Textbook for Failure

Sunday, May 31, 2009

WHETHER NEW York Mayor Michael Bloomberg will retain control of the city's public schools will soon be decided by state lawmakers in Albany. This is an issue about which there should be no debate. By any measure, the city's schools are better off today than under the byzantine system that preceded mayoral control. Too much is at stake -- for New York's 1.1 million students as well as for education reform efforts nationwide -- for the legislature to turn back the clock. If the vested interests of the education establishment succeed in their bid to kill off mayoral control in the nation's largest school system, it will make it harder for other cities to sustain the oversight of schools by mayors. Places such as Washington, D.C., are likely to become the next targets.

The 2002 law that gave Mr. Bloomberg direct authority over the schools, replacing a system of local control overseen by a central Board of Education, expires at the end of June. Lawmakers must decide if mayoral control should be maintained, abolished or modified; the lobbying is ferocious. Critics -- including the United Federation of Teachers -- want to curb the mayor's influence, saying that he and Chancellor Joel Klein have ruled like dictators. Among the suggested changes, presented under the specious guise of "checks and balances," are proposals for reconfiguring the education panel that replaced the old school board so that it would be able to overrule the mayor and giving broad new powers to local community councils. So much for accountability and responsibility; apparently the fact that Mr. Bloomberg was overwhelmingly returned to office in 2005 after staking his political future on running the schools isn't enough.

It's important to recall the grim reality prior to mayoral control: struggling and unsafe schools, failing students, inequities in funding, corrupt politics and patronage. Mr. Bloomberg and Mr. Klein instituted such reforms as ending social promotion and standardizing curriculum. They closed chronically low-performing schools and innovated with new and charter schools. No less an authority than U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan hailed the undisputed progress of these seven years. "I'm looking at the data here in front of me," Mr. Duncan told the New York Post. "Graduation rates are up. Test scores are up. Teacher salaries are up . . . ." Indeed, test scores announced this month showed 68.9 percent of students in fourth grade and 57 percent of students in eighth grade met or exceeded grade-level readings standards, up from 46.5 percent and 29.5 percent, respectively, in 2002.

Why sacrifice progress and momentum when there are so many students yet to be helped? One answer is in the clear dislike by teachers union officials of the hard-charging Mr. Klein, who, much like his D.C. counterpart, Michelle A. Rhee, is absolutely fearless in putting the interests of children ahead of job protection, seniority or being liked by city pols. Unions talk a good game about wanting to be change agents, but here, when real reform is on the table, they opt for sabotage. Easier to criticize a style of governing than the benefits of real leadership. Easier to look out for your own institutional interests than what's good for pupils.

A lot is riding on the outcome in New York; Washington, where the same union leaders have inserted themselves into the fight over education, should pay particular attention.

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