after Mayor Bloomberg’s blockbuster Martin Luther King Day education speech, things are starting to unravel. Both the structural and instructional aspects of the plans advanced by the mayor and the schools chancellor, Joel Klein, have come under fire. I have learned that top city officials are scheduled to attend a summit meeting up in Albany on Monday to smooth things over with angry members of the Republican state Senate majority.

The city officials will be traveling north to address what the city’s five Republican senators say they perceive as an attempt by the mayor to do an endrun around the legislature regarding the fate of the community school districts. When the law was passed last year to give the mayor control of the city’s schools, the fate of the community school districts was deliberately not addressed. The law provided for the legislature to appoint a panel to make a decision on that matter; the panel has been formed, has held hearings, and will report by February 15. But the mayor has already gutted the community school districts and created 10 new “super districts,” combining the existing districts in groups. Mr. Klein has even gone so far as to appoint the 10 regional superintendents who will lead these new entities.
So now the senators, and even some of their Democratic colleagues who control the Assembly, are asking why, if the mayor’s plan is a fait accompli, did they bother appointing a commission? The Republicans in the Senate — ostensibly the mayor’s political co-religionists — are livid and took the unusual step of issuing a stinging condemnation of his plans on Monday, reminding him that “his actions are premature.”
These senators are so upset because they thrive in a largely Democratic town by careful attention to every detail of their constituents’ needs — particularly the schools. Overnight, a mayor of their own party is severing the relationships they have established over the years with their local school officials.

How, for instance, did the mayor think that Senator Guy Velella would react when the two superintendents who lead the schools within his district were replaced? Marlene Filewich of District 11 and Betty Rosa of District 8, the two top performers among the six Bronx superintendents, were passed over in favor of Laura Rodriguez, said to be the favored candidate of the Democratic borough president, Adolfo Carrion. Ms. Rodriguez, with no critical K-to-8 experience, has never even served as a principal or assistant principal. In District 26 in Queens, the city’s top district, Senator Frank Padavan will no longer be able to call on superintendent Claire McIntee, another top performer being displaced.

Parents in these districts are desperately organizing to try to save the jobs of the defrocked administrators. Street-level politicos like Mr. Velella are sensitive to this. Mr. Bloomberg now thinks he is above it. But the only areas of the Bronx that Mr. Bloomberg won in the last election are those in Mr.Velella’s district.
Mr. Carrion, as well as the former Bronx borough president, Fernando Ferrer, are said to have also intervened in favor of Irma Zardoya, who will lead Region 1. Currently, Ms. Zardoya is the superintendent of underperforming District 10.

The five Republican New York City senators are perhaps the most important people in the world to any sitting mayor. That’s why some of them may well question why Democrats like Mr. Carrion and Mr. Ferrer were able to exert influence here when they were ignored.

More worrisome than Mr. Bloomberg’s political tone deafness, however, is the possibility that the mayor is about to create a totally incoherent new bureaucracy. I have learned that the city’s Department of Education intends to subdivide the 10 new regions not by neighborhood, but by “networks” or “clusters” of schools that will deliberately ignore neighborhood lines. Thus, a local instructional supervisor in Region 9, which covers eastern Manhattan and the South Bronx, could be assigned to supervise 10 or 12 schools, one of which could be located in Chinatown, another perhaps on the Upper East Side, another in East Harlem, and yet another in Mott Haven in the South Bronx. A single community my have to deal with four or more different bureaucrats. 

On the instructional side of things, Mr. Bloomberg’s reforms are also traveling a rocky path. The much-anticipated plan to establish a uniform curriculum, in itself a splendid idea, has been undermined by the choice of math and reading programs made by the deputy chancellor for instruction, Diana Lam. The reading program, Month by Month Phonics, poses a particularly thorny problem. The day after the plan was announced, New York City’s most respected educational observer, Diane Ravitch, began appearing in the print and broadcast media questioning Ms. Lam’s choice. Ms. Ravitch was quickly joined by G. Reid Lyon of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, who has President Bush’s ear on matters regarding the teaching of reading.

Their objections, which could well have an impact on whether the program is eligible for federal funding under the No Child Left Behind Act, have to do with the lack of scientific evidence that the program works. The program was, according to Mr. Klein, in place in District 10 of the northwest Bronx last year. If this is the scientific justification that the chancellor hopes will allow him to adopt the program, then he is in big trouble. Out of 34 districts (all 32 community districts plus the chancellor’s and special education districts), District 10 placed 33rd in reading improvement last year, posting declines significantly greater than every other city district, save one.

The rejection of the city’s reading program by the federal government would be an embarrassment of monumental proportions. It would be hard to imagine how Ms. Lam (whose $250,000-a-year salary is equal to that of Mr. Klein) could be retained in the face of such a disaster.

Mr. Bloomberg understands one thing: Change is needed. But it needs to be the right change. It may be time for Messrs. Bloomberg and Klein to step back and consider a course correction.

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

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