Winning control over the New York City’s dysfunctional education system has been Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s biggest political achievement to date. Yet this triumph could turn to ashes very quickly if the mayor doesn’t find a chancellor who is a serious school reformer, someone with entrepreneurial vision and the courage to challenge the system’s entrenched special interests. So far, the indications out of city hall have been less than encouraging.
During last year’s mayoral campaign Bloomberg’s major education proposals—school uniforms, yearly testing for students, and bi-annual testing for teachers—were either redundant (students already took city or state tests each year) or bordered on the trivial. This might have been excused as a low-risk electoral strategy in a Democratic city. But six months after taking office, Bloomberg has yet to tell us how he proposes to change the deadly bureaucratic culture and the stifling union work rules that undermine productivity and excellence in the schools. Even more worrying are the people he has chosen to advise him on education policy: Deputy Mayor Dennis Wolcott and mayoral advisors Esther Fuchs and Allan Gartner—ideological Dinkins Democrats, who have never strayed from the discredited notion that the main reason urban public schools don’t work is because they are underfunded. Never have they ruffled the feathers of a teachers’ union official with a single radical idea for reform, such as merit pay, vouchers, or privatization.
With these three acting as gatekeepers for Bloomberg’s chancellor search, it is no surprise that most of the names mentioned so far in the media as purportedly being on one or another city hall list represent the same discredited ‘we need more money’ or ‘we need smaller classes’ or ‘we need higher teacher salaries’ approach. After years of protracted political struggle—by education reformers and mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg—to get the reins of the school system into mayoral hands, it is mind-boggling that we should now be discussing such candidates as Bill Clinton’s affirmative-action and diversity czarina, Donna Shalala; or Ed Koch’s deputy mayor (and nominal head of the official chancellor search committee), Nat Leventhal; or Time Warner’s failed CEO, Gerald Levin. If these and some of the other names mentioned are the best that Bloomberg can do, it is not exactly clear why he asked current chancellor Harold Levy to step down. Levy has some of the same faults as the others, but at least he has had two years experiencing the slacker culture of the Board of Education from within. Maybe he has finally been disabused of the ‘lack of money’ explanation for school failure.
At the very least Bloomberg should be considering chancellor candidates from among those Americans who actually took part in the radical school reform movement of the past two decades. Heading the list should be people like Lisa Keegan, the former Arizona education commissioner, who based her policies on the principle that every child in the state should have access to an equal amount of taxpayer education dollars which could then be taken to any public school, charter school, or private school; former deputy mayor Tony Coles, who distinguished himself during the Giuliani administration by fighting for school choice for poor kids trapped in failing schools, while simultaneously demanding more accountable public schools; Howard Fuller, the former superintendent of the Milwaukee public school system, who had the rare courage among education officials to declare that the system was failing black children, that this had nothing to do with money, and that the children should have the same right as affluent children to choose schools that actually worked; Bob Kiley, whose triumph in turning the subway system around as MTA head in the 1980s was the first pre-Giuliani indication that the city could be saved; or the fearless, independent, and results-minded former state power commissioner and city economic development chief, John Dyson.
Only with candidates such as these can Bloomberg recapture the hope for change that accompanied his remarkable success in gaining control of the school system. He should consider such people even if—God forbid—they should happen to be members of the same political party as the one he belongs to. If genuine reformers continue to be excluded by Bloomberg’s liberal Democratic gatekeepers, the education bureaucrats and unions who are their allies will have won once again. Most New Yorkers will then wonder what this exercise was all about.