January 6, 2010
To write that I am a fan of closing failing schools is to fall into the same bombastic trap now enmeshing the Bloomberg administration. Before the Mayor took office, I wrote about the need to take forceful action against these educational mediocrities. But the wholesale closing and opening of schools that the Mayor has embarked upon is not the answer.
Replacing schools does not necessarily improve education. In the Mayor’s hands, it has become a shell game that defers instructional problems until they reappear elsewhere, to be met again with a similar reaction. Meanwhile, the often lengthy period of the schools’ decline — until so drastically and unconstructively arrested — has harmed thousands of students.
Until now, the Mayor’s strategy has been largely immune to public opposition. The Department of Education announced its hit list with little or no prior warning, the better to keep critics at bay. The new school governance statute, however, has created a process for notice and hearings that — while imperfect — will subject this year’s target list to formal scrutiny followed by likely approval by the mayor-controlled Panel for Educational Policy. Students, parents, teachers, and their supporters are organizing to reverse the DOE decree.
This is a public scenario that DOE operatives — probably with the best of technocratic intentions — wanted to avoid. School-based opposition was identified as the Achilles’ heel of reform after the failure of Mayor Giuliani’s initiative to have Edison Schools take over a number of failed schools. Families at the schools voted against the move.
But Bloomberg still seems committed to playing a power game despite the new legal landscape and a public increasingly fed-up with his paternalistic mien. His is likely to be a Pyrrhic victory, with his PEP majority ready to work his will but giving rise to increasingly mobilized school communities that will oppose even justified closings.
This warfare could be avoided if the Mayor took a different, more conciliatory tack. What is needed — both legally and instructionally — is to articulate a clear set of standards for determining school closures, with thorough review of actions taken to avoid the disruption attendant to this last resort and the possible impact of closure on other schools.
The Mayor has created a sense that these closures are less than inevitable but, rather, part of a considered strategy to free up space in certain schools for charters and preferred small schools. Rationales for school closure are a moving target. Some are cited for low graduation rates — though other schools, not slated for elimination, are worse. Or the emphasis shifts to enrollment, or application rates, or whatever other metric might appear deficient either currently or over time. The data seem a pretext for closure and, like so many dominoes, set up a new round of schools predetermined for failure.
These actions give the appearance of illegal caprice: the inconsistent application of otherwise rational criteria so that the action is ultimately unpredictable and subject to whim. If indeed there is a hidden, consistent rationale for these decisions, then it is the Mayor’s obligation to reveal it. Keeping the public off-balance through secrecy is deplorable. This is a typical private-sector strategy based on the competitive edge of proprietary trade secrets. The Mayor’s people still haven’t learned that such tactics are inappropriate in a democracy where an informed public is a paramount, legally-enforceable value.
The more objective, transparent, and deliberative process of school closure suggested here has been used successfully in State registration reviews and finds favor in State law. Education Law § 402-a recommends district creation of an Advisory Committee on School Building Utilization six months before a scheduled school closing, with a clear set of factors for committee review. This is a more independent process than the current New York City formula and could profitably supplement it without sacrificing urgency.
So far, though, Mayor Bloomberg has refused to see the writing on the wall. His unexpected announcement shortly before the holidays, of almost two dozen school closures with a quickly scheduled series of required hearings prior to the PEP determinations on January 26 manifests a continued disdain for the spirit of recent statutory changes.
As a result, the Legislature should publicly contemplate buttressing the new but demonstrably ineffective requirements of Education Law §§ 2590-e(21), 2590-f(1)(w), and 2590-h(2-A) with mandatory application of Education Law § 402-a unless the Mayor recognizes that his policy of intentional opacity will no longer be tolerated.
The days of Oz and the application of naked, self-justifying power are over. If the Mayor is right, then he should step from behind the curtain and allow independent review of his decision to close each school.