Marc Epstein, a career educator in the New York City school system, wrote an earlier post on Mayor de Blasio’s task of “cleaning the stables.” He refers to the Herculean task of cleaning the Augean stables. This was a dirty job, thought to be impossible, but Hercules succeeded. We hope that Mayor de Blasio will as well.
Marc Epstein writes:
Cleaning The Stables – Part II
Now you tell us?
After 12 years of subjecting the nation’s largest school system to a series of extreme makeovers, Merryl Tisch, Chancellor of the Board of Regents, the body charged with oversight of the public schools, informed us that the third major reorganization of the New York City public schools engineered by Mayor Bloomberg was an abject failure. “Me, if I were going to take over the school system, I would look heavily to change the networks,” she opined.
That her remarks received scant coverage from the vaunted New York press should come as no surprise to those of us who have lived through this nightmare. That’s because in the eyes of New York’s power elite, Michael Bloomberg was simply “too big to fail.”
Just what are those “Networks” Tisch referred to? For New Yorkers who exited the public school system long ago to educate their children in private and parochial schools, or to the new immigrants who find this discussion indecipherable, here is an explanation.
When the state legislature gave the mayor control over the schools over a decade ago, it was unconditional. There was no oversight from Albany, no strings attached to his powers. There was still a board of education, but he appointed the majority, who served at his pleasure and renamed “the Panel on Education Policy,” to signal its strictly advisory nature. If any of his appointees dared to disagree with his orders, he fired them immediately. When he doubled the operating budget and instituted a series of radical reorganizations, those on the sidelines either cheered or remained silent. As far as New York’s political class was concerned, when it came to the nation’s largest school system, it was a case of “I don’t want her, you can have her, she’s too fat for me,”
Bloomberg entered office as one of the wealthiest men in America. So, cloaked with an aura of invincibility unparalleled for a mayor, he crafted a “teachers and their union vs. our kids” narrative that was part of a nationwide campaign instigated by a handful of philanthropists with very, very, deep pockets and the desire to turn public education on its head.
He could proceed with his agenda with the knowledge that there’s nothing more soporific than stories recounting administrative failures and the destruction of a bureaucracy, especially when the bureaucracy had been twisted into a pretzel by five decades of political manipulation.
He began his assault on public education by cleverly disarming the teachers union with a seemingly exorbitant pay raise that increased entry-level salaries dramatically. It ensured a bumper crop of young teacher recruits, while granting a modest raise for senior teachers.
The dismantling of the school system rested on a few simple principles. First, declare as many schools, especially high schools, as failed institutions and posit that it was the fault of the faculty and administration.
An incessant drumbeat aided by his own news media company and the tabloids owned by his fellow billionaires Rupert Murdoch and Mortimer Zuckerman hammered away at the teachers as a parasitic class who needed to be held responsible for the failure of inner city minorities, and at their union for protecting them from deserved termination by manipulating convoluted contracts and obsolete civil service law.
Second, he refused to place those allegedly “failed” employees who numbered in the thousands, in his reconstituted “new” schools, or in other schools with vacancies. He supposedly “empowered ” principals to manage their operating budgets by changing the formula for hiring faculty, so the practice of charging a principal the average salary price for a teacher regardless of seniority was eliminated.
The result has been a cohort of headless horsemen teachers roaming the system as they rotate schools week to week collecting full salaries and acting as substitutes in order to make their lives as demeaning as possible.
My school has been without a librarian for 6 years because the principal can’t “afford” to hire a librarian. So a well-appointed library can’t circulate books or be open for students to do research or study, while well-qualified librarians from “failed” closed schools wander the system as substitutes!
Instead of covering classes with substitutes who cost the city $150 per day, he opted for regular teachers without permanent assignments who cost the city about $500 per day, while continuing to hire new teachers!
This “business” practice was extended to include guidance counselors and assistant principals as well. It may well be the first time the largest city bureaucracy in the 50 states was staffed like a satrap in the Medo-Persian style of the 5th century BCE.
Don’t go looking for editorials of outrage or news stories documenting this madness. After all, it’s impossible that Bloomberg accumulated close to $30 billion dollars by being an inept administrator or a particularly malevolent individual, is it?
The editorialists would rather condone this policy than scrutinize it. After all, if Bloomberg ran his business in this manner, why shouldn’t he be allowed to fire whomever he wants whenever he wants to?
The third leg of the strategy was to create a new managerial class of principals and assistant principals who had as little classroom experience as possible and no attachment to the school “culture.” Marketed as the “best and the brightest,” many of them were little more than hatchet men who were given orders to bring back as many teacher scalps as possible. Mayor De Blasio will find that they represent one of the many “poison pills” Mayor Bloomberg has bequeathed him.
Traditionally, the principal was the principal educator in the schoolhouse. Today, the new principal charged with weeding out as many teachers as possible simply had to be a bully. I spent over a month in a small school that experienced a staff turnover of 90% in just four years under this kind of management.
If you work in the system and have been around schools run with this sort of thuggishness, you’re not surprised when you encounter supervisors with little more than a 6th grade reading and writing level. I recall a heavily tattooed female assistant principal who was crude beyond measure and the last person you would want overseeing the education of your child. I doubt that she could compose a cogent essay of 500 words.
The new managerial class, purportedly trained in the best of Jack Welch’s managerial strategies, is suffused with uneducated barbarians who were elevated to positions of great responsibility. But incapable of educating, they simply pillage the teacher cohort.
Part four called for decoupling the neighborhood school from the community. He used the bait and switch tactic. Parental “choice” was the marketing technique to give parents the illusion that they had hundreds of choices instead of the stale neighborhood school for their child’s education.
With hundred of new small schools with the name “preparatory” or “academy” attached to it, how was a parent to know one from the other? To call these schools by the names we associate with fancy private prep schools was nothing but a cruel joke. To further add to the illusion that they were being heard, a new paid position of parent coordinator was added to the school system.
While there are parent coordinators who put in a full day’s work, their purpose was to make the PTA irrelevant and allow the coordinator to act as the flak-catcher for an unhappy parent. With 250,000 kids now traveling all over the city in the name of “school choice,” what are the odds that a PTA will have a real voice in the average school far from home?
The fifth and final tactic was to create parallel institutions that obfuscated and duplicated duties in order to hide responsibility for administrative actions.
State law requires superintendants run schools, but it’s the Networks that Chancellor Tisch alluded to that have been telling principals how to run their schools, which is really quite odd because the Networks were supposed to be providers of educational services to the schools, not direct them. In fact the schools were given the choice to pick the Network they wanted to work with.
Opaque, parallel institutions are not the hallmark of a democracy. But as any student of history knows, they define the worst sorts of totalitarian enterprises. So there you have it, the destruction of what was once one of the finest education systems in the country in five easy pieces, pulled off with the assent or abdication of duty by the movers and shakers of New York.