2010-12-17 / Columnists

It’s My Turn

The Corporatist And The Classroom
By Daniel Solomon

Daniel Solomon is a junior at Stuyvesant High School and an Opinions columnist and editor for the school newspaper, The Spectator. He is a Rockaway resident and a former intern at The Wave.

There are rare moments that we mark as watershed events, capturing our attention and profoundly affecting us and our families. One of these moments arrived a few weeks ago, when Joel Klein announced the end of his tenure as chancellor of the city’s public schools and, with his resignation, closed an era for New York. As a familiar face passed from the scene, a new figure emerged. Cathie Black, a veteran of the publishing industry, was named the next head of the Department of Education (DOE) by Mayor Michael Bloomberg. With no education experience, her appointment, which was recently approved by State Education Commissioner Dr. David Steiner, was lambasted by citizens, columnists and civil servants as an error in judgment by the mayor. However, what has happened represents more than a casual mistake. It is emblematic of a poisonous approach to government that fails to acknowledge the fundamental differences between private enterprise and the public sector.

Government and industry have mutually exclusive aims. Companies are run to make money, and governments exist to promote the greater good. It is expected and proper for them to operate at a loss because they are supposed to provide for all citizens, regardless of their social status and economic standing. The corporatists of our time — of whom the mayor and current chancel- lor are disciples — have pushed the bottom line as the goal of public education through the charter school movement. They have proclaimed capital- ism the panacea for the schools’ woes. However, the profit motive, which puts money before the masses, is permanently suspect in social services.

If the schools were to truly be run like a business, there would be a budgetary bloodbath. Funding for special education students, art and music courses and almost anything else not responsible for producing high scores on standardized tests would be slashed in the name of efficiency and cost savings. There is a certain qualitative element to education that is not present in the world of commerce, something that cannot be quantified on a Scantron in the way corporate performance can be measured by an earnings report. These intangibles of academic excellence are under threat from those — namely the Black-Bloomberg- Klein trifecta — who don’t understand them.

This wouldn’t be such a problem if they were willing to listen to voices of reason, but they are not. Products of the private sector, they have grown accustomed to its top-down organizational structure and its inherently undemocratic nature. Bloomberg is used to issuing orders from on high and ruling by imperial diktat from City Hall. He has continually shown contempt for the will of the people, overturning term limits by questionable means, refusing to yield to parents’ complaints about the DOE, and filling the Chancellor’s position in the most opaque way possible. He is not a technocrat, he is an autocrat, and in appointing Black, he installs a kindred spirit at the far end of Chambers Street.

Klein, like the mayor, had dictatorial tendencies, but he couldn’t be called out of touch. He was raised in a Queens housing project, attended city schools and rose to riches. This intimate experience with public education lent credibility to his candidacy for Chancellor, despite his lack of a pedagogical career. Black has no such saving grace. Growing up in the lap of luxury, she lived in Chicago, held membership in a country club that discriminated against blacks and Jews, and went to private school her whole life. Her only connection to the city seems to be that she owns an apartment in Manhattan, in addition to her houses in Connecticut, the state where her children attend expensive, elite academies. With no background in education, there is little that qualifies her to run the nation’s largest public school system, especially one plagued by poverty and marked by racial diversity.

The Chancellor’s office doesn’t need a CEO; the top job demands an educator. Students, teachers and parents want a partner, not an out-of-touch crony pushing the mayor’s agenda. We deserve a leader who realizes the value of democracy over decree and is passionate about preserving public education, not pushing to pervert it with the profit motive. New York State’s commissioner of education should have taken the first step toward this goal — he should have rejected Cathie Black.

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