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Manhattan Institute

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Bust That Trust: An Open Letter


Bust That Trust: An Open Letter

August 19, 2002
EducationPre K-12

AS a public school parent, I was pleased to learn that our new schools' chancellor is an ex-federal prosecutor, not a professional educator.

I also appreciate the fact that the highlight of your legal career was going after the Microsoft company for monopolistic, anti-competitive practices that harmed consumers. I hope you brought all of your trustbusting skills with you, because today you take over the mother of all education monopolies.

You will soon discover that it's a system in which competition is a dirty word, where excellence is rarely rewarded and failure never punished. Thus, it damages its customers - 1.1 million children and their families - far more than Microsoft's practices ever did.

I have had children in the system for the past 14 years. During that time, I looked on in despair as nine previous chancellors walked through the revolving doors of 110 Livingston Street.

Each of them began with high hopes of making the system work for the kids, yet each was chewed up and discarded by the dysfunctional system.

The saddest case of all was your immediate predecessor, Harold Levy.

Like you, Levy was a lawyer who came from the private sector and needed a waiver from the state education commissioner to take the job. It was precisely because of his "outsider" status that Levy was at least capable of being shocked by the system's slacker culture.

This led him to some accomplishments, such as making it a little easier to fire bad teachers. Levy's biggest mistake, however, was his incessant whining about not having enough money to run the system.

Besides being false, this was a particularly destructive message to be sending to employees with little enough reason to work hard and to whom it became another convenient excuse for failure.

I hope you don't fall in to the same trap.

You should rather confront this deadly culture of low expectations head on by reminding New Yorkers that the $12 billion the system now spends is almost 30 percent higher in real terms than it was just a few years ago.

Moreover, in per-pupil spending, it is higher than the amount spent by almost every school district in America, as well as every country in the world.

You should also point out that with a rational and competitive system of incentives in place it is more than enough money to provide a decent education for all our children.

The first place to begin creating a market-driven system is with our front-line soldiers, the classroom teachers.

Under the prevailing contractual arrangements, teachers have virtually no incentive (other than their own conscience) to become more knowledgeable about their subjects or more productive in the classroom. A teacher's promotion up the salary scale is now based entirely on seniority (basically showing up each year) and accumulating useless courses. City officials claim that a dire shortage of math and science teachers is harming students, yet no one seems willing to try what any other enterprise would do in such a situation - pay more money to the teachers in the shortage area.

For a graphic picture of the destructive effects of the seniority system, I suggest that you walk the three blocks from your new office in the Tweed Courthouse to Stuyvesant High School, where my son goes to school.

Stuyvesant is supposedly the jewel of the system, but its teacher personnel policies are a little bit like a longshoreman's hiring hall of the mid-1950s. Too many unwanted and incompetent teachers plague the school. They are there only because they had more years on the job than other applicants.

We could tour the building and I could show you one teacher who is a world-class mathematician and is teaching college-level classes. Unfortunately, he's earning half as much as the math teacher next door, who claimed his job by seniority but who is incapable of teaching even freshman-level classes.

Because the school system blithely ignores the market, Stuyvesant will likely lose its world-class mathematician. But we are stuck with the hopelessly inadequate teacher until the day he decides to retire.

The kids at Stuyvesant will undoubtedly survive, but there's nothing incidental about this situation. Rather it defines a system that is so insulated from outside competition that it is under little pressure to change.

As someone who knows about the corrosive effect of monopolies, and with the free hand you have been given, you have a rare opportunity to accomplish what no recent chancellor has been able to do.

You could bring the public education system's way of conducting business at least into the 20th century, if not all the way to the 21st.


Sol Stern