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15th November

First Published in The New York Sun, November 15, 2002
By Andrew Wolf

Schools Chancellor Joel Klein is a native New Yorker, so I can’t for the life of me understand why he is so gullible and naïve. New Yorkers are supposed to be smart enough to realize when we’re being taken for a ride. But Mr. Klein is acting like he just got off the Greyhound bus carrying his cardboard suitcase.

The city’s educational establishment, the “University-Institutional Complex,” has him identified as sucker number one. Thus far, no matter how many times they try to scam him, he seems all-too-eager to come back for more. This past Tuesday’s “Parent/Community Engagement Meeting” in the Bronx was a case in point.

Ten of these meetings will be held, ostensibly to find out what parents are thinking. The goal is to get feedback from 5,000 parents. But the question is, which parents will be heard?
The Bronx meeting was a set-up.The majority of parents involved were hand-picked and unrepresentative of the borough. Anything that the chancellor and the Department of Education “learned” there is far more reflective of the agenda of a key special interest group, Aspira, then of the general sentiments of parents.
Aspira somehow insinuated itself as a co-sponsor of this meeting, and orchestrated the entire proceedings. If Aspira was truly an independent group with no agenda, that would be fine. But the group stands at the center of one of the greatest educational policy failures of the past generation, the imposition of bilingual education on immigrant children. It is the 1974 consent decree in a court case brought by Aspira that forces English language learners in city public schools — even those born in
this country — to be placed in Spanishmostly bilingual programs.

At worst the consent decree was a cynical ploy to obtain jobs for Hispanic educators. At best it was a well-intentioned plan gone awry, diminishing the educational opportunities of thousands of children.
Of the 225 schools in the Bronx that could have been chosen for this first meeting, the session was held at P.S. 86 in the northwest Bronx. Why? P.S. 86 (which is my alma mater) is the site of one of the city’s “Beacon School” programs, this particular one run by Aspira.This gave the group an enormous advantage in getting their constituency to the meeting. As if this was not enough, buses brought hundreds more to the site, courtesy of Aspira.

Were those buses made available to parents from Riverdale, Woodlawn, City Island, or Throggs Neck, communities that are predominantly white? Or for that matter from Wakefield, Baychester, Co-op City, or Concourse Village, areas with mostly black residents? The parents at the meeting (and who is to say that all really were public school parents?) were hand-selected by Aspira to meet with the chancellor and his staff and consultants.

Aspira’s interest in the schools goes well beyond the bilingual issue. They are currently involved with the Marble Hill School for International Studies, one of the “New Century High Schools,” a project that is being undertaken in conjunction with New Visions for Public Education.

More ominously, they have for years been pressing hard for the establishment of the Antonia Pantoja Public Policy School, an extreme ethno-centric plan that one Bronx school board member likened to “Hebrew School for Latinos.” This school was slated to be located in the site that formerly housed the Alexander’s department store at the corner of Fordham Road and the Grand Concourse. The project only fell through because of problems with the lease.

Aspira designed the school to have all classes in both Spanish and English, and to have all courses taught with a Latino perspective. As a public school, admission could not legally be limited to Hispanics, but the curriculum was so narrow that it was inconceivable that anyone else would seek to attend.

For Aspira to act as a filter between the chancellor and Department of Education and parents is ludicrous and dangerous. They have an agenda and an ax to grind. There isn’t any reason why meetings with parents cannot be run directly by the Department of Education to avoid possible conflicts.

Moreover, the last things we need are more meetings and more studies. Previous studies are piled high and gathering dust in storerooms at 110 Livingston Street. The kind of information being sought was already obtained by the former chancellor, Harold Levy, who commissioned an extensive professional survey of parent attitudes and satisfaction less than two years ago.

If Mr. Klein feels he needs fresh data about what real parents are thinking, I suggest that he get out of the Tweed Courthouse and stand outside any of our city’s nearly 700 elementary schools as they dismiss the children at 3 p.m. That’s where he’ll meet ordinary parents picking up their kids — not the activists, not the troublemakers, not the people that Aspira wants him to meet. I’m sure he’ll get an earful, but, most importantly, he’ll get an unfiltered earful.

But the real challenge faced by the chancellor is to filter out the advice from groups like Aspira, New Visions, Columbia Teachers College, and Math in the City. These are the people that we’ve entrusted with the education of New York’s schoolchildren for decades. They have failed. If you want to succeed, Mr. Klein, do something different and listen to different people.

When you are on the carnival midway, you assume that behind every curtain is someone waiting to con you.The University-Institutional Complex is making too much on New York’s educational midway. Mr. Klein was being taken for a ride on Tuesday evening — and maybe that’s why he decided to leave the meeting early. But it’s time for our new chancellor to start acting like a savvy street-smart New Yorker and not like a hick from the Ozarks.

© 2002 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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