In 2002, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg convinced the state legislature to give him control of the city’s schools. He argued that the old Board of Education had become “dysfunctional” and thus incapable of producing significant academic improvement. The board’s seven voting members were separately appointed by six different (and often competing) elected officials. That meant, Bloomberg maintained, that “no one was in charge” and no one could be held accountable for the school system’s dismal performance.
But Bloomberg has now performed a dizzying about-face in his assessment of the old governance arrangement (and thus implicitly of his rationale for mayoral control of the schools.) According to a Bloomberg campaign ad now saturating the media, someone actually was in charge at the old Board of Ed and should be held accountable for the schools’ failure: Bloomberg’s opponent in the upcoming mayoral election, City Comptroller Bill Thompson. “When Thompson was president of the Board of Education, he ran the old system,” the Bloomberg ad declares. The schools were in awful shape under Thompson, the ad claims, with “drop-out rates increas[ing]” and “billions in cost overruns.”
If Thompson’s campaign were minimally competent, he could have had a field day with the spot, pointing out Bloomberg’s education flip-flop and connecting it with the mayor’s reversal on term limits. Instead, Thompson has fallen into the mayor’s trap by dissembling on his own education record. Thompson’s campaign website asserts that when he served on the board he “established many important changes,” including “assuring greater parental input” and “overseeing steady increases in reading scores.” The truth is, as Bloomberg once affirmed, that Thompson had only one vote out of seven, and the position of board president was largely ceremonial.
Unfortunately, Thompson’s feckless campaign guarantees that critical questions about the reality behind Mayor Bloomberg’s education reforms will get little public attention in the few weeks remaining before the November 3rd election. In his much anticipated education speech of September 22, Thompson couldn’t even coherently lay out the accumulating evidence that the Bloomberg administration’s claims of success are based on inflated state test scores. Instead he offered stale bromides such as “fix the curriculum; demand accountability; create a community of schools; reduce class size; [and] empower parents as partners.”
Thompson’s education speech didn’t identify what was wrong with Bloomberg’s “curriculum” except for the old saw about “teaching to the test.” Thompson still hasn’t noticed that the biggest problem in Bloomberg’s schools is that there is no grade-by-grade curriculum emphasizing a core body of knowledge. Nor is there an approach to teaching reading based on proven methodologies.
Thompson’s focus on issues like lowering class sizes might have worked in the old days to secure political support from the powerful United Federation of Teachers, with all the phone banks and campaign workers the union usually mobilizes for its favored Democratic candidates. But the advent of mayoral control, coupled with Bloomberg’s success in buying off potential opposition, has made the Democrats’ traditional union-based political strategy inoperable. In the early days of mayoral control, the UFT was one of the mayor’s only institutional critics on education. Union president Randi Weingarten regularly blasted Schools Chancellor Joel Klein for trying to dictate what teachers should be doing in the classroom. Of late, however, the billionaire mayor has domesticated and co-opted the union, partly through taxpayer funds, which have so far produced 43 percent teacher salary increases and the promise of more to come. The salary hikes have swelled the union’s coffers, since member dues go up in proportion to any pay increases.
Confrontation has changed to cooperation, and Weingarten has been at the mayor’s side offering support during his periodic press conferences announcing spectacular test score improvements, which the union knows are questionable. Right now the UFT takes in about $140 million per year; that will go up by $10 million more if, as is rumored, teachers get another 8 percent pay increase in the new contract starting October 31st. Top union operatives will thus have seen a 50 percent increase in their own salaries since the advent of mayoral control.
The UFT and the Bloomberg administration have increasingly developed a cartel-like working relationship, with New York taxpayers paying the price. Combine the effects of that arrangement with a desultory mayoral campaign, and soon there will be no “public” in New York City’s public education.