2009-05-08 / Columnists

The Rockaway Beat

Nobody Asked Me, But … (School Edition)
Commentary By Howard Schwach

Nobody asked me, but … it seems that Malcolm Smith, the new Senate Majority Leader, can't do anything right. Smith's education task force committee issued a report urging that mayoral control of school be retained, but that much of the mayor's dictatorial power be gutted by taking absolute control of the central school governance committee away from the mayor. Now, however, Smith is telling anybody who will listen that the report was never meant to be released, and that it does not reflect what he personally believes. "[The report] is not the position of our conference and not the position of our committee," he said. Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who blasted the report for taking away his control, praised Smith for his comments. I wonder what the mayor promised Smith in return for repudiating his own report, because that's the way our mayor operates. If you don't believe it, take a look at the recent activities of Jim Sanders. That should make you a believer.

… Last year the Department of Education promised that it would strictly limit the amount of time that a teacher would remain in the infamous rubber room without charges being brought. The DOE said that it would hire more hearing officers and speed up the process, In fact, however, the process has become even longer and there are more teachers being assigned to those holding cells without due process. The number of staffers removed from schools but not charged with any wrongdoing has ballooned to 152 in April, up from the 125 that sat in the various holding cells in January of last year. More than twothirds of those twiddling their thumbs (they're not allowed to do any productive work) have been waiting for charges to be brought against them for more than a year. Since many of the teachers in the rubber rooms are the most experienced in the city, some of them give up hope and retire, which is just what the city wants. My favorite story about the rubber room is that of a clinician who was also a stand-up comic. He was doing his routine in the teacher's lunchroom one day and offended a female teacher, who demanded that he be removed from the school. He was, and spent nearly three years in the rubber room without any charges being brought against him. Despondent and bored, he finally retired.

… There was a rancorous meeting in nearby Lawrence last week that caused even the New York Times to sit up and take notice. The paper's headline blared, "Rancor Where Private-School Parents Make Public School Decisions. The article, penned by Peter Applebome, focuses on Spring Valley and Lawrence, two venues where Orthodox Jews have hijacked the public schools for their own use. In both places, the majority of public school board members do not send their kids to public schools. And, in both places, the boards are selling public school assets to local yeshivas as quickly as they can. This can't happen in New York City, where the mandate for the majority of Community Education Councils is that its members be parents of public school students, but in other parts of the state, anybody in the community can run and serve. As one famous newspaper reporter said, "There oughta be a law." As one person told Applebome, "The current system doesn't address the question of governance with the consent of the governed. It doesn't feel like America."

… The question of tenure for teachers has always been controversial. Personally, I believe that teachers need protection from being dismissed for political reasons, and I have a personal reason for supporting that belief. When I was teaching and writing "School Scope" for The Wave back in the late 1980s, there were a few school board members who did not like what I wrote each week. They went to the superintendent and demanded that I either be fired or transferred to some outpost such as Bed-Stuy or Staten Island. They also went to local bar owners and urged them to stop advertising in the paper as long as I wrote my column, but that's another story for another time. The superintendent at the time looked into the question and came back to the school board members with an answer. He could not do it because I had tenure and would have to be brought up on charges, which would then lead to a Board of Education hearing, and nobody wanted to get into that. Had there been no tenure, however, I would have been out the door in a heartbeat, just for telling the truth about what was going on in District 27. There is a public good in teachers being protected from political zealots and cheaters.

… The State Board of Regents has taken another step to give at-risk students a better chance to pass the Regents exams, thereby raising the pass/fail ratio, making them look as if they are doing something. The new law gives former English Language Learners (ELL's) extra help and extra time when taking the exams. This extends the extrahelp rule to kids who have been out of ELL programs for up to two years. The state says that the move will "level the playing field, giving those students an extra chance to pass the tests," but I believe that it is just another phase in dumbing down the tests and the test process to make it easier for more people to pass. For example, one recent move was to change the passing grade from 65 to 50. How does that help anybody, except for those who depend on statistics to show that they are doing a wonderful job.

… I wonder if Mayor Mike Bloomberg believes his own hype. Two weeks ago, Bloomberg told reporters, "I don't know how you'd open the schools next September," if he somehow lost control of the city's public schools. "You'd have chaos if you don't renew the law because I don't know how you'd put the genie back in the bottle - how you would recreate the bureaucracy," the mayor told state legislators. "It would be a disaster in the classroom, and I don't know how you would open the school in September." He's got to be kidding, and it is scary that he might really believe his own hyperbole.

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