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The Miseducation Mayor

Freddy Ferrer believes that it is difficult for Mike Bloomberg to understand the travails of ordinary people. Those who live on the margins; the moderate income, poor or near poor who struggle to support their families and themselves. Rather, the Mayor caters to the big developers, the bankers and the intellectual elites who advise him and benefit from his largess.

Nowhere is this more true than in the New York City Public Schools as administered by the Department of Education.

The Context

Public schools have never performed their assigned task well. We believe that task to be two-fold. First, to teach students how to read, write, count, speak and think critically and creatively. Secondly, the task is to teach students how to be good citizens. Everything else flows from that.

Yes! It's true. The New York City public schools are better now under mayoral control than they've ever been. The media tell us that test scores are up, school crime is down, graduation rates are rising, social promotion is on the way out and City funding is on the way up. (Some of these claims are true and some are not!) But, from our vantage point, the schools are still failing and the buck stops at Mayor Mike.

The school system is overwhelmingly minority. African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asian Americans represent a whopping 85% of the student body. And, the data tell us that 83% are eligible for free and reduced lunch, 11% receive special education services, 12% have Limited English Proficiency (LEP) and large numbers attend school in old school buildings.

These factors play a significant role in the academic performance of students.

Unless and until students come to school ready to learn, from environments which host affordable housing, adequate health care, meaningful jobs for their parents, the context in which instruction occurs is less than acceptable. So, too, will be the results!

The Mayor has not addressed these factors satisfactorily. Those who discount these factors admit that a superb teacher can foster high academic achievement regardless of the circumstances of students' daily lives. However, we know full well that the Union has and will continue to resist the placement of high quality teachers in low performing schools against their will.

The Many Problems

Take, for example, the problem of structural unemployment which - if solved - would result in far fewer students needing free or reduced lunch. With 30% of working-age adults unemployed, New York City has the nation's greatest income gap. Earnings for the bottom third of households have declined every year since 2001.

A recent study of NYC's special education program noted that the Administration was moving positively in its efforts to overhaul special education evaluation and placement processes. Yet, it also highlighted concerns including mismanagement, confusion re staff responsibilities, insufficient data collection, inadequate evaluation and referral practices, over reliance on self-contained classes. Perhaps, even more serious, the study reported that parental complaint hearings are poorly conducted.

Few citizens pay attention to the capital budget yet all too many parents know full well that their kids are attending overcrowded schools. In January 2005 Mayor Bloomberg planned to cut 1.3 billion from the Education Budget in FY05 and an additional $1.3 billion in repairs from the capital budget over five years because New York State had not yet appropriated an expected (CFE) contribution of $6.5 billion. The City Council threatened to hold up the education budget in response if the Five Year Capital Plan was not readjusted to end overcrowding in five rather than six years. The Mayor backed down and revised his plan to ensure that most projects fit within the scope of five years.

Against this background, let's look inside the schools to assess Mayor Bloomberg's performance. English and Math scores at 4th and 8th grades experienced their largest gains since standards-based tests began. 77% of the City's 4th graders met grade level standards in math and 41% of 8th graders met these standards. These do not sound like great scores to us! And, some critics of this assessment tool note that all too often the teacher teaches to the test rather than the curriculum and students are often short-changed in the long run.

School crime is reportedly down! Major crimes declined by 4% and total safety incidents declined by 2%. Yet, the Department of Education continues to organize and operate high schools with 4,000 students (Boys and Girls in Brooklyn) while creating small charter and magnet schools catering to highly motivated students and their parents. We support efforts to attract the middle class back to the public schools but believe that every student deserves a chance to attend the best school which meets his interests and needs. The list of so-called "dangerous" schools remains and students attending those schools are unjustly stigmatized. Forcing "troubled", often under-performing and non-performing students into GED programs or, worse yet, into the street is not the answer.

The "real" graduation rate remains in dispute. The Mayor says it's 54%. Whatever it is, it's too low and yet another indicator of the school system's failing performance. The Department of Education has yet to ask itself what it is that students have learned after four, five, six or seven years. Nor does it understand that most of what it is that students learn has little relationship with the goals of self-fulfillment, readiness for work and good citizenship. Until it addresses these questions, graduation rates will continue to be a poor example of school progress.

The Mayor's Management Report insists that he does not want to be socially promoted to a new term himself. Yet, we believe that the issue is not social promotion but the creation of a system where students move - more or less at their own pace - through a series of tasks which prepare them for adult life. Those held back at grade 3 and 5 will ultimately drop out to continue the cycle of poverty and frustration typical of too many of New York's underclass.

If we compare the last five city budgets, the share of municipal funds allocated to operate he school system has not increased. In the proposed FY06 Executive Budget, instructional allocations are projected to be $348 million higher than the previous year. But 75% of this amount is for special education. Personnel costs for elementary and middle schools (a neglected area ) are projected to decrease by $113 million.

Mayor Bloomberg asserts that the City cannot increase its contributions to the schools in the context of CFE vs. State of NY which determined that New York State has long denied students in New York City their constitutional right to a sound basic education. The State Legislature continues to sit on its hands while the Governor appeals the decision. Meanwhile, school children receive an inadequate education.

Finally, we judge a City and State and Nation by how it treats its most vulnerable citizens. The recently negotiated settlement with the UFT leaves both sides claiming victory. Within the ranks of labor and management there are dissenters. Teachers deserve competitive salaries. Still, work rules should benefit the students who both labor and management say come first.

The Challenge

The "education" mayor has missed the aim of the lesson - a quality education for all students. The Lesson begins with attacking the underlying problems which define the deficiencies students bring with them to the classroom. It continues by holding accountable the adults who administer a long-failing system in which they have a major investment. And, it ends by his standing up and saying to his constituency - the students who cannot vote - this is what I have done and why!

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