Michelle Rhee's latest idée fixe since departing the Washington D.C. Public Schools is the elimination of seniority hiring practices in public education to ensure that only the best teachers are kept on the job while the deadwood, ostensibly the more senior slackers in the schools, are shown the door.
To accomplish this the "last in first out" policy enshrined in state civil service law must be re-written. This is the goal of New York's Michael Bloomberg, who claims that he must layoff 4,600 teachers this coming September, and will be forced to get rid of the best young teachers unless the law is changed.
Getting rid of LIFO was the elusive Holy Grail sought by Joel Klein, Bloomberg's first schools chancellor. Now that he has left the job, his successor Cathie Black has made the cause her own. But Bloomberg, who wants to be remembered as the "education mayor," finds his claims of major school reforms and improved graduation rates increasingly called into question.
So far Governor Cuomo and the state legislature appear reluctant to act. They claim that no objective criteria for judging teacher performance exist yet.
If you live in New York, you are treated to a daily dose of get rid of LIFO articles in the tabloids. Aside from almost daily editorials, there is an endless litany of "news" stories about young teachers who will be sacrificed on the altar of seniority if the law isn't changed in time. The only stories about senior teachers you'll be treated to either involve cases of sexual deviation or criminal activity. It seems the older you get the more licentious you become.
By now Rupert Murdoch has expended so much ink on the topic that he probably could have skipped his "repeal LIFO" campaign and used the productions costs of the articles to sponsor a buyout of all those teachers he thinks should be forcibly retired.
Rather than a debate, what we have instead is a giant echo chamber that won't allow an opposing point of view to even sneak in the back door. It's no exaggeration to say that more than 50 articles and editorials have appeared on the subject in the New York papers over the past two months all advocating one point of view.
Whether it's the Wall Street Journal Editorial Report television show showering praise on the accomplishments of Michelle Rhee, or wise men such as the Journal's Bill McGurn applauding the "Scandal Sheet" [New YorkPost] owned by his parent company, for defending the rights of kids by pushing its LIFO agenda, in contrast to the Times, which McGurn accuses of "avoiding the dysfunctions" of the public schools; what we are really witnessing is one of the more distasteful exercises in advocacy journalism and piling on to visit the New York press in the past five decades.
All the editorialists and reporters make two basic claims about last in, first out that are either untrue or unproven.
The first claim that LIFO "is a cherished doctrine of public sector unionism, and not just among teachers," is either misleading or ignorant of the facts.
That's because seniority hiring and firing as well as teacher tenure owes its existence to the wave of civil service reforms that followed in the wake of President Garfield's assassination by a disgruntled office seeker, Charles Guiteau. Calls for a merit based civil service system to replace the old spoils system of political appointment swept the country on both federal and state levels of government.
The laws governing hiring and firing of public employees has nothing to do with union arm-twisting of pliant politicians because the unions didn't exist when the laws were written!
If the same reporters who love to write stories about how little students know about American history would only use the vast research facilities of their newspapers they'd discover a completely different narrative, albeit one that doesn't neatly fit their agenda.
"Times change people change," so it might be useful if we compared our current three-term mayor with an unsuccessful candidate for that job as we headed towards the 20th century.
The failed candidate was Theodore Roosevelt who rather than enjoying the unbridled support of the New York Post, ran afoul of E.L. Godkin and the paper's editorial page. Roosevelt who would go on to earn the title of the great "trust-buster," wasn't considered enough of a buster for Godkin because he had refused to break with the Republican party over the nomination of James Blaine, a supporter of the old political patronage mill.
After losing the election Roosevelt went on to secure an appointment on the U.S. Civil Service Commission and continued his crusade to clean up the spoils system and create a professional civil service based on merit rather than patronage over the next six years, a campaign that he had begun in the New York State Assembly where he had served.
After his stint in Washington, Roosevelt turned his attention to cleaning up the New York City Police Department as its commissioner, and then went on to further his civil service reform campaign as governor.
By the time Roosevelt became president in 1901 civil service law had a firm foothold on the federal and state level. New York City had established several Boards of Examiners to ensure that merit rather than patronage secured positions for teachers as well as carpenters and engineers and a list of other professions too numerous to list here who worked for the municipality.
A teacher's board of examiners struggled mightily against the pressures from city hall to keep politics out of the schools. An editorial in the New York Times titled "A Tammany School Board Still," attacked Mayor Gaynor and Tammany's attempts to roll back the clock on civil service reform by gaining complete control over teacher and administrative appointments to the schools, thus undoing fourteen years of school reforms.
Referring to the civil service education laws the Times editorial states "This law has for fourteen years been the great safeguard of the State's schools. Until it was passed it was common for young men and women, without experience or training to be appointed teachers in the city's schools." (The New York Times, Sept 24, 1911)
If this strikes you as an indictment of mayoral control over the schools, that's precisely what it is.
Contrast this with our current mayor's campaign in conjunction with today's New York Post. In it's current incarnation the Post along with the Daily News and Wall Street Journal are calling for a return to the spoils system.
That's because with complete control over the schools Bloomberg, for the past eight years, didn't take one step towards restoring anything approaching the rigor of the now defunct Board of Examiners. Instead his "reform" has relied on a broken state testing system that neither provides reliable results for student performance or teacher competence.
All we are left with is a series of cliches that plays over and over like a looped recording. Almost every article and opinion piece rehearses the same lines: "as everyone knows the youngest teachers are the most effective; as studies demonstrate getting rid of the worst 10% of a teacher cohort will shrink the racial achievement gap; teacher merit should be tied to student test performance."
So now the state legislature is being hammered to rewrite civil service law and hand even more arbitrary and capricious power to a mayor who pretends that a failed agenda that has squandered close to $100 billion in increased funding during his rule will be turned around if he's given the power to get rid of deadwood. He should start with himself.
Given his presidential ambitions it's a pity he didn't study Teddy Roosevelt's path to the White House.