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14th October

First Published in The New York Sun, October 14, 2002
By Andrew Wolf

That great observer of the educational scene, Yogi Berra, once exclaimed, “It’s deja vu all over again.” That’s exactly the feeling I got recently when the schools chancellor, Joel Klein, announced the consultants he was bringing in to help him develop a plan to turn around New York City’s schools.The names and organizations on the list are largely the same ones that have shaped public education in our town for the past 15 disastrous years.

The almost $4 million bill for the first phase of Mr. Klein’s initiative, “Children First,” will be picked up by the Broad Foundation and the Robertson Foundation. Like the Ford Foundation in the mid-1960s, these groups approach New York’s schools with the best of intentions. But we’ve learned that good intentions are not enough.
So who are our new saviors? The Robertson Foundation has made some large gifts to institutions including Duke University and Lincoln Center, but otherwise does not seem experienced in the field of public education. A check of the Broad Foundation’s Web site, however, is revealing. Among the “advisors and consultants” to the foundation is Ramon Cortines. Remember him? Brainstorming at the Foundation’s Strategic Planning Retreat was our old friend Rudolph Crew. And listed in the section entitled “Our Heroes” is a chap named Anthony Alvarado. Sound familiar? Don’t these former chancellors represent roads we’ve been down before?

And who are the consultants that the Broad and Robertson folks are bankrolling? Among the familiar names is that of Norm Fruchter, director of the New York University Institute for Education and Social Policy. At every point in the road where the system could take a wrong turn, Mr. Fruchter was there directing our schools into oncoming traffic. Mr. Fruchter is a member of the board of advisors of Resist, Inc., the Web site of which describes the group as “a different kind of funding organization seeking out groups that withstand reactionary government policies” — presumably those of Republican mayors.

Mr. Fruchter’s biography on the Resist Web site gives a sense of where he is coming from: “Film-maker: Troublemakers, 1966, an awardwinning documentary about Students for a Democracy Society’s Newark organizing project; Summer ‘68, about the movements that coalesced at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago; People’s War, a documentary shot in North Vietnam in 1969; and a founding member of NEWSREEL, chronicler of the civil rights, anti-war and student movements. Editor: New Left Review (London, 1960-62) and Studies on the Left (New York City, 1965-70).”

Many folks come from the radical left, but have moved on over the years. Not Mr. Fruchter. He sees the school system as the front-line in the race and class war, precisely the kind of thinking that has brought the system to its current crisis. He is an unyielding opponent of privatization of schools, a supporter of the most radical plans for parental control, and was an architect of the city’s failed and wasteful School Leadership Team boondoggle. It is probably this relic of the failed past that brings this ideologue to the table, since the major beneficiary of this school leadership largesse is the New York Urban League. This group was headed until recently by Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott, who was able to use his clout as a former Board of Education member to win millions in contracts for the Urban League to train leadership team members.

There are two other familiar names on the consultant list: Beth Lief and New Visions for Public Schools, the organization she headed for many years. Ms. Lief and New Visions are both part of what I call New York’s “University-Institutional Complex.” These are the groups that propose educational policies and then prosper through the awarding of hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts to execute them.

New Visions is at the center of this complex. If Mr. Klein is looking for new ideas, he won’t get it from those who have already been setting the so-called educational reform agenda in New York for over a decade. They are as much a part of the failed establishment as the building at 110 Livingston Street, and also bring conflicts of interest galore to the table as the recipient of millions of dollars in city contracts. Ms. Lief, an attorney, is now the senior vice president for strategic relations for a private company called Teachscape, which sells professional development services for teachers through the Internet and presumably is eager to win a share of the tens of millions of dollars New York City spends to train teachers.
An unfamiliar name on Mr. Klein’s panel of consultants is that of Libia Gil, the former superintendent of the tiny Chula Vista, California school system. Unfortunately, Ms. Gil doesn’t look to be any more promising a choice than the other old hands. The primary item on her agenda is support of bilingual education, a policy that has compromised the education of New York City children for 30 years.

According to Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley millionaire who has devoted his life and fortune to eliminating bilingual education across the country, Ms. Gil is “an utter fanatic advocate” of bilingual education. In fact, according to an article in the San Diego Union Tribune on April 21, 2001, her application to become the superintendent of Denver’s schools was rejected for just that reason. “I am an advocate for bilingual education and they are not,” Ms. Gil told the Tribune. According to Mr. Unz, Ms. Gil’s district in California did everything possible to skirt the provisions of the state’s Proposition 227, which mandates English immersion for immigrant children unless parents opt out. Given the mayor’s own opposition to bilingual education, which he has stated repeatedly and recently, it is amazing that such a staunch advocate of the failed policy is being given the chancellor’s ear.

With this rogues gallery assembled, it begs the question of how we arrived at such a panel. The spokesman for Mr. Klein, David Chai, claimed that the foundations exerted no pressure on the chancellor in his selections and stressed that it is the chancellor who will make all final decisions on educational policy.
But where are the alternative voices? Let me suggest to Mr. Klein that he appoint a parallel group to offer some truly new ideas. Bring in Ron Unz from California; tap into the expertise of people like the Manhattan Institute’s Heather Mac Donald, Jay Greene, and Sol Stern; pick the brains of Chester Finn, the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, and Diane Ravitch, the noted educational historian.

The best move, as I have mentioned in this column before, would be to enlist professor E.D. Hirsch Jr., whose program for contentbased education is widely regarded as the best alternative model to the failed status quo. Maybe Mr. Klein will listen to another piece of sage advice from Mr. Berra: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

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

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