In his never ending quest to remake New York City Public Schools in his own image, Mayor Mike Bloomberg began last week in one pose and ended it in a strikingly different and far weaker one.
On Sunday last Bloomberg was on the offensive, lashing out and acting essentially as a political terrorist: on Friday, Bloomberg was babbling on the radio, an incoherent scold. What happened in between – a mass walkout of UFT members and parents from one of Bloomberg’s signal educational institutions, the mockingly undemocratic Panel for Educational Policy — was the nearest thing to an uprising that Bloomberg has yet encountered.
And hopefully the first of many, many more.
One week ago today Mayor Mike Bloomberg entered the Christian Cultural Center in Flatlands Brooklyn, and delivered a divide and conquer, union bashing doomsday sermon that warned of laying off 15,000 newer teachers due to massive cuts in the state budget.
The New York Times billed the “bluntly worded speech” as Bloomberg’s “first major confrontation” with Governor Cuomo. I disagree. I would categorize the speech as nothing short of a political terrorist attack designed to do nothing other than to strike fear into the hearts of newer teachers across the city, the better to turn them against their union.
Bloomberg was demanding Cuomo use the financial meltdown orchestrated by the mayor’s Wall Street pals and the governor’s Wall Street allies to somehow justify eradicating the state rule protecting the seniority rights of teachers and other civil servants. Taking a page directly from Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, Bloomberg self –righteously insisted Cuomo use the completely unrelated financial crisis to radically re arrange or remove a state rule that provides some modicum of security and dignity to the 80,000 professionals who have dedicated themselves to educating our children.
It is for the children, of course, that the seniority rule is to be abolished, for Mike Bloomberg ( like Michele Rhee, Bill Gates, Eli Broad and the Wal-Mart family and other prominent education reformers ) is always putting children first.
A big part, indeed, the biggest part, of putting children first for Bloomberg and his fellow reformers is stripping teachers of all rights, all due process, all say in how they should do their jobs. Oh, yes, and destroying their unions. For Bloomberg, a perfect world would be one in which teachers would work in perpetual competition with an ever enlarging army of fellow teachers, the younger and less experienced the better, forever attempting to prove their “merit” by raising their students scores on standardized bubble tests. The winners of the perpetual competition would get to keep their jobs another year or so.
Of course, Bloomberg cannot say that. What Bloomberg says instead is that he wants the seniority rule abolished so that his Department of Education “can take merit into account when making these difficult decisions” about teacher layoffs.
What Bloomberg knows is that abolishing seniority will be a major step in giving principals what Bloomberg wants them to have: the right to fire anyone they feel like firing for any reason they feel like firing them for.
Bloomberg also knows that there is no credible method of evaluation in place to measure what he calls “merit.”
Most importantly, Bloomberg knows that the public has no idea that there is no credible method of evaluation in place and would naturally assume that the mayor of New York would not insinuate there was one if there wasn’t one.
But there isn’t.
He knows too that, due to “principal empowerment”, a Bloomberg scheme that gave principals full control over their budgets, the negation of seniority would give principals every financial incentive to fire teachers with experience, and replace them with cheaper, more malleable novices.
Again, Bloomberg knows that, by and large, the public has absolutely no idea of such insidious incentives and that most parents would be as appalled as the ones who walked out of Bloomberg’s PEP hearing at such treatment of their kid’s teachers if they found out.
Rest assured Mike Bloomberg is not about to tell them.
What he will do and in fact did was insinuate that there was a great injustice afoot, both to teachers and to students, and possibly a little racism as well.
The injustice was as follows: due to seniority rules, some of these 15,000 newly hired teachers would lose their jobs despite their great work. Bloomberg offered not a single shred of evidence, nor a single digit of his beloved data to back up this assertion, which is quite astonishing when you think about the fact that it is with data that this man accumulated his 20 billion dollars.
But then again, maybe not.
Like a skilled terrorist, Bloomberg was appealing not to reason but to the base impulses of selfishness, fear and survival.
There is, in all probability, a small truth in Bloomberg’s statement. If layoffs, indeed, were to occur, especially in the massive numbers that Bloomberg threatened, some good or at least potentially good newly hired teachers would lose their jobs. That’s sad. And in a perfect world that would not happen. But that’s the trade off with all seniority rules everywhere. Seniority is an imperfect solution in an imperfect world created to do several very good things. It is meant to make arbitrary, capricious dismissal due to one’s race, creed, political views or the fact that some 24 year old Leadership Academy principal doesn’t like your face, more difficult. Seniority is also meant to reward dedication to an extremely difficult and taxing profession. Lastly, it is meant to provide some modicum of job security in a world in which, pathetically, job security is rapidly going the way of the pterodactyl.
Before the advent and apotheosis of what Diane Ravitch calls the “Billionaire Boys Club” ( Bill Gates, Eli Broad, Wal-Mart family and etc) , those wacky unelected, unaccountable fellows who, despite never spending a single moment teaching are force feeding their moronic ideas on an entire generation of students and teachers,
it was commonly assumed among people that actually knew what they were talking about that teaching was an art that, no matter what your natural abilities, took years to master.
There are those, and Mike Bloomberg is surely among them, who would like to see that wisdom too go the way of the pterodactyl. After all, this is the guy who after burdening New York with the catastrophic chancellorship of prosecutor Joel Klein, thought it was a good idea to follow up that act with publishing executive Cathie Black.
There is a similar message in both of these contemptuous selections and in Bloomberg’s self-righteous indignation over the hypothetical tragic young victims of seniority: educating is so simple one can do it right out of the egg. Indeed, one can instruct 80,000 licensed and certified teachers on how to teach straight out of the egg.
Bloomberg then implied that not only would these poor young teachers unfairly suffer but so would their charges in the poorer, high need schools and neighborhoods where they worked. As poor neighborhoods tend to be neighborhoods of people of color, Bloomberg also seemed to be implying that seniority was not only unfair, it was somehow racist.
“ The mayor, “ said The New York Times”, told the congregation that state cuts to New York City’s education budget, cuts he has said could reach $1 billion, would disproportionately hurt poor neighborhoods, where schools tend to have the newest teachers because of high turnover.”
Note: As Bloomberg well knows, poor neighborhoods do not have the newest teachers because of high turnover but because of programs such as the New York City Teaching Fellows which has a policy, dubious indeed if not outright reckless, of deliberately placing the least trained, least experienced, least qualified teachers into the schools with the highest needs. I know this because I am a New York City Teaching Fellow and I was placed in exactly that situation. Imagine the outcry if a similar policy were implemented by the FDNY or the NYPD.
So much for putting children first.
“So we have to really do something about this,” Mr. Bloomberg said. “Across this city, layoffs would send exactly the wrong message to our kids. You know, we tell them, ‘Work hard, play by the rules, you can rise as far as your talents can take you.’ And yet Albany rules say that when it comes to teaching, talent doesn’t matter, results don’t matter.”
This is truly rich.
The Times makes no mention of the congregation’s reaction to Bloomberg’s speech but one would like to think there was at least one extra high volume echoing horse laugh when the Mayor who contemptuously ignored the will of millions of New Yorkers who voted for term limits, spoke of playing by the rules at the very moment that he was, in fact, arguing to change yet other rules that were in his way.
As stated above, contrary to the Times, I do not believe Bloomberg’s weasel-worded address was aimed anywhere near Albany. Bloomberg knows you don’t affect change in Albany by talking to families in a church in Brooklyn. I believe the overriding purpose of Bloomberg’s speech was an attempt to turn every newly hired teacher in the city against their union which, like every union worth its salt, unequivocally supports seniority. I believe that Bloomberg was attempting nothing less than to help cause a generational rift in the NYC teaching corps, the better to divide and conquer. (For more of this, see my earlier post on Educators 4 Excellence, an execrable organization funded by Bill Gates and others for the sole purpose of union busting. The DOE has helped them along by allowing the two founders to work as teachers but one day a week. Sweet! )
Bloomberg’s insinuations were base, divisive and dishonest no matter how you looked at them but information released to the public two days later made them that much the more so. Two days after Bloomberg’s speech, Governor Cuomo released a budget proposal that called for cuts of 2.9 % and made it clear that there was nothing in the proposed state budget that would require local layoffs. Is there anyone in this city not employed by or otherwise beholden to Michael Bloomberg who believes that a man as obsessed with data and power as is Bloomberg did not have this information before he stepped into the pulpit to deliver his speech?
If so, how else to categorize Bloomberg’s actions than as an act of low life political terrorism? And mark this: judging at least from the newer teachers in my own school, Bloomberg succeeded in scaring some of them out of their wits.
And lest we forget, Mayor Bloomberg gave this divisive, dishonest address on a Sunday in a house of God.
Did no one walk out? The Times does not say.
Tuesday night brought Bloomberg the first of two rubber stamp Panel for Educational Policy Hearings (PEP) which, despite overwhelming opposition from parents, teachers, community activists and elected officials, ended predictably with all of Bloomberg’s appointees voting for every school closing and every charter school co-location requested by the DOE, including one in my own school.
If anyone were seeking concrete evidence of how thoroughly contemptuous Mike Bloomberg is of the democratic process and the people of New York, they could do no better than to attend a PEP hearing or cast an eye on how it’s comprised. Of the thirteen members of the panel, eight are selected by Bloomberg with the understanding that they are to be his puppets, a role in which they happily oblige. Refusal to obey Bloomberg leads to an immediate firing. In 2004, Bloomberg summarily sacked panel appointees critical of his plan requiring students to earn a minimum score on state exams before being promoted. Not surprisingly, panel members have never voted down a school closing, a co-location or any significant policy requested by Bloomberg. When state lawmakers required the mayor to appoint two parents to the panel, Bloomberg selected two who head organizations with financial ties to his philanthropy.
Yes, this really is New York, not Bucharest.
Borough presidents select five members. It is only within these that there is any integrity.
An absolute travesty, as has been every other PEP of the past nine years, the Tuesday night “hearing” dragged on for five and one half hours. This gave me plenty of time to observe the distinguished panel and consider how foolish were those who believed, in Bloomberg’s first campaign all those years ago, that the same obscene wealth that would keep Bloomberg from being bought would somehow keep Bloomberg from buying others – and buying them by the dozen.
Twenty billion dollars in the hands of a complete narcissist with limitless political ambitions is as toxic to a body politic as you can get. And New Yorkers have been getting it for nine years now.
The Tuesday night PEP was notable for three things. The first was the level that charter school mogul Eva Moskowitz would stoop to when she bussed in, fed, and robed in orange tee shirts hundreds of parents and a small army of five and six year olds. Child after child after child was sent up to the mic to praise her ever expanding empire.
It was creepy.
The second was the now infamous incident where an extraordinarily haughty Cathie Black, four hours into the phony hearing, mocked the audience in an open mic before delivering a boilerplate rational for closing schools.
The third and far most important thing was that for the first time, and none too soon, one saw real rumblings of rebellion against the entire insulting process. The scorn for Black, and indeed, it for all of the panel members except those not chosen by Bloomberg was palpable and ceaseless. Elected official after elected official decried the process. Angry shouts of “Fraud!” echoed through the auditorium as the panel members read their verdicts.
Thursday night brought the second PEP hearing of the week and the great walk out.
References to the events in Egypt were heard again and again. Some invisible line had clearly been crossed. Outright rebellion was in the very air.
And how does Mike Bloomberg respond to thousands of people at last rejecting his contempt and his phony hearings? At last demanding a real democratic process?
Mike Bloomberg responds as if speaking of and to disobedient children.
Mike Bloomberg scolds them.
Then, for good measure, he calls them an embarrassment to the country.
“This is not democracy, letting people yell and scream,” Mayor Bloomberg said on WOR’s John Gambling radio show. “It’s embarrassing for New York City, New York State, for America.”
Note above the same bizarre disconnect that Bloomberg displayed in his weasly attack on seniority where he spoke of changing the rules for those who played by the rules. In the same manner, Bloomberg seems to believe that stacking a public body with stooges and staging pretend hearings with pre-ordained results is somehow a perfectly acceptable part of a democratic process.
Bloomberg then veers not only into slang ( “ dissing ?”) but into absolute incoherence.
“When you’re yelling at a meeting like they had last night, you’re yelling at the teachers, you’re dissing them, you’re dissing the principals, you’re dissing the school safety officers, you’re dissing the custodians, you’re dissing the taxpayers paying for it,” Bloomberg continued.
Whatever Bloomberg is talking about in the above passages has nothing at all to do with the events of the February 3rd PEP hearing. The people yelling that were disrespecting no one. The people yelling that night were yelling because they spoke and were not listened to for years. The people yelling that night were yelling at one thing and one thing only: the disgraceful and pathetic collection of souls bought by Michael Bloomberg and paid to do his bidding which was to pretend to listen to them. Ultimately, the people yelling that night were yelling at the Honorable Michael R. Bloomberg who has treated them, their children, their schools, their teachers, their communities, their government with absolute contempt for nine long years. All had played by his rigged rules until all good faith was at last depleted and their fury erupted.
Bloomberg is a man who has long been accustomed to being obeyed, long been accustomed to and getting what he wants when and how he wants it. The events of Thursday night may well have shocked him to his core. May it be so. If ever a man needed and deserved shocking it is Michael R. Bloomberg. And may it be the beginning of the end for this devious, corrupting and tyrannical figure who believes it is his right to overturn any law that stands in the way of his monumental ego.
Let Bloomberg be “embarrassed” by people standing up for their rights. Let Bloomberg be “embarrassed” by people refusing to be mocked.
Every such statement exposes him for what he is and what he and his supporters believe.
And in no way do they or Bloomberg believe in democracy. Indeed, they hold it in hardly hidden distain.
As for myself, even as I fully understand that what took place on Feb 3rd is at best the beginning of a beginning and perhaps not even that, I have never felt prouder to be a member of a union, never felt prouder to be a member of the UFT, never felt prouder to be a New Yorker, as I did that wild, electric, passion filled night. Oppression begins to end with the word “no “ and oppression is the truest word to describe the Department of Education under the reign of Michael Bloomberg to which 2000 decent, educated and committed people said “no” to last Thursday. Many, many more are needed. But, if built upon with courage and intelligence the refusal of February 3rdh could be the beginning of a new beginning.
As too many children are being lied to and cheated out of anything even resembling a real education, as too many teachers are being debased and degraded, as too many families are being turned against each other as part of deliberate, conscious strategies aimed at privatizing education from Tweed straight across the country, it is my fervent hope we make it so.
The alternative is simply too bleak to even contemplate, never mind accept.