Marc Epstein is a veteran New York City teacher who holds a Ph.D. in Japanese naval history. He was dean of students at Jamaica High School, now closed and replaced by multiple small schools. Epstein has written extensively for Huffington Post and other outlets. Here he shares his reflections on the past dozen years of changes under Mayor Bloomberg and the changes that face the new Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Cleaning The Stables: Why New York’s Next Mayor Faces A Herculean Task
During the first years of Bloomberg’s mayoralty I recall a conversation I had with Andrew Wolf about the direction the public schools had taken under Joel Klein’s stewardship, and voiced my deep misgivings about the future of public education in New York City.
Wolf, whose regular column in the New York Sun, provided the most trenchant reporting on the schools, replied, “Look, If Bloomberg were Frederick The Great we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
So an enlightened mayor politically beholden to nobody owing to his great personal wealth acquired through his business expertise seemed like the perfect fit for exercising the enormous powers granted to him by the state legislature in order to turn things around in much the same way Frederick the Great reformed Prussia.
The idea of mayoral control had widespread bi-partisan support because after decades of reconfigurations of the school system that were impelled by political pressures and the exigencies of the turbulent 60s and 70s, the time seemed ripe for a radical reorganization of the schools.
But instead, a series of substantive public policy blunders, many of which lie below the surface and hence out of the public’s consciousness, will be the legacy Mayor Bloomberg bequeaths to the new mayor.
Should the new mayor do nothing, a million plus children will attend school each day, and a bureaucracy staffed by over 100,000 will show up for work. Yet there is more to just having the store filled with customers. If the city is to thrive, an accountable, rational bureaucracy most be restored.
That’s because after 12 years of multiple reorganizations and increased expenditures that run to over $100 billion dollars, Bloomberg has nothing to show for it but a decline in academic progress, a thoroughly demoralized workforce, and a massive bureaucratic structure that no longer has its indispensible institutional memory.
As American democracy and public participation in everyday affairs expanded, the schoolhouse emerged as one of the cornerstones of American society.
The expansion of free compulsory education was one component, but some might argue that democratic governance of the schools was equally important. There are 700 school boards In New York State alone with over 5,000 members serving on those boards. Their communities elect these boards annually.
The elimination of the Board of Education in favor of total mayoral control allowed Mayor Bloomberg to cleanse all vestiges of democratic parental input into the running of the schools. Instead, a rump committee known as the Panel For Educational Policy and controlled by the mayor’s appointees, voted according to his wishes in lockstep, making the opposition of non-Bloomberg appointees an exercise in futility.
If the next mayor contents himself with some minor repairs to the tattered relationship between city hall and the badly demoralized teaching cohort and support staff, the death spiral of the New York City public school system will continue until it is completely unsalvageable.
A Modest Proposal: Restore the neighborhood high school and end Academic Apartheid
The systematic policy of closing “failed” schools is unsustainable and hurts the students it ostensibly claims the reforms were designed to help. For the past decade Bloomberg has seen to it that over a hundred schools have closed.
When, as Governor Cuomo recently said, “If the school fails it deserves to die,” what exactly did he have in mind? Unless a schoolhouse is infected with mold or needs asbestos abatement what does closing a school entail?
The ‘School Closers’ assumption is that the school failed because the faculty has failed. The students’ socio-economic or psychological background have no relevance for them. Market forces will solve their problems since they are free to choose the school they attend and only the good schools will survive as the bad ones die off, at least according to the reformers.
But, usually, low performing children in the worst schools are the most disadvantaged and have personal domestic problems that often interfere with or makes learning an insurmountable task for them.
Instead of providing a combination of alternative educational paths and necessary social services the Department of Education cynically steers these kids to “failing” schools that they want to close as part of their agenda.
City Hall claims that since hundreds of new choices are available to parents shopping for schools, market forces results in the survival of fittest schools and the need to improve “failing” schools evaporates.
The reality is something quite different. The parents of these children, many of whom are single parents or new arrivals with limited English language facility, are the least likely to overcome the barriers the Department of Education has erected for them when it comes to choosing a school or being involved with their child’s education.
They are the working poor of New York, and now have to travel long distances on public transportation to attend their child’s school or address their educational needs. Not only isn’t this a consideration for those running our schools, it actually achieves the atomization of the parent body that they long for.
A recent Annenberg Foundation study documented the practice of funneling the lowest performers into the worst schools, as a perpetual motion school failure-closing machine is cynically stocked to justify school closings and openings ad infinitum.
The result is the triumph of Academic Apartheid with the strivers and middle class navigating the system to ensure acceptance in the boutique schools that either screen students or administer entrance exams. These apartheid schools have proliferated during the Bloomberg years for good reason. By providing the most articulate and economically advantaged safe havens for their children, you silence them.
Mayor Bloomberg boasts that hundreds of small schools with names like “preparatory” and “academy” were created under his stewardship, but at what cost? They are mostly located in the defunct high schools on a hunch by Bill Gates that low achieving students wouldn’t fall through the cracks in a more intimate setting.
While Gates admitted the idea hasn’t worked, and abandoned his philanthropic support of small schools, New York has stubbornly clung to this misguided “experiment.” That’s because killing off the neighborhood school is a central component of Bloomberg’s “creative destruction,” and the small school initiative was the perfect device for carrying out the task.
As a parting gesture the Department of Education announced that it wanted to eliminate all geographically zoned schools.
What are the fruits of this misguided exercise in social engineering?
1. Since most classes are at capacity, the desired intimacy of the small school has never been achieved. I attended large schools and I also attended a small private school, and can vouch for the benefits of the small school.
But my classes never had more than 15 students. We were located in our own building instead of sharing the gym, the auditorium and the athletic fields with three other schools. If Bloomberg truly wanted small schools to succeed he would have built small schools.
2. Administrative costs have exploded since a building that was once run by one principal and one administrative staff has quadrupled to 4 principals and their individual staffs.
3. After-school student participation involving the arts and athletics has suffered too. The once great Jamaica High School was renamed Jamaica Campus, and the varsity coaches are faced with the task of putting their teams together by recruiting from the four small schools in the building, and the running of the teams must be in sync with the four schools. It’s much more difficult to get those students who have a long commute to stay after school.
4. Discipline problems have increased since it’s impossible to have a handle on the entire student body when four schools of about 500 each share one space.
5. In the name of open enrollment and choice, hundreds of thousands of students now use mass transportation to get to school placing even more of a burden and costs on the transit system. The result is increased tardiness and absences whenever the weather or transit glitches occur.
For a mayor who was obsessively concerned about the environment and personal health, it’s ironic that a “have your child walk to school” initiative was never part of his agenda.
“There are eight million stories in the naked city,” and it’s the mayor’s job to make the vast humanity feel that they are somehow part of a living community and civil society. The schools are a central component in this equation. When you destroy their role in the life of the community you do it at great peril.