Friday, March 22, 2013

Terriblus Tyrantus

Blogger's note: This is the third in a series of posts that I wrote in February of 2012 as part of a writing fellowship application. See the introduction to this series here. All of the school closing announcements of late--in DC, Philadelphia, Chicago, and of course, New York reminded me of this post.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York sees himself as the “Education Mayor.” But lately New Yorkers seem to wish he weren’t. While a recent poll (more coverage here) shows they approve of some of his education policies, for example paying higher performing teachers more and basing layoffs on teacher performance rather than on seniority (the poll didn’t define “performing” or “performance”), it shows that voters don’t approve of his handling of the schools overall or of strict mayoral control, and that they trust the teachers union more than the mayor to be advocates for students. Nor are Chancellor Walcott’s numbers so good: only 34% approve of his performance.

Bloomberg’s cynical reaction: a) I don’t care what the public thinks and b) the public doesn’t really think that—they were manipulated by advertisements except for c) when the voters approved of me in which case they were sincerely happy. I should know because I buy public opinion when I need to. You want a poll in my favor? Believe me, I can get you a poll in my favor by 3 o’clock tomorrow, with nail polish.

What’s most concerning about this is Bloomberg’s utter disdain for democracy. These are the times when I hear Bloomberg talking in Jon Stewart’s thug voice. Yes, he gave that donation to Planned Parenthood during the Komen ordeal. Yes, he supports gay rights and gay marriage. Yes, he gave his own money to a program in New York City to help unemployed, previously incarcerated, and uneducated young men look for jobs. But that’s just the point: he buys policy he approves of but cuts government funding to those he doesn’t approve of. He bypasses democratic institutions and processes.

He has closed schools at an amazing clip, sending students off to try their luck at getting into small schools, charter schools, or, if that fails, other comprehensive schools. Those schools then become dumping grounds for the kids are hardest to educate, and become vulnerable to being closed for low performance, beginning the process anew. In 2002, the Panel for Educational Policy (PEP) was set up to replace the central board of education; of thirteen members, the Mayor could appoint eight. In 2004, in an incident known as the “Monday Night Massacre” Bloomberg had three of his appointed members removed as they were planning to oppose his proposal regarding social promotion. His appointees on the PEP haven’t voted against one of Bloomberg’s proposals since. I’ve heard some New Yorkers call it the Puppets for Education Policy.

Last night’s PEP meeting featured intense protests regarding the closure or truncation of 33 schools. That brings to over 100 the number of schools Bloomberg has closed with over 400 co-locations of charters in public school buildings, many of those schools already making full use of the building. That’s an astonishing assault on an essential public democratic institution, especially given that it’s occurring without any meaningful public input.
Immediately after Bloomberg engineered the chance to get a third term and won, Hendrick Hertzberg wrote a column in The New Yorker bemoaning the conditions of Bloomerberg’s reign but ultimately approving it. Hertzberg ended with a shrug of the shoulders and a question:
“If Bloomberg had been satisfied with two terms, he would be leaving office a beloved legend, a municipal god. He’ll get his third, but we’ll give it to him sullenly, knowing that while it probably won’t measure up to his first two—times are hard, huge budget gaps are at hand—it’ll probably be good enough. The Pax Bloombergiana will endure a while longer. But then what? Will we have forgotten how to govern ourselves?”
The question is not only whether New Yorkers will have forgotten how to govern themselves but whether after the dismantling of New York’s public democratic infrastructure, they will be able to, whether there will be institutions and processes in which to do so. Bloomberg may give money to good causes, he may be in favor of gay rights, and he may support immigrants, but he’s still a machine politician, and even worse, he’s a machine politician for the party of Bloomberg.

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