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25th February

First Published in The New York Sun, February 25, 2005

By Andrew Wolf

The news that sixth-grade students at a Park Slope middle school were encouraged, as a class project, to mail letters to a soldier stationed in Korea, some of which turned out to be virulently anti-war diatribes hurtful to the GI, is a disturbing reminder of how easy it is to manipulate children for political ends.

I wonder whether there were students in the class who support the war in Iraq but who felt pressured by their peers, or by the teacher, to participate.That is why the public schools must be free of this kind of politics.
Many Russian employees of the United Nations live in a gated complex near my home in Riverdale. During the years that Jews were forbidden to leave the old Soviet Union, the Russian residence was the frequent target of demonstrations demanding open immigration. The street in front of the complex was renamed Sharansky Square in support of the imprisoned dissident, who is now an Israeli Cabinet minister.

It caused a flap in my community when local politicos pressured the principal of an elementary school located a block from the complex to have classes of children participate in one of those demonstrations. Using children as political props crossed the line of propriety.

As a result, the local superintendent admonished the principal, stating the inappropriateness of student participation in political events as part of their school activities.

No matter how righteous the cause, it is not the place of the schools to come down on one side or the other. It is the purpose of the educational marketplace to make sure that children are given the information and the tools to make their own decisions.

The New York Post, which broke the story of the Park Slope letter writers, chided the mayor on Wednesday for his tepid response. While not supportive of the teacher, Mr. Bloomberg expresses support for the right of the children to express their opinions. The Post noted that two former mayors, Edward Koch and Rudolph Giuliani, would not have been so forgiving of what seems to be shameless political manipulation of children by a teacher.

Certainly the mayor and his administration were not quite as generous last year, when students at the Bronx High School of Science were encouraged, some say by faculty, to sign 2,500 form letters to the City’s Department of Environmental Protection protesting the construction of the Croton Water Filtration Plant under Van Cortlandt Park. This is a project favored by the mayor.What made this more galling was that the letters were run through the postage meter in the school’s office.

In the Bronx Science incident, students blew the whistle on their teachers. Can we expect the same independence from 12-year-olds in the sixth grade at the Park Slope middle school?

That is why I am outraged by the decision of the Department of Education to hand over some of the new public schools to political groups such as the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or Acorn, and the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition.The latter is slated to start the Leadership Institute High School in September.

The purpose of the school is to promote the group’s vision of “social justice,” and to advance the ideology of the late radical community organizer Saul Alinsky to “organize” communities by pitting one against the other. Alinsky-inspired projects will not just be encouraged but will be mandatory for graduation.

The Northwest Bronx group was behind an effort to organize parents to keep their children at home on the day of the third-grade reading test in protest of the mayor’s policy to end social promotion. The president of the group, Ronn Jordan,was the spokesman for this effort.Perversely,Mr. Jordan is employed by a group called Literacy Inc., or LINC, which has been a recipient of contracts to promote “literacy” from the same Department of Education whose policies Mr. Jordan fights to undermine.

According to the police, the Northwest Bronx group has been coaching students at Walton High School to make up stories about police brutality at this troubled school.Those stories made headlines at a recent public hearing sponsored by City Councilwoman Eva Moskowitz. One student alleged that the police set off stink bombs in the hallways of the school to break up groups of students. The police launched an investigation that pointed to the involvement of the Northwest Bronx group in fabricating the story.
Why are we allowing this group to influence our children? The Department of Education is taking the Park Slope outrage to the next step. It’s not enough to allow students to be manipulated by adults with political agendas. Now we are setting up schools whose purpose is to advance a political program.
Last week, at the Fieldston School, I participated in a panel discussion on progressive education.The discussion was held in front of several hundred students. Fieldston fancies itself a bastion of progressive education, but the faculty and administration felt that students should be exposed to other opinions. I was invited because I hold opposing views.

While I disagreed with the ideas of the other panelists, who included Deborah Meier, the guru of the small-school movement, we engaged in a spirited dialogue, which ended too quickly for us to get our full messages across.

But we were grateful for the open discussion and the opportunity to present our views. If a private school like Fieldston can entertain opinions that challenge its value system, why are we allowing public schools to engage in the political manipulation of impressionable young people?

© 2005 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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