2011-02-25 / Columnists

The Rockaway Beat

Commentary By Howard Schwach

When I was a kid, we could go to the Strand or Columbia Theater in Far Rockaway on a Saturday and for 25 cents we would spend the afternoon watching two movies, a few cartoons and the latest installment of the popular serials, where the hero or heroine would end the short clip in peril of his or her life.

In serial terms, Mike Bloomberg and Cathie Black are on the edge of the cliff, hanging by their fingernails over a river full of slithering union teachers, test scores and graduation rates.

It doesn’t look like they can be saved, but everybody in the theater knows from experience that they will somehow, perhaps unbelievably, be saved at the beginning of the next reel, to be shown same place, same time, next week.

The duo have to wonder what happened. Last year, the Department of Education, under the leadership of former chancellor Joel Klein, and Mayor Bloomberg were flying high. They had convinced the educational elite and the city’s daily papers that under their stewardship, the public school system has shown great gains in both test scores and graduation rates.

The statistics didn’t lie. More than 84 percent of the city’s schools had received either A’s or B’s on their school report cards and the great majority of city students were reading on grade level, achieving “proficiency” on the standardized tests.

Only those in the educational field and parents knew that the numbers lied like a Bernie Madoff payout sheet, and nobody was listening to them because the mayor had used his millions to fund friends to form new groups to push his agenda, which, from the beginning, was to destroy the city unions such as the UFT and to turn the education “business” over to his friends, such as Cathie Black.

When the state, its face red and blustering, was forced to restore the original cut scores out of embarrassment the test scores went back to where they were, showing only marginal gains over the past eight years.

The daily papers and the mayor’s friends went on the offensive and made it look like it was the mayor’s idea and that everything was still wonderful. It was not.

Those same groups are now active in the charter movement and in the movement to change last in-first out, the civil service rule that has existed for nearly 100 years. Do away with seniority, and the mayor wins, takes all his marbles and destroys public education in New York City.

Let’s take a look at some of the education reform groups that have sprung up in the city over the past two or three years and who funds them.

The Committee To Save New York: Tishman Spire Properties; The Durst Organization; developer Larry Silverstein (WTC site); Business Council of New York State; Real Estate Board of New York City; CenterState Corporation for Economic Opportunity.

Democrats For Education Reform: David Einhorn of Greenlight Capital; Cronwall Capital; T2 Partners, LLC; Tilson Mutual Funds; Gotham Capital; AEA Investors; Fortress Investment Group.

Education Reform Now: Broad Foundation (“Waiting for Superman”); Hawkshaw Capital; Gotham Capital; SAC Capital, Newark Charter School Fund.

For example, the Committee to Save New York has spent $10 million in three months, pushing television commercials that call for a state worker pay freeze, dismantling public pensions and cutting both health care and education.

You may have seen a recent commercial made by a group that purports to be New York City teachers pushing the end of last in, first out. They are being funded and paid by the groups above, and I have been told by insiders that they have quit their city jobs and are actually on the payrolls of those groups. I haven’t been able to confirm that, because the DOE refused to discuss the entire situation with me, stating that it could not discuss “personnel matters.”

Now, if you think that all these billionaire financiers are interested in education reform, I have a bridge in Brooklyn that I’d like to sell you.

They are slathering over the money available in the education business and have determined to get it for themselves and their companies.

These are, remember, the same people who provided bad mortgages to those who could not afford them and then made a fortune on the derivatives, betting that they would fail.

They have already screwed the economy and now they want to do the same to education.

Recently, a group of charter groups – KIPP, Uncommon Schools, Achievement First among them – have started their own graduate-level education program to train charter school teachers, as if teaching in a charter school was somehow very different from teaching in a public school.

What the Relay School of Education will do is indoctrinate new teachers to be anti-union and to believe in the new reality that education is a business and profit is the goal.

What a world.

Even federal education commissioner Arne Duncan is under the sway of the business group.

He had prepared a statement to be given in a Denver (Colorado) speech last week.

His prepared speech, provided in advance to reporters, said, “My view is that we need to look hard at the impact of seniority rules on students, especially in low-performing schools. The goal should be always to maintain the most effective workforce, regardless of years of experience.

Changing the last in, first out policies could also lead cash-strapped school districts to remove more experienced, high-quality but higher-paid teachers.”

He did not say that, however. What he did say instead is “that the rules have to change to keep the best teachers.”

Nothing about the fact that districts might cut experienced teachers simply because they are more expensive. Nothing about “an effective workforce.”

The businessmen got to him. Just like Black, he is bought and sold.

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