2012-01-13 "NYC Billionaire Mayor, Union Buster and Privatizer Want To "Focus His Legacy On Education Reform"; Bloomberg Focuses His Legacy on Education Reform" by FERNANDA SANTOS
When Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg delivered his first State of the City address in 2002, to a wounded city still shaken by the death and destruction of a terrorist attack, he vowed to rebuild Lower Manhattan, but he also trained his focus on the city’s much-maligned school system.
“We must strengthen teacher evaluation and training,” Mr. Bloomberg said. “We must improve teacher retention by focusing compensation on those educators just starting their careers.”
Ten years later, having wrested control of the sprawling system and transformed it into a national laboratory for reform, Mr. Bloomberg devoted most of his penultimate State of the City speech on Thursday to education, which he hopes will form the cornerstone of his legacy.
It has been a decade of aggressive changes to the system — giving principals more power over their budgets, making teacher tenure harder to obtain and, in the face of intense protest, closing more than 100 schools and opening scores of charter schools in poor and middle-class enclaves. But despite those changes, he is still chasing some of the same goals: a new evaluation system to weed out the weakest teachers and merit pay to help retain the strongest.
On Thursday, he showed a willingness to confront his most powerful and relentless opponent: the United Federation of Teachers. In a speech defiant in tone and ambitious in content, he announced a plan to sidestep the union, ignore its demands and take matters into his own hands.
He will close and reopen most of the 33 failing schools that had been receiving roughly $60 million in federal money to bolster student performance. That financing was suspended last week after the city and the union failed to agree on the parameters of an evaluation system. Under the mayor’s plan, the schools would receive new names and identification numbers, and new teachers, too: half of them would be replaced.
This new arrangement depends on approval from the state; less than an hour after Mr. Bloomberg’s speech, the city’s schools chancellor, Dennis M. Walcott, sent a letter to the state education commissioner, John B. King Jr., notifying him of the city’s plans.
“Without an agreement with the U.F.T.,” Mr. Walcott wrote, “we are obligated to advocate for an alternative approach to ensure that every school is getting the job done for students.”
On Friday, the union countered. Its president, Michael Mulgrew, asked the state’s Public Employment Relations Board to declare an impasse on the negotiations over the teacher evaluation system to force the city back to the bargaining table.
“We stand ready to negotiate,” Mr. Mulgrew said at a news conference. “What are the city and the Department of Education afraid of?”
In a statement, Mr. Walcott retorted: “Instead of working with us, the U.F.T. would rather engage in useless P.R. stunts.”
Mr. Mulgrew never had the smooth political skills of his predecessor, Randi Weingarten, and never benefited from the bountiful years that delivered Ms. Weingarten one of labor’s biggest victories of Mr. Bloomberg’s tenure: generous raises. Newly hired teachers went on to make $45,530, or 9 percent more than they did when the mayor first took office.
It turned out to be a victory for Mr. Bloomberg, too. Raising entry-level salaries was a pledge of his first State of the City address. The mayor has again turned to money, hoping to apply pressure on the union to move on the evaluation system. In his address on Thursday, he offered $20,000 raises to teachers who are rated “highly effective” for two consecutive years, the top rating under the parameters of a system signed into law in 2010 as part of the state’s application for an education grant under the federal Race to the Top program.
He ended social promotion and reformed tenure rules nearly four years after he first proposed the changes; in June, 57 percent of teachers received tenure, down from 97 percent before the rules changed in December 2010.
Over the years, Mr. Bloomberg has repeated his pledge to increase parents’ participation. But while student scores and other records are more accessible to families online and parent coordinators now serve as liaisons to the schools, the disconnect remains profound.
Still, enrollment remains robust, particularly in the early grades and parts of the city, like the immigrant enclaves of western Queens. In his 2005 address, Mr. Bloomberg said the city would spend $13.1 billion in school construction over five years to “wipe out pockets of overcrowding” and “reduce class sizes.”
Though more than 80,000 seats have been added to schools, overcrowding is a nagging problem, and kindergarten waiting lists, which did not exist in 2005, were a reality in about 25 percent of elementary schools last year, according to an analysis of city data byClass Size Matters, one of Mr. Bloomberg’s most vocal critics.
If, to his critics, crowded schools are a sign of failure, for his supporters, they are a sign of success. “The fact that public schools in middle- and upper-class neighborhoods, like Lower Manhattan, are bursting at the seams is a byproduct of this new reality that more city families are actively choosing public schools rather than fleeing to the suburbs,” said Joe Williams, the executive director of Democrats for Education Reform, an advocacy group that has often aligned with the mayor’s policies.
During his speech on Thursday, Mr. Bloomberg acknowledged he still had to do more to help the neediest. “We have only climbed halfway up the mountain, and halfway isn’t good enough,” he said.
While praising the mayor for his relentless focus on education, Pedro Noguera, a professor of education at New York University, said, “None of the policy fixes he’s mentioned will address this problem, and if he doesn’t find a way to tackle it, his legacy in education will be at best incomplete.”