Here in New York City, we are living in a banana republic known as Bloomberg, Inc. This sad reality is most apparent when it comes to our public schools.
Our Board of Education, which the Mayor decided to rename the Panel on Educational Policy, was called into session on Thursday, with only one hour's public notice, to rubberstamp a school budget that contained $400 million in cuts to our schools.
Hours later, the City Council approved a capital budget for school construction that is widely acknowledged to be inadequate to alleviate the massive overcrowding and excessive class sizes that are common in the schools of this city. These are the very conditions that six years ago, our state's highest court declared deprived the city's children of their constitutional right to an adequate education. The Court ordered the state to provide more funding to our schools, which started in 2007; but instead of lowering class sizes, classes took their largest jump upward this fall in ten years.
Chancellor Joel Klein has repeatedly announced that he has no intention of reducing class size, despite the state mandate to do so, and has been repeatedly cited for misusing hundreds of millions of dollars meant for this purpose, as reported in audits by the State Comptroller and the State Education Department. Indeed, if he has his way, Klein recently announced, he would shrink the teaching force by 30 percent, forcing class sizes to increase even further.
Only two of the top twenty executives at the Department of Education are educators, while the rest are former lawyers and management consultants. Instead, the Mayor's decisions are influenced by a small group of billionaires, including Eli Broad, Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch, and Mort Zuckerman, none of whom would ever consider sending their own children to a New York City public school.
While these moguls continually praise Klein's leadership, even though he has allowed class sizes to remain at thirty or more for hundreds of thousands of students, they themselves send their children, as did Bloomberg and Klein, to private schools where no classes are larger than fifteen.
The mayor and the chancellor have repeatedly expressed disdain for public school parents and have systematically stripped them of their collective and individual rights to have a voice in how their children are educated.
And instead of the shrinking the bureaucracy, as the Mayor has claimed, each year the headcount at the headquarters of the Department of Education grows larger - with individual salaries levels hat far outstrip any other city department.
But, you may say, aren't the Mayor and the Chancellor doing a great job? Haven't test scores gone up; haven't graduation rates risen?
Not exactly. As revealed in a new book, NYC Schools Under Bloomberg/Klein: What Parents, Teachers and Policymakers Need to Know, while state test scores have improved, these are widely believed to be inflated - with questions repeated from year to year and the scoring made far easier.
Furthermore, other urban areas in the state have made virtually the same progress, without adopting the same schemes for running their schools. Results on the more reliable national assessment called the NAEP have been mostly flat - and in some areas, such as 8th grade reading, NYC has made less progress over the last six years than any other large urban school district in the country.
While graduation rates have improved, this is because the Regents high school exit- exams have become easier, and the practice of "credit recovery" has become more widespread, in which students can get receive credit for courses they have failed by attending a weekend session or completing a project that might take them a couple of hours.
Moreover, , discharge rates have also risen- with tens of thousands of students leaving our high schools each year without a diploma, yet never counted as dropouts - indeed never counted at all. The higher the discharge rate, the higher the graduation rate by definition, since all these students are removed from the denominator for the purpose of calculating the graduation rate.
The number of students discharged in their first year of high school has doubled over the past seven years- and though the administration claims that this is because students are moving in greater numbers out of the city and transferring more to parochial and private schools, there is no evidence of this in the census data nor in the parochial school enrollment data. Several categories of students who are defined as discharges according to the city's accountability system would be defined as dropouts, according to the federal government. And community groups report sharp increases in the number of students being "pushed out" of high school to GED programs, before they have reached the age in which this can legally occur.
Despite poll numbers that consistently say the public would prefer the Mayor to share power with the City Council, or that an independent board should run the schools, the Assembly recently renewed unilateral mayoral control with no checks and balances.
This was despite weeks of hearings during which droves of parents expressed their disillusionment with the current state of our schools, and legislators made clear that they were not fooled by the skewed statistics coming out the Department of Education's massive public relations operation.
Why? Two different explanations have been offered by insiders. One is that Speaker Sheldon Silver, who rules the New York State Assembly with the proverbial iron fist in a velvet glove, wanted to avoid facing harsh criticism from the editorial boards of our three daily papers, all of which are controlled by friends of the Mayor and which have been carrying on a daily drumbeat that unmitigated Mayoral control with no checks and balances must be renewed - or else our schools will face ruin.
Another possible explanation is that Silver, himself something of an autocrat, has a natural affinity with one-man rule, and in the end, decided it would be easier to deal with another autocrat than with a more democratic and inclusive system of governance.
What is clear is that our billionaire mayor has used his vast money, power and influence to silence many of his potential critics, inside and outside the Department of Education. As recently discussed in City Limits magazine, the fear and loathing that Bloomberg inspires, who also happens to be New York's wealthiest billionaire, is truly remarkable:
In preparing this article, City Limits spoke with former and current DOE staffers and cabinet members, former and current school principals, academics, and critics on the left and right of the political spectrum, nearly all of whom requested anonymity out of concern for possible detrimental consequences for speaking candidly on the record on a sensitive issue. "The incredible concentration of political and financial power leaves no room for dissent or difference," said one person.
Many expressed worry that their schools might suffer or their programs might be jeopardized, given the depth and reach of Bloomberg-funded civic and philanthropic projects citywide. The mayor's broad and deep connections across political, financial, social and philanthropic networks limit comments to those kept off the record - and, critics say, strongly influence largely favorable coverage in the mainstream media.
A similar phenomenon was noted when the Mayor managed to overturn term limits - allowing him to run for re-election for a third time, despite widespread dissent and even anger among ordinary New Yorkers. His political operatives tried to strong arm community and advocacy groups to back his efforts, or to stifle their discontent, by using the threat of withdrawing city funds or millions of Bloomberg's own personal donations.
All the editorial boards stepped in line to support his elimination of term limits - despite two different occasions on which the voters had decidedly expressed their opposition to extending term limits.
''What this represents is the complete collapse of ''small d'' democratic politics in New York under the Bloomberg monarchy,'' said Fred Siegel, a professor at Cooper Union. ''He is becoming our Berlusconi. He owns the press and he is not accountable in ordinary ways.''
Indeed, the same NY Times editorial board which supported Bloomberg's collusion with the City Council to overturn term limits without allowing New Yorkers an opportunity to vote, a few months later denounced Huge Chavez for having the nerve to hold a referendum so that Venezuelans could decide whether Chavez could run for a third term. In the case of Bloomberg, the ruling class reserved the right to keep one of its own in office - and the voters be damned.
The Mayor's political and personal connections have been used in a similar way to buttress his campaign to retain control over the public schools. He and his allies in the business community have funded fake grassroots groups to lobby the state legislature.
One of his allies in the business world, former Chancellor Harold Levy, persuaded his Connecticut hedge fund to donate $500,000 to Reverend Al Sharpton, funneling the money through a pro-charter school 501C3, and then into Sharpton's pockets, helping Sharpton to pay off his back taxes and escape prosecution by the feds. These funds were donated with the understanding that Sharpton would then join forces with the Chancellor Klein in a bogus organization called the Education Equality Project.
It is difficult for any civic organization to remain from from the Mayor's influence. Recently, it looked like a good government group called the Citizens Union was about to release a position paper on governance, calling for fixed terms on the Board of Education. If these were adopted, the Mayor couldn't fire his appointees at will as he had a few years ago in order to push through grade retention policies
In addition to personally brow-beating the board, Bloomberg persuaded Arne Duncan, the US Secretary of Education, to write a letter to the Citizens Union, arguing that preventing the Mayor from firing his own appointees would somehow prevent further "progress" in the NYC public schools. Duncan's intervention represented an unprecedented intrusion into local educational policy, the likes of which not even the Bush administration would dare attempt.
So where does this leave us? The issue of dictatorial Mayoral control is not yet finally decided, and in ten days the current system will expire unless renewed by the State Legislature. Meanwhile, the State Senate is in chaos and locked into a 31 - 31 deadlock between the two parties.
It would be ironic if the State Senate's disarray allowed a more democratic system to emerge, to fulfill the need for a governance system with real checks and balances- but don't bet on it. The Mayor is already the largest contributor to the State Republican Party. It would not be surprising if a man this rich and powerful makes some back room deals to ensure that his chokehold on the public schools remains for years to come.