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The Chancellor's Midterm Exam


Weingarten expects Bloomberg to quickly signal his take on the report. When two weeks pass without public comment, she grows increasingly agitated. At the UFT, rumors fly that Klein is again thwarting a deal. Weingarten knows that after Election Day her leverage will decline precipitously, so she decides to turn up the heat. Around the city, teachers begin staging protests; when Klein attends a meeting at P.S. 75 on the Upper West Side, he is met with boos and chants of “Shame on you” by 100 irate picketers. Talk of a strike grows more serious—or at least more vociferous.

Finally, at the end of September, Weingarten hauls out the biggest club left in her bag: The UFT screens a stark and brutal anti-Bloomberg ad for one of the mayor’s closest confidants—and tells him that it’s set to begin airing the following week.

Within days, Bloomberg informs his people that he wants to put this behind him, and soon the sides are locked in a weekend-long negotiating session. Huddled in the UFT offices on lower Broadway, the two teams haggle and fight, with Klein weighing in by phone. According to one insider, the chancellor seems to be trying to derail every compromise—until finally, on Sunday, “Bloomberg turns to Joel and says, ‘Okay, you have to stop, we’re done.’ ”

For Weingarten, however, any sense of triumph proves fleeting. Despite having delivered a contract better than what the fact-finders suggested—a year longer, with a bigger pay raise and a provision that prevents teachers from being disciplined over “the format of the bulletin boards, the arrangement of classroom furniture, and the exact duration of lesson units”—Weingarten faces discontent among her constituents. At a conference in Denver a few days later, she tells reporters that she’s “not so sure” the teachers will approve the deal. Who does she blame? Klein, naturally—for making her look weak by hugging her at City Hall (even though she asked for it) and for having “broke[n] the cardinal rule” of negotiating by “gloat[ing]” in the blogosphere (even though the UFT’s blog has done precisely the same thing). With ballots being sent out this week, to be tallied by November 3, the smart money says that the deal will be approved, but no one’s betting the mortgage payment on it.

Klein, for his part, professes satisfaction with the putative new contract. “I didn’t get everything I wanted, but nobody gets everything they want,” he tells me. “But on key issues”—seniority transfers, teachers in the hallways, and master teachers—“I’m actually quite pleased.”

Some of this is spin, of course. Though Klein is too much a realist to have ever expected his eight-page contract to be adopted—and enough of a player to recognize that his given role in the negotiations was to push the envelope so that Bloomberg could play the statesman—he is also enough of a dreamer to have hoped he’d get more than he got. What Klein wants is to see the system run as a federation of small businesses, with principals acting as CEOs of their schools and the DOE as the enforcer of standards and accountability. “It’s why I’m a supporter of charter schools,” he says. “There I can say, ‘You can do things differently, hire who you want, nobody has lifetime tenure. But if you don’t succeed, I’m gonna shut you down.’ ”

Maybe the measure of a successful negotiation is that both parties are disappointed in the end. But again, there are more than just two parties here. For Bloomberg, the way the drama played out couldn’t have been more ideal. By dragging out the process, he sidelined the UFT politically during this campaign season. And whether the tensions between him and Klein are real or for show—at times the two of them seem to be in competition—by having the chancellor play the heavy, Bloomberg shielded himself from much of the fury simmering among the teachers.

“I don’t know how much of it was by design and how much of it he lucked into,” a Weingarten ally observes. “But in retrospect, Bloomberg played it perfectly—I mean, my God, poor Freddy.”

Freddy Ferrer sits in his campaign headquarters, wearing khakis and an open-neck shirt, straining to make an analogy about the CEO mayor and how he’s failed the schools. It’s a Saturday night, and Ferrer and I have been talking for a while about whether it makes sense to apply private-sector management techniques to public education. Ferrer has already offered up one clunker—“If this were a corporation, we would be required by law to have a restatement of earnings”—so he’s trying again. “If one of the Big Three auto-makers built a car with a superb transmission, but a bad engine, bad body work, bad fit and finish, and only sold 50 percent of its output, what would you say?”

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