"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Avoiding a Return to the Dark Ages of Democracy

On Tuesday the limos will be lined up with their motors running outside some undisclosed Manhattan location while Bloomberg's hedge funders oversee voting by the hand-picked pawns and patsies chosen to sign off on the State waiver that is required for a non-educator with no credentials to become head of the largest ostensibly-public education system in America.

It is the new Gilded Age fully realized, and champagne corks are popping in every penthouse suite of Manhattan as another cold dark winter settles in for the surrounding millions of unemployed who will be trying to keep the lights on this holiday season, even as the purchased politicians try to pull the plug on unemployment and offer the wealthy another tax cut.

A hearing for Cathy Black?  A public hearing?  You've got to be kidding--no one wants to go back to the Dark Ages of democracy, especially when there are still plenty of public institutions to be disrupted and turned into corporate welfare enterprises to benefit the mega-rich.

An excellent piece by Billy Wharton:
Charter schools have had something of a coming out party lately. While public education supporters have loudly opposed Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s appointment of Cathie Black as Schools Chancellor, charter school owners have run a very public campaign in support of Black and the Mayor.  Charters are privately owned and publicly funded enterprises that have taken to combining splashy media appearances with behind the scenes influence to shape many of the decisions that effect public education.

Bloomberg’s bypassing of democratic norms such as public hearings, town hall meetings or a transparent selection process allowed the charter school owners to appear as authoritative sources in the realm of public opinion.  This was, however, something more like an echo chamber since the charters were in on the Cathie Black appointment from day one.

The Charter Schools Speak!
Chief among the charter spokespeople is Deborah Kenny, the founder and CEO of the Harlem Village Academies.  Kenny squared off with New York Public Advocate Bill DeBlasio on the popular FOX morning show Good Day New York after Bloomberg announced the Black appointment.

DeBlasio made the rather tepid demand that a public hearing be held where Black could lay out her vision for the school system and take questions from opponents.  Kenny wasn’t having it.

She called the proposals that Black have a background in education “extremely disrespectful to teachers” who, she argued, didn’t need pedagogical direction from above.  In addition, a hearing, “takes us back into the Dark Ages” before Mayoral control where everyone had an opinion, but nothing was done.  Kenny described Black as “an excellent leader” and emphatically stated that she trusted Bloomberg’s judgment.

Not surprisingly, DeBlasio caved quickly by swearing allegiance to Mayoral control.  He then followed this by saying that he himself was not opposed to the Black appointment per se.  He just wanted to hear her present her ideas.  So much for the opposition.

The FOX News anchor was a bit feistier.  He pushed Kenny by indicating that appointees at the Federal level also face public confirmation hearings where they are forced to lay out their plans.  A snide smile from Kenny was followed by, “And how much do we get done at the Federal government level?”  Sensing he had gone too far out on a liberal branch, the anchor recoiled.
Kenny was successful in tying the appointment to the larger issue of Mayoral control, demonizing an attempt at public accountability and staking her claim as an authority capable of evaluating such an issue.

When the Privatizers Attack!
Eva Moskowitz, CEO of the Harlem Success Academy, took a different tact on the Black appoint by choosing to lay out the charter’s vision of the future in print.  The debate offered Moskowitz an opportunity for mass ideological education, charter style.

Drawing on claims that presented Black as a “no-nonsense leader” and “bold manager,” Moskowitz presented a “to-do” list in a Daily News op-ed.  Top of the list, no surprises here, is “parent choice.”  In charter school new-speak this means even more privatization of the public education system by opening up the number of charters that are available.

The second was even more openly ideological with a few dashes of racial overtones thrown in.  In Moskowitz’s mind, “middle-class parents” want in on the charter school craze, but these institutions mostly exist in “low-income communities.”  Expanding charters is her next step following “our focus on crime in the 1990s made the city more livable.”  This could “take city living to the next level.”  Presumably, white flighters from the suburbs would roar back into the city once the charter schools clean things up educationally.

The final points on the list involve a direct assault on public schools, public school teachers and the United Federation of Teachers (UFT).  “Charter schools,” she argued, “need to be treated like the public schools they truly are… [not]… routinely targeted and attacked as private entities.”  She called for increased funding per-pupil to make the public and charter schools equivalent, a move that would certainly bankrupt the system and shift the advantages even more in the direction of charters.
Finally, Moskowitz urged Black to confront the UFT.  She presented the union contract as serving to, “prevent the city from attracting and retaining talented educators who want schools organized around teaching and learning, not the interests of grownups.”  Presumably, grownup interests include trivialities such as healthcare, vacation and job security.  Are there any talented educators that are not concerned about these issues?

Autocratic City Hall – Where the Charter Schools Breed
While Moskowitz and Kenny took their conservative message to the masses via the media, Geoffrey Canada, the CEO of Harlem Children’s Zone, worked in place more familiar to charter school owners – the political shadows of City Hall politics.  Canada admitted that he was the only “educator” consulted about the Black appointment by Mayor Bloomberg.  No surprise since the Mayor recently described Canada as “the most important living New Yorker.”
Despite the revelation, Canada still played it close to the vest in an interview with the New York Times.  He refused to relay any details regarding his conversation with the Mayor and towed the company line by saying he was “thrilled” by the choice while deflecting notions that he himself had been a leading candidate.

Then again, Canada has bigger fish to fry then the New York political scene has to offer.  He has vaulted himself onto a national stage as a leading voice for “educational reform” in the form of charter school privatization.  The heavily pro-charter documentary “Waiting for Superman” has solidified his national profile and open the door for presentations such as recent one made at the US Department of Education.

Tea Partiers in Suits?
Kenny, Moskowitz and Canada are the public faces of a deeply conservative political force in New York City.  Flush with funds hijacked from the public sector and skilled at manipulating terms like “reform” and “empowerment,” these are not your Tea Party type conservatives.  Nonetheless, the goals seem quite similar – annihilate the public sector, break the strength of unions and exert political authority outside of democratic norms.

They have clearly found a champion in Cathie Black, a corporate manager skilled at asset stripping, downsizing and violating rights on a local and global basis.  The social power of the charters has been exercised in her defense.
The hope is that the sheer arrogance of this maneuver by Bloomberg will awaken some spirit of resistance amongst the people of this city who are served by the public schools.  If not, the trends toward privatization and autocratic political authority will accelerate, leaving behind students in increasingly desperate need of a good education and a society in equally urgent need of grassroots democratic renewal. . . .
Do read on.

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