In a recent Daily News opinion piece, education scholar Diane Ravitch offered a relatively mild criticism of the bonus-pay scheme for teachers negotiated by the city and the United Federation of Teachers. She also corrected the widespread perception in the press that this should count as another big victory for Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s education-reform agenda. As she demonstrated, the final agreement was much closer to the school-based bonuses that the union has long favored than to Bloomberg’s original position, which held that individual classroom teachers should win merit-pay increases based on improvements in their own students’ test scores.
It would have been acceptable, indeed appropriate, for the Bloomberg administration or its allies to respond vigorously to Ravitch’s arguments with facts. With the education department’s huge public-relations staff and an open door to the city’s opinion pages, the administration doesn’t lack opportunities to make a reasoned case for its position. And a policy debate between the administration and Ravitch on the important issue of merit pay could have been constructive. Open debate always serves the public interest.
Unfortunately, instead of arguing with Ravitch on substance, the administration launched an ad hominem attack. It came in the form of a New York Post op-ed, “Hypocritical Critic,” by Kathryn Wylde, president and CEO of the Partnership for New York City, the business organization that is a virtual partner with Bloomberg’s Department of Education. The byline was Wylde’s, but the particulars came from the DOE, which, it turns out, keeps a dossier on Ravitch and sends employees to record her speaking engagements on tape. DOE officials have been offering education reporters talking points from the Ravitch file for a while now, but this is the first time that this boiler-room opposition research has appeared in print.
Wylde’s case against Ravitch—which virtually repeats what I have heard from one city education official, and which is part and parcel of the DOE whispering campaign—charges that the nation’s leading historian of education has flip-flopped on her core education beliefs in order to carry out a personal vendetta against unnamed people in the Bloomberg administration. How else, writes Wylde, can we explain the fact that Bloomberg’s merit-pay initiative, “universally applauded” by “business, labor, government and education leaders,” is opposed only by Ravitch? In other words, if you hold a minority view in this city, and insist on speaking up, you will find yourself accused of irrational animus by the spokesperson for the city’s business community—and, less publicly, by top Bloomberg administration officials.
There’s a practical and political point to this polemic, and to the DOE’s Ravitch dossier. (One wonders: How many others are there?) Reauthorization of mayoral-control legislation is coming up next year in Albany, and both the city council and the public advocate’s office have created commissions to study the issue. The Bloomberg administration, perhaps fearing that the mayor’s legacy will be tarnished, wants no changes in the law, no acknowledgment that some aspects of mayoral control haven’t worked out as well as the public had hoped. Thus, before the public hearings begin, the most respected critic of Bloomberg’s education policies—the scholar who might well appear at those hearings—must be discredited.
The administration’s attack on Diane Ravitch is not just another disagreement about education policy; it’s an effort to undercut the free discussion necessary for democracy to flourish. But it won’t work, not in New York City. The sooner the administration stops demonizing its critics and starts debating them, the sooner we can have a rational examination of how most effectively to govern our schools.