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Mike Bloomberg Goes to the Principal's Office

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Klein, unlike Levy, is not a root-causes guy. “I don’t want to give us an excuse,” he says, “because I think there’s a lot that we can do.” He and Bloomberg are saying the problem might actually have to do with the way kids are taught. “By and large, we have a system with people who have life tenure, lockstep pay, and seniority,” Klein says. “Unless we’re prepared to be serious about changing the culture, we will not change the results with any significance.”

Skeptics will argue that the mayor knows nothing about what it’s really like to stand in front of a classroom, that he’s scapegoating teachers to make up for a lack of funding (and it’s true that the NYPD got more resources ten years ago).

“I know something about running nonprofit businesses,” the mayor responds. “I ran a university. I ran a hospital. This is an organization that is accountable for its actions, has to justify getting the moneys that it spends, and in terms of showing that there is value produced for those moneys—let’s say reading scores, if it’s a kid in a school, whatever it is—there are metrics that you can use to measure virtually anything. There was just no structure that said, ‘We’re going to measure you based on how well the kids learned.’ And all of us behave differently if there is accountability and openness.”

And any labor strife is, he figures, part of the cost of doing business.

Randi Weingarten: “These reforms are built on a Jack Welch model of command and control and intimidation and fear, and that’s just not the way teachers work.”

“They don’t want any change!” Bloomberg says dismissively. “I mean, they were running the school system, they were getting everything they wanted, and they had no accountability. Why would a rational person want to give that up?”

'They’re experimenting on kids, and I think that’s horrible,” says Randi Weingarten, president of the UFT, whose voice tends to grow softer, more reverential, whenever she mentions children. “We’re not dealing with widgets here. These reforms are built on a Jack Welch model of command and control and intimidation and fear, and that’s just not the way teachers work. And when we raise legitimate concerns about this, they demonize the messengers. I think the mayor, for reasons that I still don’t understand, really believed that the union used to act as co-chancellor.”

There’s a beat before she adds: “If the union did act as co-chancellor, I believe that the school system would have been much better off.”

Before their mutual freeze-out, the billionaire mayor and the tenacious labor leader had a collegial, if complicated, relationship. Weingarten had advised Bloomberg on the campaign trail and had even visited him at his home. It was at a restaurant in Soho, a month after he took office, that she remembers him popping the question: He asked her if she wanted to be the schools chancellor.

"I didn’t know whether he was kidding or not,” she says coyly. “You know, he may have been teasing. I don’t know whether he was flattering me. But you know, he used to think that I knew what I was talking about.”

In February, Weingarten said that her fabled predecessor, Albert Shanker, would be “singing in the streets” about the reforms. Now she’s filed close to 9,000 grievances against the Department of Education and a lawsuit to get a referendum on the ballot for smaller class sizes. She has argued that by not trying harder to build a consensus with teachers—or, you might say, treating teachers as employees—the mayor is playing games with children’s lives. Even in a school system that’s used to standoffs, this is a watershed moment. “It used to be that the chancellor and the mayor were at war with each other,” says Seymour Fliegel, president of the Center for Educational Innovation. “Now the mayor and the chancellor are at war with the heads of the unions.”

Weingarten opened contract negotiations by proposing a pilot project in which teachers and principals “democratically” run schools together. “If they’re not interested in having teachers being part of how to teach kids, they’re not interested in teaching kids,” Weingarten says. Which prompts Bloomberg to scoff: “Can you imagine Ray Kelly listening to the head of the PBA about policy in policing? I don’t think so. No group operates without management. That’s been one of the problems—they never had any. It’s a world where they’re much more socialistic. Until it comes to contract time, in which case they’re the ultimate capitalists.”

Weingarten simply can’t fathom a mayor who equates teachers with cops. “You know, I am always insulted when the mayor says that,” she says. “Teaching is about trying to unlock kids’ minds—what police do is they try to lock up prisoners. Policing is like the Army—it is a kind of paramilitary institution. And I would hope that teaching would never become a paramilitary institution. The mayor’s managerial thrust is to infantilize the teaching force.”

What does she make of the efforts of a principal like Lombardi? Weingarten jumps in before I can finish the question.

“Anthony Lombardi runs his school like a tyrant,” she says, seething. “And anyone who sits in that school understands that. He has railroaded people out of that school for years. He wants sheep.”


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