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14th January

First Published in The New York Sun, January 14, 2005

By Andrew Wolf

When he won control of the schools, Mayor Bloomberg promised that we could judge him on his performance. Judgment for politicians takes place in the form of elections. Lately, though, the mayor has taken to resisting criticism from the very people who facilitate accountability, his prospective opponents.
Term limits already restrict the ability of voters to hold any mayor accountable on the totality or any part of his or her record, including the key issue of education.There is just one opportunity for a day of reckoning, the only time a sitting mayor can be called to account, and that is in the one time he presents himself for re-election.

Last Friday, the New York Times “revealed” that Gifford Miller, the council speaker who is challenging Mr. Bloomberg, intended to criticize the mayor on his education record. This hardly should have been news.The Times obtained an internal memo from the Miller campaign that outlined this particular strategy. The real news was the surprising response of the Bloomberg camp. It was distressing to read that the mayor’s press secretary, Edward Skyler, seemingly suggested that the discussion of the stewardship of the schools was not a suitable topic for debate.“It’s unfortunate that New Yorkers won’t be able to take anything Speaker Miller says on this important issue at face value,since it’s clear it will be politically motivated. For those who are worried about bringing politics into our classrooms, the speaker is now lesson No. 1.”

When asked about this on his radio show later that day, the mayor picked up on Mr. Skyler’s theme, asserting that “we’ve spent two years trying to get politics out of the schools, and trying to put it back in is outrageous.”

But the day that the mayor was granted control of the schools, education became fair game as a potential issue in mayoral campaigns.Indeed,Mr. Bloomberg suggested as much at the time he took over the city’s educational establishment.

“If I show that in the next four years the education system is getting better — there’s safety in the schools,discipline in the schools,supplies delivered at the beginning of the season, fixed broken windows, we’re able to retain and attract good teachers, and we have a management structure that really works, and reading scores and math scores are starting to go in the right direction — if you could do those things, then it would be hard for anybody to turn it back.”

The mayor himself has embarked on an orgy of highly political photo ops and events designed to convince the public that he is turning around the public schools.He and Chancellor Klein have had a revolving door of press specialists come and go to try and to spin things toward the mayor’s point of view (one of them, David Chai, now works for Mr. Miller).

For one who is so outraged by any thought of injecting partisanship into education, the mayor has not been shy about using the schools to portray his own record in the best possible light. Last week there were no fewer than three major school related press conferences conducted by Messrs. Bloomberg and Klein.The mayor showed little restraint Tuesday in exploiting the school system for his benefit at his State of the City address. He went so far as to use a public school student as a prop to demonstrate the “success”of his plan to “end” social promotion.

The young lady in question is a student at P.S. 119.Her attendance at the so-called Summer Success Academy, enabled her to be promoted to the fourth grade, rather than being forced to repeat the third grade. She (and her mother, sitting next to her on the platform) got a standing ovation after being introduced by Mr. Bloomberg.

I wish this young lady and her mother well, but I found the appearance raised more questions than it answered.We don’t know whether this child actually passed the test or was moved ahead based on a subjective portfolio assessment. Even “passing” the test means little more than the child crossed the threshold into “Level 2,”a very low bar indeed.Performance at this level is not considered a measure of success by any means.

The mayor’s expansion of the “end” of social promotion does not extend to the fourth grade. What standards will be enforced this year to benefit this young person by making it clear whether she should be moved to fifth grade? I’m uncomfortable that the mayor publicly identified a child who has taken a small baby step in the educational marathon, and used her in this way. It would be just as unseemly if Mr. Miller trotted out a high school dropout to illustrate the mayor’s failures. But certainly if the mayor can cross this line in his quest for political success, Mr. Miller and all of the other mayoral hopefuls are well within their rights to vigorously question the mayor’s stewardship of the schools, just as they can raise his record running the police, fire or sanitation departments.

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

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