2010-04-02 / Columnists

School Scope

Will Court Victory Stop Tweed’s Relentless March To Close Schools?
Commentary By Norman Scott

Norman Scott Norman Scott I received the news of last Friday’s court ruling by judge Joan Lobis preventing the DOE from closing 19 schools, including Beach Channel HS, in an exuberant phone call from BCHS student leader Chris Petrillo. Skeptical of Joel Klein’s adherence to the law, I asked Chris what would happen if the court decision is appealed or if Klein finds ways around the decision. “We will keep fighting,” he answered.

No sooner did we hang up than it was revealed that Klein would send out 85,000 acceptance letters to eighth graders, which were blocked by the court until the decision was rendered. Even if they chose the closing school that choice would not be listed but a note would be attached informing them they could revert to the closing school “if it remains open.” The cries of outrage forced Klein to send out a modified version.

BloomKlein are counting on a court reversal and will engage in dirty tricks even if they don’t get it. Last year when they tried to close PS 241 in Harlem and PS 150 in Brownsville to make room for favored charter schools, the UFT sued and won on the grounds that the DOE was removing the only zoned schools in the neighborhoods. Klein attempted to undermine the schools by sending out a letter to parents asking why they would want to send their children to “failing” schools.

Expect the same kinds of attacks on the schools even if they remain open for another year, which given the time frame seems inevitable. The question is how many nineth graders they will have and how deep the DOE will cut services to make sure these schools fail. And, given the hostility to these schools by the people managing them, one would expect the parents of eighth graders to think twice about sending their kids to schools that are under assault.

And that is where I have a problem with the UFT strategy. Sure, go ahead and sue, but let’s not declare pyrrhic victories without a follow-up strategy. The suit did not oppose the concept of the DOE’s closing of these schools but argued that Tweed violated the modified mayoral control law passed in August that put a few roadblocks (fairly minor) in the way of the juggernaut. Now BloomKlein have to provide educational impact statements that describe the effect on students and the surrounding schools. Naturally, in their arrogance, Tweed did a slapdash job.

The NY Times reported that the Judge agreed with the plaintiffs’ contention that the department had issued boilerplate statements, which she found lacked “the detailed analysis that an impact statement mandates.” She found other procedural violations, including insufficient public notification before hearings.

So, the next time they will just do it better. But close the schools they will. The root cause of the Tweed plan has not been addressed: the desire to close down public schools using whatever excuse they can find – and if they can’t find any, they will squeeze their targets until there is a reason – to make room for semi-privatized charters. And the demand to fix schools they consider broken rather than close them has not been addressed either.

Let me go into some detail on what I mean by “fix” schools. The ed deformers start out with the premise that the basic fault lies with the teachers. The only way around union seniority contracts is to close a school and reopen it with new (and cheaper) teachers. Oh, that we can go back to the days when I started teaching and took home $98 a week. Though they claim they want to pay teachers based on performance of students, BloomKlein’s ultimate dream is to keep the bulk of teacher salaries low. Real education reformers believe that schools with students who are struggling can improve their prospects by adding the kinds of teaching and support services they need while finding a way to make teaching into a career with some guarantee of longevity with a decent salary.

The problem with the limited UFT fight back is that it doesn’t include a mass movement organizing people from the closing schools and teaming that movement with the charter school invasion of public schools. Pulling out people only at the January 26 PEP meeting (I’m betting that outpouring had an impact on the judge) was not enough.

In addition, the DOE has targeted another 37 schools with closing – and bet that they will make sure to not violate procedures next time. People in the streets backing up a movement can affect court decisions. But the UFT just stopped mobilizing there and had zero presence at the February and March PEP meetings.

Kudos to Channel View School for Research student Celine Anderson for standing up for her fellow students at Beach Channel in her excellent It’s My Turn piece on the Beach Channel closing in the March 19 edition of The Wave where she castigated the DOE: The DOE does not listen to what we have to say, nor do they care; in their eyes they are right and we are wrong. Their minds are made up and it’s either their way or the highway. In other words, the academic future of millions of NYC kids is in the hands of a group of “adults” with the same maturity level, if not less, of a high school freshman. Celine has done a better job covering the story than most ed reporters at the major newspapers in NYC.

Both Howard Schwach and I are admirers of educational historian Diane Ravitch, but from different angles. Howie wrote a strong column in The Rockaway Beat called “Diane Ravitch – My Education Hero” on Ravitch’s new book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System.” In the book, Ravitch does a mea culpa about her getting sucked into the market based concepts of ed deform. Both Howie and I admire her for that. Howie likes her positions on standards and curriculum. Ravitch has been viewed as a conservative by the left, which has softened in recent years but has continued to criticize her for her call for national standards, which would only end up with some kind of test that people would be forced to teach too. Some charge that Ravitch doesn’t tackle the bigger issues related to poverty that impact on schools. I’m holding my opinion in reserve until I finish the book.

After I finish this column I am off to a Manhattan Institute luncheon at the Harvard Club featuring Ravitch and her book. This is conservative territory and when a leftie like me walks in alarms go off. Ravitch doesn’t expect the friendliest reception at the MI since abandoning the free marketers and all they believe. My leftist friends have given me some questions to ask her. I’ll wait until all the rolls are eaten to avoid a barrage.

Here’s a last reminder to vote in the UFT elections. Ballots must be in by April 6. If you like what I’ve had to say, consider voting for the ICE-TJC slate.

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