Michael Bloomberg’s ruthless definition of “mayoral control” of the schools became coldly clear on March 16, 2004, when he summarily fired three members of the city’s Panel for Education Policy before a vote on the Bloomberg requirement for third-graders’ promotions to end “social promotions.” Eight of the panel’s 13 members had been appointed by His Sovereignty, but there had been prior evidence that at least the disobedient three, and maybe more, would vote against the mayor’s ukase.
Said the boss after his triumph: “This is what mayoral control is all about. They are my representatives, and they are going to vote for things that I believe in” (New York Times, March 16, 2004). Or else.
His faithful vassal, Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, dutifully said that the three had resigned. If Bloomberg ever achieves his desired seat in the Oval Office, he will have a trusted press secretary in Mr. Klein.
Education is one of my two main beats; the Constitution is the other. I am opposed to mechanical “social promotion,” but the Bloomberg plan — like the now-discredited No Child Left Behind Act — was based on the scores of single city-wide standardized reading and math tests. Ignored was a focus on individual students that will be part of my next book, Is This America? (Cato Institute).
In reaction to the mayor’s victory, Robin Brown, the president of United Parents Associations (a city-wide coalition of parents and teachers’ groups), said in outrage: “Politics first, children last … This is one of the reasons we never supported mayoral control.”
Said Natalie Gomez-Velez, the Bronx representative on the Education Policy Panel: “This is not something we should be teaching kids about democracy.” Apparently, she hadn’t been aware that “democracy” and “Mayor Bloomberg” are not synonymous.
As the years went on, the mayor did relinquish control of the schools only to Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and his School Safety Agents. Both are now defendants in a federal lawsuit on police abuse of students. But otherwise, Bloomberg was solely in charge until this past March 26 when he, Joel Klein, and the rest of his Royal Court were shocked at a decision by Justice Joan Lobis of the State Supreme Court in Manhattan that stopped Bloomberg’s closing of 19 schools for poor performance. The judge sharply cited “significant violations” of the unexpected new state law setting rules of mayoral control.
This additional lawsuit was brought against Bloomberg puppets Joel Klein and the Board of Education by, among others, UFT President Michael Mulgrew, the New York State Conference of the NAACP, various parents, and political figures, including City Council member Charles Barron. The latter once invited dictator Robert Mugabe to address the City Council. I’d appreciate Mr. Barron’s views of how Robert Mugabe is running the Zimbabwe schools.
In her decision, Judge Lobis charged that the defendants “appear to trivialize the whole notion of community involvement in decisions regarding the closing or phasing out of schools. The new law,” she continued, “called for meaningful community involvement,” and the “entire legislative scheme must be enforced, and not merely the portion extending mayoral control of the schools.” That last zinger was directed at the Royal Mayor.
The Chancellor, obviously with the mayor’s imperial approval, had not provided the educational impact statements required by the law. Where, for example, asked the judge, is there “any meaningful information regarding the impact on the students” (in those euthanized schools) or “the ability of the schools in the affected community to accommodate those students”? (Bloomberg is already an expert creator of overcrowded classrooms.)
The response by the rebuked Chancellor Klein (New York Times, March 27, 2010): “The sad thing is that the union [the UFT] would bring a lawsuit to resign kids to failing schools in order to save jobs. And ultimately, that is what this is about.”
In another column, I’ll provide some of my disagreements with the UFT, but this particular lawsuit is about preventing the mayor of New York and his successors from excluding parents and community organizations concerned with education from any meaningful involvement in the public (and we use that word provisionally) schools.
For further illustration of how Bloomberg and Klein trashed the law, the judge accused them of “completely failing to provide the information about specific programs existing at the schools proposed to be closed or phased out — or where the students would be able to find such programs [elsewhere].” For example, “where the school had a Living for the Young Family through Education (LYFE) Center, no mention was made of the program, or where a similar program existed in other city schools.”
But, say the disgruntled defendants, consider all the public meetings we held about the schools to be closed. Answers the judge — giving Bloomberg and Klein a remedial lesson in Madisonian democracy — “although public meetings were held with respect to each school, and members of the respective Community Education Councils and School Leadership Teams were ‘invited’ to attend those meetings, it cannot be said that those meetings were ‘joint’ meetings (as required by the law)… . For the notion of a joint meeting to have any meaning, the members of the Community Educational Councils and School Leadership Teams must be part of the process of structuring those meetings and not merely be told where and when to be present and given a script of what they are to say at the meetings” (emphasis added).
What did Joel Klein say to that — and what does his response reveal about his understanding of democracy?
“I think,” said the Chancellor, “the process was robust. We literally met with thousands of people who expressed their views. We heard them, and in the end, we disagreed.”
They disagreed because these irreverent views didn’t follow the script. Joel Klein once promised me that he would bring civics classes back into schools so that students would know what it has taken in the history of this country to keep securing actual democracy throughout this society. I don’t know the extent, if any, of his restorations of civics education. But his faithfulness in following Bloomberg’s orders to exclude, as the judge said, any “meaningful community involvement” in the attempted closing of the 19 schools, shows his aversion to essential democratic participation in keeping a number of those schools meaningful to the very students themselves.
In an April 2 editorial, “This Time, Listen,” the New York Times advised: “Instead of dismissing the lawsuit as an act of sabotage by the teachers’ union, which was party to it, the city officials should be building bridges to the parents, community leaders and the angry state lawmakers who joined this suit out of frustration with the city’s tactics.”
What would you say are the odds that this autocratic mayor even knows — as the Times reports (March 27, 2010) — that “12 of the schools scheduled to close this year received a grade of ‘proficient’ in their last city quality review”? Or that many students and parents were stunned at the termination of such effective programs as the one “devised for mothers and pregnant teenagers at [the] Paul Robeson High School that offers day care and teaches parenting skills”? Too bad the resounding Paul Robeson isn’t around to help the mayor shape up.