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1st February

First Published in The New York Sun, February 1, 2007

By Andrew Wolf

The Boston mayor, Thomas Menino, is fuming and with good reason. Four months ago, he proudly introduced Manuel Rivera as Beantown’s new superintendent of schools, to start work July 1 of this year. Hiring Mr. Rivera seemed like a tremendous coup and was treated as such by the Boston press and civic groups.

Mr. Rivera has been the superintendent of schools in upstate Rochester and was named Superintendent of the Year for 2006 by the American Association of School Administrators.

But last week Mr. Menino’s school board chairwoman received a letter from Mr. Rivera delivered by Fedex. “I’ve recently been offered an opportunity to work in a different educational context where there is significantly greater need,” he told Boston School Committee chairwoman Elizabeth Reilinger. Mr. Menino was informed of this development as he was attending a conference in Washington, D.C. Such was the import of the news that the mayor immediately left to head home to handle the situation.

By the following day, the mystery was solved as Governor Spitzer called Mayor Menino to apologize for luring Mr. Rivera away to be his deputy secretary for public education here in New York. Governor Spitzer formally announced this on Monday. This assertion of the governor’s authority over education, a power not granted by the state constitution, is bold, refreshing, and perhaps illegal.

It is the Board of Regents, which is empowered to appoint the state education commissioner, and it is the Legislature that appoints the regents, meeting in joint session in precisely the same manner as they will shortly to choose a new state comptroller.

In other words, the key player in New York State education policy is, once again, Sheldon Silver, the Democratic Assembly speaker.

If Mr. Spitzer, by creating this position for Mr. Rivera, is prying a bit of influence from the regents, Republican legislators must clearly catch the irony. They have loudly protested the one-party control over the appointment of the regents, but got no help from Governor Pataki, who had 12 years during which he could have created a similar position to insure more GOP input into education policy. It is Mr. Spitzer, the Democrat, who seems more open to breaking the status quo.

Overall, Mr. Spitzer’s education speech and his budget message come as welcome, indeed surprising news. While it is clear that the governor hasn’t abandoned the “send more money and then we’ll be able to fix the schools” mentality that has given incompetent educrats excuses for years, there is a clear linkage between more funds and performance that is right on target.

Mr. Spitzer is demanding the use of methodologies “that research has shown really work.” Presumably this means that the days of whole language, balanced literacy, fuzzy math, and bilingual education are numbered. Unfortunately, the research is mixed on the one example he did highlight, lowering class size.

Despite the fact that Mr. Spitzer is now under no obligation to add even a penny to New York City’s school budget, he feels politically obligated to spend more on the schools. But he is back-loading most of the largesse, and who knows what the future will bring?

This is because the much-touted Campaign for Fiscal Equity managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by adding one-too-many appeals to their string of courtroom victories. The latest ruling demanding an increase of $1.9 billion in city school spending sets the baseline three years in the past, and between the state and city, the $1.9 billion increase has already been exceeded. Perhaps the imposition of performance conditions on increased aid is a backdoor way to limit future expenditure of funds that the state doesn’t really have.

Mr. Rivera’s central idea in Rochester, where test scores and graduation rates have lagged, is the creation of a “Children’s Zone,” an idea that makes the heart grow warm but has no record of success. This idea is a variation on the old James Comer theories of schools as centers for social services, ideas with roots in 1960s Great Society thinking, ideas whose time has come — and gone. Mr. Spitzer proposed a variation of this, a “Children’s Cabinet,” in his Monday speech.

© 2007 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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