In a sense, insofar as she so perfectly embodied the hubris, idiocy and recklessness of so much of the education reform campaign and particularly the educational vision of Mike R. Bloomberg, I, for one, am sorry to see the back of Cathie Black. Of course, she was appalling and an embarrassment to an entire city. But that misses the point.
No matter how hard Bloomberg and his trained seals tried, Black, unlike Michelle Rhee or Joel Klein or Arne Duncan or Chris Christie, could not be somehow transformed into an heroic figure fearlessly taking on all powerful teacher’s unions, the status quo, and the selfish teachers; those evil foes who were not only damaging the nation’s children (thus hindering them from “winning the future”), but bankrupting the American economy to boot.
Even aside from her tasteless public comments there was something in Cathie that people could not stomach. More to the point, there was something so grotesque and so obscene about Bloomberg naming Black the Chancellor of Education and then doing whatever it is that Bloomberg does to bend people to his will to secure Black a waiver that disgusted those generally indifferent to politics. I heard astounded reactions from people who never gave a thought to education before. And to some extent it galvanized them. Black’s mere presence at Bloomberg’s insulting Panel For Educational Policy meetings (in which a panel dominated by Bloomberg zombies would pretend to listen to the heartfelt testimonies of parents, teachers, students and community activists before rubber stamping whatever Bloomberg had ordered) created an instant carnival atmosphere where the hapless Black sat like a mute queen, now haughty, now pouting, in silence, surrounded by her praetorian guard (including Dennis Walcott) absorbing heaps of abuse, wholly incapable of answering even the most basic questions of policy. Her most memorable moment at such “panels” was mimicking the sound of the crowd who jeered when Black protectors grabbed their mics to answer yet another question asked of Black and Black scolded her questioners.
Such moments were at once surreal, illuminating and emancipating. They exposed, as much or more than the most well crafted argument, the idiot logic guiding not merely Bloomberg but all the well heeled narcissistic imbeciles whose imaginations are so paralyzed and egos so bloated that they believe to the core of their beings that corporate business people (like themselves) have somehow attained the highest form of human intelligence and therefore that all human institutions — libraries, hospitals, governments, schools, whatever –should be subordinated to the corporate business model.
Like no one else, on an almost daily basis, Black revealed this thinking to be the insanity that it is. More, as Mike Bloomberg was surely the only man in the entire world who would even consider a person as stunningly unqualified as Black to be the Chancellor of Education for the City of New York, Black revealed Mike Bloomberg to be an arrogant fool.
This, of course, was her undoing. As Bernie Kerik instantly became to Bloomberg’s predecessor Rudy Giuliani the moment people outside of Giuliani’s orbit looked into him, so Cathie Black was daily becoming to Bloomberg: an embarrassment that called Bloomberg’s very judgment into glaring, garish question.
So in the blink of an eye, dilettante “super star manager” Cathie Black was out and soft spoken Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott in. One might think such a self-created disaster as Black would humble a man, at least for the moment. But not Bloomberg. Not even for a moment. Even as he was stating that he “ accepted full responsibility” for the Black debacle, he sounded pissed that he actually had to say such stuff. Lost in the shock of the announcement was the fact that Bloomberg proved again that he is incapable of learning anything as he pulled the same stunt with Walcott that he pulled with Black.
The first sign that nothing will change under Dennis Walcott was the process of selecting Dennis Walcott. Which is to say, there was no process. There was no search, no consultation with the United Federation of Teachers, no reaching out to parents, no discussion whatsoever with anyone anywhere over who should replace the disastrous Black and assume responsibility for the education of over one million children in a school system that, from the inside, feels as if it is being held together with dental floss.
Walcott is the man and that is that. Such is life under the reign of Bloomberg. As both Diane Ravich and Noah Gotbaum have pointed out Bloomberg treats the public schools as if they are his private property to do with as he will. Many, including friends, have greeted Walcott’s selection with something approximating approval. At any rate, there has been none of the incredulity that came with the selection of Black and remained with her for every one of her 96 days as chancellor. A great deal is being made of Walcott’s public school education, his two years teaching kindergarten, his grandchildren in the system and the fact that he does not need to be surrounded by four deputy chancellors lest some one ask him a policy question. Such banter reveals far more about how thoroughly Bloomberg has degraded the position of chancellor than it does any thing about the qualifications of Dennis Walcott to bear it. Indeed, just like Bloomberg’s previous selections for chancellor, Walcott does not have the qualifications.
If anyone has any doubts about why Wolcott was selected, just look at the reception he has received from those who have spent the last decade trying to destroy the public school system any way they can. Geoffrey Canada, president and CEO of Harlem Children’s Zone — he who pays the children in his program do do their homework — and as such a corporate confidence man extraordinaire, called Walcott a “brilliant choice,” adding, “I feel terrific about it.” Former Chancellor Joel Klein currently employed as CEO of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation Education Division called Walcott “a superb selection” and “ a fighter for kids.”
I, for one, disagree. I, for one do not hold Walcott’s selection to be a good thing excepting, perhaps, for Bloomberg whom Walcott will certainly fight for. While it is true that Dennis Walcott is, by all accounts, an intelligent and amiable fellow and one conversant with the nuts and bolts of the Department of Education, while it is true that long ago and far away he worked in the Urban League, while its true he is now declaring that the school system is “ all about a partnership,” the greater truth is that Dennis Walcott is Mike Bloomberg’s stooge.
After faithfully serving Bloomberg for nine years no man in New York has more intimate knowledge than Dennis Walcott as to what happens to any Bloomberg appointee who dares to think with his or her own mind, who dares to speak his or her own opinion: who dares, that is, to be a free and dignified human being.
Dennis Walcott is more aware than anyone in New York what he has got himself into. And Dennis Walcott, for whatever reason, has willingly accepted that role. Anyone who believes the replacement of Black with Walcott will make an iota of difference that is beneficial to students, teachers and the school system is delusional.
What Bloomberg has been permitted to do is shocking and deeply disturbing. Or, at any rate, it should be shocking and deeply disturbing. In nine years Bloomberg has degraded the political landscape of New York so thoroughly that he has rendered the Chancellorship of Education either irrelevant or a joke. While Bloomberg reigns it does not matter who is chancellor. Klein, Black Walcott, whomever, they are all there to play dummy to Bloomberg’s ventriloquist and they all know that the minute they speak their own mind is the minute their fates are sealed. What’s worse is millions of New Yorkers know this too and somehow it is accepted. Such is the degraded state of our “democracy.” Indeed, if Bloomberg had any integrity at all he would simply eliminate the position of Chancellor for the duration of his term (if, indeed, his term ever ends) and save the taxpayers the salary of this now ceremonial position.
How many teachers can be hired on a chancellor’s salary?
There is something diabolical about Bloomberg. He specializes in corrupting people by successful appeals to their basest impulses. Of course, all such appeals would be unthinkable without his absurd wealth. Consider City Counsel speaker Christine Quinn. No matter how long she lives Quinn will have to live with the horrible truth that she helped undermine the political will of millions and millions of New Yorkers when she helped orchestrate Bloomberg’s illegal and legally singular third term. And she should live with it. And she should be reminded of her treacherous and cowardly act every day.
Consider New York State Education Commissioner David Steiner, the son of the great literary critic George Steiner, who must live the rest of his life with the knowledge that he allowed Mike Bloomberg to somehow persuade him to throw his integrity to the gutter when he approved non-educator Cathie Black’s waiver to be chancellor with the preposterous stipulation that the job of “chief academic officer “ — i.e. someone who actually knew something about schools — be created to work beside her. Steiner had to know that what he was doing was wrong if not out right grotesques. Nonetheless, like Quinn Steiner debased himself to do Bloomberg’s bidding. And by dancing the humiliating dance Bloomberg demanded both did irreparable harm not only to their souls, but also betrayed the people they swore to serve.
Nothing will change for the better with Walcott. Indeed, Walcott will be far more effective in pushing through Bloomberg’s agenda of total destruction all the time than Cathie Black could ever dream about. He’s already begun. Speaking before last Friday’s City Council hearing on the mayor’s preliminary operating budget Walcott made the extremely dubious claim that, “By any measure the gains our students have made in recent years have been extraordinary – far outpacing the rest of the State and cities across the nation.”
As a New York City teacher I have no idea what Walcott can possibly be referring to here – but the language is extremely reminiscent of Bloomberg’s and Klein’s when they were crowing before Congress about the since-debunked miraculous gains for New York students under their since-debunked miraculous leadership.
Walcott dutifully went on to channel two other Bloomberg fallacies. The first was how the city had no choice but to lay off teachers, a claim thrice publicly contradicted by Governor Andrew Cuomo who is no friend of teachers. The second, offered with no evidence whatsoever from this data loving contingent, was how seniority laws (or LIFO as they are now moronically called) are depriving children of their most “effective” teachers.
In short, on the part of the DOE nothing has changed, and as long as Bloomberg is mayor nothing will change — least of all Bloomberg. He simply doesn’t have the moral strength to change or admit he’s wrong about anything. Bloomberg is a free market utopian as impervious to reality as was Milton Friedman if somewhat nastier in his manner.
When he first arrived at City Hall and for some time afterward, Bloomberg repeatedly stated that he wished to be judged on how dealt with education, which was, in fairness to Bloomberg, in many ways, a mess. For a while, Bloomberg successfully fooled many into thinking that his almost yearly reorganizations, “data based instruction”, high stakes testing, school closings and championing of charter schools were actually making things better rather than just different for New York City students. This began to change with news of the fraudulent or grossly inflated testing scores and evidence of doctored graduation rates. Confidence in Bloomberg’s handling of schools went further south with his ridiculous selection of Black and further still with Black’s darkly comical impersonation of a chancellor of education.
Even as blind a narcissist as Michael Bloomberg must by this point know that if he is judged by his handling of the schools he would be judged – at the very best — a mediocrity and by many, in fact most, a failure. (Most NYC teachers, I am convinced, would rank Bloomberg as a catastrophe, a point, I am equally convinced, that would not bother Bloomberg in the least.)
I believe Bloomberg’s response to his failure is to spend the remainder of his term accelerating what he and his fellow “reformers” across the USA have been doing for a decade now: altering the public school system beyond recognition, setting it up for failure, hastening its demise and setting in motion its rescue by corporate America. This requires the destruction of the UFT, whose power Bloomberg has been undermining since his arrival at City Hall. All pretense of a working partnership between Bloomberg’s DOE and the UFT is now laughable. Bloomberg would love to leave office as the man who destroyed the teacher’s union. He’d love that even if that meant, as it would, that teachers could be fired at the whim of any psychotic principal, that the profession would be degraded beyond recognition, that generation of students would be subjected to nothing but test prep. No matter. Power has made Bloomberg stranger, crueler, and dumber. Bloomberg has moved past being reckless and is now so ruthless he is seemingly willing to unnecessarily lay off thousands and thousands of teachers to try and alter public opinion on seniority laws and get his way.
This is sick.
And, if it is not, it should be criminal.
What to do?
Appealing to a figurehead like Dennis Walcott is a waste of time and energy. The combination of the power of Bloomberg’s obscene wealth and Bloomberg’s ruthless policies are something not seen for a long, long time if ever before in American politics. As such they call for a different kind of response, a different method of fighting, some way of not allowing this man to totally degrade our political system and totally destroy our school system before handing it over to his pals in the “free market.”
Bloomberg cannot change. We must. What we have been doing has not worked. It may mean massive acts of civil disobedience and massive amounts of consequent arrests. It may mean sick-outs on a scale unseen in New York history. It may mean something not yet imagined to match the almost unimaginable reality we are living, in which the richest man in New York is running New York with dictatorial control over almost every aspect of its school system. This is disgraceful. This is insane. We need to figure out how we got here and how we allowed this. We need to figure out how to get out of here and how to transcend this. We need to figure out how to keep people as venal and vicious as Michael Bloomberg as far away from political power as legally possible.