A knot of parents and teachers–some clutching children, others clutching protest fliers–huddled outside Hostos Community College one frosty evening last February. The forty or so Bronx residents had crisscrossed the borough for the rare chance to mix it up with the New York City schools chancellor in a public forum.
A guard met them at the door. No more room, he said, leaving the agitated parents, quite literally, out in the cold. They had hoped to hear Joel Klein explain why he was scrambling the school system’s signals for the second time in five years. Inside the Grand Concourse annex, Klein was winding down his pitch to the hundred or so in the audience who had made the cut. “We are enacting these reforms so we can make sure whatever your skin color, wherever you live, your kid will get the education he needs and deserves,” Klein shouted into the microphone.
Klein may have appeared an awkward headmaster in his Wall Street suit, but he was on familiar terrain, wrapping his arguments for corporate-style school overhaul in the ethos of civil rights. He is driven by the noble pledge to “finish the job that Brown v. Board of Education began.” His path to racial equity, however, employs the efficient tools of business–top-down decisions, marketplace incentives and a belief in private sector solutions to public school problems. Instruction is “data driven.” Academic results are “granular.” It is a technocratic vision of education, in sync with big-moneyed foundations, at odds with most classroom teachers and many parents.
In the calculus of the moment, each of the city’s 1,450 schools is considered an independent franchise. Like a bank outlet or a RadioShack store, any given school is a “key unit” in Klein’s new Department of Education. Schools are headed by branch managers, or principals, whose jobs have been reconfigured as CEOs rather than as educators. Principals are expected to contract out for nearly every core service, from testing to professional development to their own support team. Quarterly returns flow out in the form of tests four times a year. Schools must compete with one another, at their peril. The lowest performers on the bell curve may be sanctioned or shut down.
Thomas Sobol, the former New York State education commissioner, believes the battle lines have been drawn between democracy and corporatization. “The arrogance, my God, of saying because we know how to run Kmart, we know how to educate children,” said Sobol, professor emeritus at Columbia University’s Teachers College. “It represents a giant defeat of democracy.”
In Klein’s view, “corporatization” and “privatization” are meaningless phrases used to detract from the real revolution underfoot. “There is nothing less public about public schools,” he insisted during a recent interview at Department of Education headquarters. His reforms are about strengthening the top in order to bring equity to the bottom. A lone public employee, Klein has nearly unfettered control of 1.1 million schoolchildren and a $15.4 billion budget. “In the end it is my responsibility to say, I think this is the right policy,” Klein said. “I need to be prepared to make the tough service delivery decision. The mayor holds me accountable, and the city holds the mayor accountable. We should not have ‘shared decision-making.’ That’s what marks all unsuccessful school reforms.”