Mayor Bloombergs demolition derby for New Yorks public schools

With the Bush administration under fire from all directions, even his “signature” education bill, No Child Left Behind, is losing support, including from Republicans. NCLB has produced a huge shift towards standardized testing, using test scores to narrowly gauge success of teachers, principals and schools, increasing bureaucratic constraints, and, perhaps most significantly, pressures towards privatization.

Test preparation companies (Kaplan, etc.) have experienced a boon in recent years as worried parents spend money they can ill afford to help their children pass the array of tests (to which New York City’s Department of Education has now added science).

One only has to look at the test booklets themselves and notice who publishes them — none other than McGraw-Hill, a major contractor with the DOE. McGraw-Hill and Voyager have also been big donors to the Bush administration. Harold McGraw Jr. sits on the national grant and founding board of the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy.

Corporate model

McGraw-Hill executives have been recently appointed by NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein to sit on a committee to address “middle school reform.”

Bloomberg’s core cabinet doesn’t include a single educator, but does include an investment banker, a foundation executive, a telecom CEO, a music industry lawyer, a former state deputy comptroller and the son of Klein’s former law partner.

The approach taken by Bloomberg and Klein has been sharply criticized for years for everything from heavy-handedness and tone deafness when it comes to parent and community input, to the failure to significantly lift graduation rates, to cuts in special education. On the overriding issue of overcrowding, the Bloomberg DOE has done little to nothing, even going to great lengths to oppose campaigns for smaller classes and only recently agreeing to contribute towards settling the longstanding lawsuit that charged the NYC’s public schools were underfunded.

Not surprising for a businessman, Bloomberg has been hostile to labor, including the teachers and other school workers and their unions, both of whom went without contracts for years.

The profit motive

Bloomberg and Klein have made many decisions that abdicate their responsibility for running the schools by turning them over to corporate consultants and for-profit “providers.”

The latest example is the no-bid contract with the consulting firm of Alvarez and Marsal, brought in to help the city cut the DOE budget. Their first project was to “restructure” the school bussing system, resulting in kicking off 13,000 children from their school buses in the middle of winter. Five-year-old children were given Metrocards to ride city buses and subways to school. Some children were instructed to take up to three city buses; others had to cross multi-lane highways to get to their new school bus stops. Siblings attending the same school were put on different buses. Many children waited for buses that never came. And other children were picked up after the start of school, missing the breakfast program and the reading lessons that begin every school day.

Alvarez and Marsal specialize in corporate restructuring via downsizing. Before coming to New York, they had been contracted to cut the budget of the school system in St. Louis with similarly disastrous results.

Yet despite the bus fiasco, this firm is in charge of coming up with budget-cutting measures, including downsizing special education services, delivery and quality of school food and supplies, and counseling services.

Other DOE luminaries include William Robert, formerly the CEO of Brooks Brothers, now an interim superintendent, and Sajan George, a former Defense Department contractor and oil executive, now the city schools’ chief restructuring officer (for which he is paid $450 an hour).

Christopher Cerf, former head of Edison Schools Inc., and for several years a consultant to the DOE, hired by his old friend Klein, was recently made a deputy chancellor. Despite the embarrassment to Klein when it was revealed that up until just a few weeks ago, Cerf had significant financial interest in Edison, he remains on the city’s payroll.

Klein also recently announced a five-year, $80 million contract with IBM to develop a database that would track the city’s 1.1 million students.

Another new reorganization plan

At his State of the City address in January, Bloomberg surprised everyone when he announced another school reorganization plan. This is the third such effort, and it has met with across-the-board opposition. With this plan Klein aims to put on the backs of teachers the entire burden of having children pass the high stakes tests, and to take yet another step towards delivering the largest school system in the country on a platter to for-profit corporations and agencies. Critics point out that this restructuring plan, coming so soon after the last one in 2003, will create big problems for parents and students just as that earlier effort did.

At the heart of the plan is requiring principals to quickly choose between three “School Support Options.” The first is to choose to work with one of four new “super supervisors,” and the second is the “Empowerment School” route. Critics point out the Empowerment pilot project on which this option is based is only a year old and has not been evaluated.

The third option is the one that smells of privatization, as it arranges for schools to “partner” with private agencies. Among those that have indicated interest in these partnerships is Edison Schools, Inc. Several years ago an effort to bring Edison into New York City to take over troubled schools was defeated after a big community campaign.

But Bloomberg and Klein may have gone too far. Opposition to the new plan has been sharp and broad, from parents (including the chancellor’s own Parents’ Advisory Council), teachers, community leaders and elected officials. All are protesting the speed of the change, the lack of input, and perhaps most ominously, the inclusion of elements that move further toward privatization.

At a church hall rally two weeks ago headlined, “Put the Public Back in Public Education,” the packed room rang with chants of, “Klein resign, Klein resign!” The event was called by a coalition of groups that is criticizing the corporate takeover of the school system, and included the Working Families Party and the United Federation of Teachers.

The “Put the Public Back in Public Education Coalition” has called on Chancellor Klein to “stop the reorganization and listen to parents,” saying it agrees with the “goals of fair funding, accountability, and quality teaching in all schools, but believes the current plan will not accomplish them. Instead, it will lead to chaos once again in the day-to-day life of NYC’s struggling schools.”

A resolution passed by the Citywide Council on High Schools calls on the city to halt the reorganization process, pointing out that it “focuses on overall structure rather than proven initiatives that directly impact the classroom, such as smaller class size,” and calls for public hearings.

Charter schools

Another aspect of the Bloomberg/Klein privatization push is increasing the number of charter schools. This is also under fire, including by the UFT and others. In an article entitled “Charter Schools: A quick fix for an old wound; the attack on public education,” by Veronica Montgomery-Costa, president of the AFSCME local of DOE employees, urges “every member to mobilize and act as a voting block to defeat the privatization of our public schools.”

What about class size?

Smaller classes are universally considered to be the single most important factor in improving children’s learning and achievement, yet this factor gets short shrift in the latest reorganization proposal.

At public hearings around the city, when asked about smaller class size, Klein has steadfastly ducked, claiming that class sizes have gone down under mayoral control (though there are no figures to support this) and ignoring the fact that the DOE has no plans for reducing class sizes above third grade. Education advocates, including the Alliance for Quality Education, are calling on the public to put pressure on the state Senate and the DOE to pass Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s budget and to ensure that the new funding is spent on class size reduction.

Class Size Matters has called for lobbying against the plan as well: “Instead of experimenting with more untested reorganization schemes, likely to cause even more chaos and uncertainty, the mayor and chancellor should listen to parents and teachers about how to spend the additional $5 billion that our schools are due to receive — on a proven reform that is guaranteed to work: class size reduction.”

Maria Ortiz is a member of the United Federation of Teachers. Elena Mora contributed to this article. Both have children in the N.Y. public schools and are activists in the struggle to save public education.