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Mike’s on the Wrong Track
By Sol Stern
Winning control over New York City’s failed public school system has been Mayor Bloomberg’s biggest political achievement. Yet this triumph could turn to ashes very quickly if the mayor doesn’t find a chancellor who is a serious school reformer, someone with the entrepreneurial vision and the courage to challenge the system’s entrenched special interests.
So far, the indications out of City Hall have been less than encouraging.
During last year’s mayoral campaign, Bloomberg’s major education proposals--school uniforms, yearly testing for students and biannual testing for teachers--were redundant (students already take too many city and state tests each year) or bordered on the trivial.
This might have been excused as a low-risk electoral strategy for a Republican running in a Democratic city. But six months after taking office, Bloomberg has yet to tell us how he proposes to change the deadly bureaucratic culture and the stifling union work rules that undermine productivity and excellence in the schools.
Even more worrying are the people he has chosen to advise him on education policy: Deputy Mayor Dennis Wolcott and mayoral advisers Ester Fuchs and Allan Gartner--ideological Dinkins Democrats who have never strayed from the discredited notion that the main reason urban public schools don’t work is underfunding. Never have they ruffled the feathers of a teachers’ union official with a single radical idea for reform, such as merit pay, vouchers or privatization.
With these three acting as gatekeepers for Bloomberg’s chancellor search, it is no surprise that most of the names mentioned so far in the media as being on one or another City Hall list represent the same discredited “we need more money” or “we need smaller classes” or “we need higher teacher salaries” approach.
After years of protracted political struggle--by education reformers, by former Mayor Rudy Giuliani and by Bloomberg--to get the reins of the school system into mayoral hands, it is mind-boggling that there’s been speculation about candidates such as ex-President Bill Clinton’s affirmative action and diversity czarina, Donna Shalala, or Ed Koch’s deputy mayor (and nominal head of the official chancellor search committee) Nat Leventhal, or Time Warner’s failed CEO Gerald Levin.
Another person Bloomberg is talking to is Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who served as a superintendent in the city school system and is now head of Cleveland’s failing schools. Of Byrd-Bennett’s candidacy, an unnamed City Hall source reportedly said it was a plus that she had “worked in the system.” To the contrary, to have worked in a failed system and never have spoken out publicly and accurately about why it was failing is not much of a recommendation.
If these and some of the other names being mentioned are the best that Bloomberg can do, it is not exactly clear why he asked the current chancellor, Harold Levy, to step down. Levy has some of the same faults as the others, but at least he has been on the job for two years. He has experienced the rules-driven, slacker culture of the Board of Education firsthand and sometimes tried to do something about it. Maybe he has finally been disabused of the “lack of money” explanation for school failure.
At the very least, Bloomberg should be considering chancellor candidates from among those Americans who took part in the radical school reform movement of the past two decades.
Heading the list should be people like Lisa Keegan, the former Arizona education commissioner who based her policies on the principle that every child in the state should have access to an equal amount of taxpayer education dollars that could then be taken to any public school, charter school or private school.
Then there’s former Deputy Mayor Anthony Coles, who distinguished himself during the Giuliani administration by fighting for choice for poor kids trapped in failing schools while demanding more accountable public schools.
There’s also Howard Fuller, former superintendent of the Milwaukee public school system, who had the rare courage among education officials to declare that the system was failing black children, that this had nothing to do with money and that poor children should have the same right as affluent children to choose schools that work.
Another possibility is Bob Kiley, whose triumph in turning the subway system around as head of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in the 1980s was the first pre-Giuliani indication that the city could be saved. As head of the New York City Partnership, Kiley pioneered a merit-pay experiment in one Brooklyn school district.
Another is the fearless, independent and results-minded former state power commissioner and city economic development chief, John Dyson.
Only with candidates such as these can Bloomberg recapture the hope for change that accompanied his remarkable success in gaining control of the school system. He should consider such people even if--God forbid!--they should happen to be members of the same political party as his.
The recent Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutionality of vouchers is likely to usher in a new era of innovation in public education. Even if they do not begin voucher programs, many cities and states are likely to try other market-oriented experiments, such as privatization of failing schools, merit pay and alternative teacher licensing.
As head of the nation’s largest school system, Bloomberg has a unique opportunity to show that there are better ways to improve urban schools than throwing more money into a dysfunctional system.
If genuine school reformers continue to be excluded by Bloomberg’s liberal Democratic gatekeepers, the education bureaucrats and unions who are their allies will have won again. Most New Yorkers will then wonder what this exercise of mayoral control was all about.
Stem is a contributing editor of City Journal, from whose Web site, www.city journal.org, this is adapted.
©2002 New York Daily News
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