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12th November

First Published in The New York Sun, November 12, 2004

By Andrew Wolf

Diane Ravitch has publicly announced that she intends to vote for Mayor Bloomberg’s re-election next year. She offers high praise for his leadership on public safety and economic development. She likes him personally.She has praised his integrity and even called him “adorable.”

But at a breakfast conference held recently at New York University, where Ms. Ravitch is research professor of education, she also gave her preferred candidate more than a bit of “tough love” on one area of government that she is expert in, the city’s public school system. For aides of the Bloomberg administration present, such as Communications Director William Cunningham,and policy adviser Ester Fuchs,it must have been an uncomfortable hour-and-a-half. 
They should take heed.Ms.Ravitch occupies a unique place on the American education scene. The author or editor of 20 books, she has been a visiting scholar at both the liberal Brookings Institution and the conservative Hoover Institution. She has been appointed to key posts by Republicans,such as former President George H.W. Bush, and Democrats such as William Clinton. Ms. Ravitch understands that results trump ideology when it comes to educating our children.

Ms. Ravitch opened her talk with a historical perspective. A Department of Education controlled by the mayor is not a new innovation. Such an arrangement existed once before in New York City, during the days of Boss Tweed. The corruption of that earlier Tweed Ring is what brought that first flirtation with mayoral control to an end. Ms. Ravitch warned that structures exist not just for those who occupy office today, but for whoever may follow tomorrow as well.

The integrity of Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein does not erase her concern that some future mayor might abuse the now unfettered ability to hire thousands of educational appointees without any oversight. Patronage abuses, she warns, “have been known to happen in New York.”

This is one of the reasons that Ms. Ravitch advocated changes in the current structure. She would create a Board of Education which is independent, albeit appointed by the mayor, and whose members serve fixed terms,as a buffer between the mayor and chancellor. Her other concern about the direct link between the two was that the activities of the Department of Education can become — and are now -— an extension of the efforts to re-elect the mayor.

The temptation to spin test scores and other indicators as better than they really are seems irresistible and benefits the politicians at the expense of children.

Ms. Ravitch also was critical of what she terms “a top-down structure” that is “tightly controlled.” Since decisions are made behind closed doors, there is “no opportunity for public to weigh in, nor even to get explanations.” Ms. Ravitch also suggested that the concept of the “business model” simply doesn’t apply to the Bloomberg reforms. In this new configuration there is no board of directors or audit committee, structures that we routinely require in corporations.

The Department of Education, a public enterprise, is run, Ms, Ravitch charged, as though it was a private fiefdom. “Nothing is transparent. No one knows who is involved in decision-making, what alternatives were considered, what evidence is available. Decisions are presented as fait accompli, with no public discussion… Under the old board,with all its faults,all contracts over a certain dollar amount ($100,000) were announced and discussed at public meetings.That doesn’t happen anymore.”

Is the new system more efficient? Other than the claims made in press releases, there is no real evidence because the flow of information is so tightly controlled. Ms. Ravitch pointed out that it appears that there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of new nonpedagogical positions, some filled with young M.B.A. types who have no experience with the schools, work for a year as their contribution to the “public good,” and move on.

Ms. Ravitch reserved special concern over the Leadership Academy, established to train new principals. At a cost of $300,000 to prepare a single new principal, this may be the most expensive pedagogical training program ever.

Ms. Ravitch questioned a central tenet of the Leadership Academy, asking whether a person who has no classroom experience can be placed in a position where he or she will have to observe, evaluate, and rate the work of teachers. This is not a new position for Ms. Ravitch, who was critical of similar proposals along these lines made by the Eli Broad Foundation several years ago. The Broad Foundation is the group that financed the chancellor’s “Children First” initiative.

This leads me back to Ms. Ravitch’s initial description of the charitable roots of public education in New York City. In the early part of the 19th century, the efforts of men of good will found the money to pay for the education of poor children who could not afford to attend the religious schools that were then considered “public” education. It seems to me that we have come full circle and returned to the “schools as charity” model.

© 2004 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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