Commentary

NYC Schools Disintegrating under Bloomberg

Cathie Black has made it clear by now to more and more parents and their children that her commitment is to Michael Bloomberg — not them. Or as Michael Daly puts it: “The first definition of [chancellor] in Merriam-Webster is ‘secretary to a nobleman, prince or king.’ “

This is the first of an intermittent series of columns on the collapse of the public school system that Black is utterly incapable of dealing with: the dramatic rise of student suspensions, mostly affecting black children and students with special needs; the thousands of students being denied, against the law, second-language instruction with more cuts in the budget; kindergarten classes more overcrowded than in the past decade and tighter squeezing in other classes.

There’s more, and, obviously, this isn’t Cathie Black’s fault. She just came on board this severely listing ship. There are New York schools enabling lifelong learning — like in Steven Thrasher’s precise Voice reporting on the charter school Bronx Success Academy (February 2). But the large-scale systemic failures were wholly left out in a February 9 Daily News article by none other than Cathie Black (“On College Readiness, Let’s Get Real”).

Praising her liege lord, the Education Mayor, she gloried that nine years after he had taken control of the schools, “New York’s graduation rate is an all-time high of 63 percent.”

Not a word in her tribute to miracle-worker Mike about the lead editorial on the preceding page, “Set the Bar High,” which inadvertently rips the halos off Bloomberg and Black’s predecessor, Joel Klein: “Only 23 percent of the seniors awarded diplomas in 2009 were truly ready to begin college without taking remedial classes.” And why were parents yelling at the mayor during the fake, Bloomberg-controlled “hearings” to close down 22 schools? The editorial explains: “Among black and Latino students, a scant 13 percent were college-ready.”

When Lord Bloomberg was booed by the parents, he strongly rebuked these ungrateful boors for “embarrassing” this city to the country and distorting the very idea of democracy.

Said parent Zakiyah Ansari, a leader of the Coalition for Educational Justice: “When we as parents have everything to lose, we can’t say anything?”

And, in an article I urge parents and students to read, Diane Ravitch — the premier historian and analyst of New York City’s public schools — writes: “As we have seen recently in Egypt,” that hearing’s “parody of democracy” showed that “people who are denied a legitimate role in the democratic process get angry and make noise” (“Bridging Differences,” Education Week, February 10).

There will be much more noise in the dreaded three years remaining in Bloomberg’s third term, but what’s needed is very specific planning and strategy by the various education advocacy groups to rescue so many of these students from dead-end lives. Will we hear anything from Joel Klein on what happened during his watch? In office, he was useful, to some extent, but along with Bloomberg, he set in place — and then failed to remove — the rotting roots of this ongoing disaster.

But Joel is busy, earning a $2 million annual salary, plus bonuses, as Rupert Murdoch’s director of educational technology — where, he says, “I’m really so excited about what I want to do here and [how] we’re going to do it [and] I think people are going to be surprised” (New York Post, December 31).

A lot of us are sure depressed, Joel, at what you left undone here. I still think Cathie Black means well — whatever that means — but in self-respect, she ought to leave. Now. She may be a “super manager” as Bloomberg calls her, but she is not for this job.

Can we trust Bloomberg to decide who is? Will he again act all by himself?

Has the mayor taken time to read the deeply documented New York Civil Liberties Union report from January: “Education Interrupted/The Growing Use of Suspensions in New York City’s Public Schools”? He does spend some time in his various lodgings in and out of the country, presumably reflecting, planning, and resting.

Explain to us, your honor, why “black students, who comprise 33 percent of the student body, served 53 percent of suspensions over the past 10 years. Black students with disabilities represent more than 50 percent of suspended students with disabilities.” These are not typos. Suspensions doubled in the past 10 years.

Also, Bloomberg and Joel Klein were such zealous disciplinarians (Bloomberg still is) that they enforced “zero tolerance” policies. These policies have often radically derailed students around the country.

The ceaseless constitutionalist, John Whitehead, President of the Rutherford Institute, whose attorneys continuously protect the civil liberties of students without charge, reports: “These policies, and the school administrators who relentlessly enforce them, render young people woefully ignorant of what they intrinsically possess as American [citizens]… . Having failed to learn much in the way of civic education in school [as in New York City], young people are being browbeaten into believing that they have no true rights and government authorities have total power and can violate constitutional rights whenever they see fit.”

From the NYCLU’s “Education Interrupted” report, here is the suspension story of Yvette in an education system over which Michael Bloomberg is proud to have total control: “Yvette and her younger sister Gabrielle attended the same school. Every day, Yvette would meet Gabrielle outside Gabrielle’s classroom so they could walk home together. One afternoon, Yvette was told by a school safety officer [hired and trained by Police Commissioner Ray Kelly] that she could not go down the hall to Gabrielle’s class. She explained she was picking up her younger sister, but the officer blocked her way and then shoved her when she tried to walk past.

“Yvette got upset and yelled, ‘Don’t touch me!’ She tried to leave but was handcuffed and arrested by another school safety officer. Yvette was taken to the police precinct where she spent seven hours in handcuffs before being released to her mother.”

And I cannot omit from this documentation of school suspensions — in this city where Michael Bloomberg rates himself as “the best mayor ever” — the suspension story of Monica: “One morning, as Monica was entering her Brooklyn middle school, her principal demanded to search her clothing and her belongings as part of an apparently random search. She cooperated as he repeatedly reached his hands into her pockets and then searched her backpack.

“The principal took a bottle of orange juice out of Monica’s backpack and began to yell at her for trying to bring juice into the school — drinks with added sugar are prohibited by DOE policy” — and by our Maximum Dietician, the very caring mayor.

“Monica held onto the bottle, trying to explain that it was a type permitted under the rules. As Monica and her principal tugged on opposite ends of the bottle, Monica was tackled by a group of school safety officers who threw her to the ground, kneeled on her back, and handcuffed her.”

Sure makes you proud to be a New Yorker, right? But this teaching moment was not finished: “Her twin sister, who was not subjected to search, saw the police slam Monica’s head down on the floor. She began crying and begging the police to help her sister up. When she tried to intervene, she, too, was handcuffed.”

Both sisters had more to learn about proper student behavior: “Monica was handcuffed to a table in a broom closet, and her sister was handcuffed in an empty classroom for two hours while their father waited at the security desk to pick them up. Neither Monica nor her sister was asked to write a statement, and neither was charged with a crime.”

How, then, in view of the way these students were treated by the school safety [sic] officers, was there no punishment, or at least a reprimand, of their brutish abusers?

Ask the disciplinarian of us all, the legendary Michael Bloomberg!

The NYCLU’s recommendation to stop this reign of terror includes “mandating positive alternatives to suspensions when appropriate,” and, even more radically, “provide support services for students’ emotional and psychological needs” and, most importantly, “encourage meaningful public input in the discipline process.”

This requires, of course, candid, even high-volume input from students and parents! But first, shouldn’t Mayor Bloomberg sign a witnessed and notarized affidavit agreeing to this democratic mandate? Or, is he, like the CIA, outside the law?

Nat Hentoff writes on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights. He is a member of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the Cato Institute, where he is a senior fellow.