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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Who are the real special interests when it comes to our schools?

On Monday, Mayor Bloomberg held a press conference where he castigated critics of his risky restructuring and funding proposals, calling them "a small chorus of people who are calling for a return to the good old days", who represent "special interests," like the National Rifle Association.

"You always do have the problem of a very small group of people who are single-issue focused having a disproportionate percentage of power," he said. "That's exactly the NRA."

Others might think, on the other hand, that it is he and the Chancellor -- a very small group with almost dictatorial powers over our schools -- who are the real problem.

Given the fact that among the many critics of their proposals are parents legitimately concerned about what these funding cuts might mean for their children, in terms of the loss of experienced teachers, class size, or essential services, I don't know how he can call us "special interests."

For an excellent critique of these funding proposals, and how they treat public education differently from all other municipal services, see this discussion from the Educational Priorities Panel.

Can you imagine if the city funded firehouses or police stations based not on the actual salaries of the employees, but on average salaries citywide – essentially forcing police captains to try get rid of their most experienced officers?

The attitude reflected here – seeing teachers as disposable resources -- goes against everything that the administration pretends to say about respecting them and honoring their profession.

I am also frankly sick and tired of the Mayor and Chancellor attempting to label any critics of their half-baked, risky schemes as defenders of the status quo. As I told the Staten Island Advance yesterday:

"We want smaller classes, we want more arts funding, we want less testing, we want more input from real stakeholders on the ground....We have been asking for real changes for six years and they have kept their ears shut to us."

In fact, many of us have been calling for real change in our schools long before Bloomberg even thought of running for Mayor, and Joel Klein was still a prosecutor living in DC.

On the other hand, the Mayor surrounded himself yesterday with people who had signed onto a letter of support - with none representing either parent or mainstream education groups. Most of the organizations represented had financial interests with DOE or had received funding from the city or Bloomberg's own charitable donations.

Several had applied to be a partnership support organizations. Many of the news articles, including the NY Sun and the NY Post, pointed out how many of these organizations were dependent on Tweed's largesse and thus were clearly reluctant to bite the hand that feeds them.

What was not pointed out, though, is how many had been the recipients of large no-bid contracts from DOE.

Last spring, CityYear (which contributed not one, but two signers to the letter) received a five year, no-bid contract for $11 million through 2012, “to help children learn to read, encourage children to stay in school and to care about their communities.” (The sixth year, and more millions of dollars, are to be contingent on follow-up questions “to be asked of CityYear.”)

Or what about the New Teacher Project, whose director also signed onto the letter of support? Last April, Tweed officials submitted a two year, $2.2 million no-bid contract for the Project, based at the University of Santa Cruz in California, to provide training for teacher mentors. Yet the internal DOE committee rejected it. The reasons listed? "Insufficient justification for request" and "Should be competitively bid."

So the contract was re-submitted for even more money in May, and this time was approved, for $2.8 million! There's accountability for you.

And parents are the special interests, according to the Mayor!

In any case, the fact that the administration asked its contractors to sign onto such a letter shows how isolated and desperate they have become, to resort to an ethical and PR blunder almost as bad as New Visions asking their grantees for kickbacks.

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