Joel Klein’s 200 Club

You tromped to dozens of open houses, mastered the eccentricities of district borders and residency variances, and found your daughter a terrific public-school kindergarten. But now she is 7, she’s in first grade, and school has truly begun: books, homework, tests. The stakes are way up.

Fortunately, she’s thriving. She’s writing whole paragraphs where most of the words are legible and correctly spelled. Better still, she loves learning. The school isn’t perfect, but its scores on standardized exams are climbing steadily, the principal soaks up parental input, and you’ve actually enjoyed volunteering for goofy fund-raisers. So you’ve been thinking of yourself not just as a smart parent but as a righteous citizen. You don’t even wonder anymore whether you could have afforded private school.

Then, in mid-January, Mayor Michael Bloomberg scrambled your fragile sense of satisfaction that gambling on public school was paying off. In a bold attempt to rescue the students mired in mediocre and failing public schools, the mayor and schools chancellor Joel I. Klein unveiled a sweeping reorganization intended to touch every school in the city. For three decades, the school-management structure has produced embarrassments like P.S. 92 in Harlem, where an appalling 80 percent of the third-graders flunked last year’s reading test. So who cares if trying to fix this mess scares a few privileged parents? Mike Bloomberg and Joel Klein, for two.

So far, the mayor and the chancellor have emphasized the flow-chart efficiencies of their plan. But they are also subtly trying to market the public schools to the middle-class parents who are the glue of any good school—“middle class” being not a code for “white,” or even an income category, but for an attitude. Endless debates rage about pedagogical theories, but the efficacy of one method for improving schools has never been disputed: Attract and keep aggressive, educationally ambitious parents, the people who read to their kids every night, volunteer for committees during the day, and help stock the school library on the weekend. “Get those families into your school and their energy drives the place,” says the principal of one of Manhattan’s best public elementary schools.

So Bloomberg and Klein hired Caroline Kennedy to raise money. And Jack Welch to advise the principal-training academy. The symbolism—rich people care about the public-school system—has been hard to miss. And parents appreciate the gestures—though they’re savvy enough to know Welch won’t make much practical difference. Still, the reorganization is alienating much of the very audience Bloomberg and Klein need to charm. These parents, idealistic and hopeful that weak schools will be lifted up, are nevertheless rattled by the prospect of their own kids being lost in a giant experiment. “I wouldn’t be so anxious about this reorganization,” Wendy Rogers says, “if my son weren’t in school right now.” Her son, Miles, is in first grade at a rising Brooklyn elementary school—precisely the kind of good-but-uneven place that’s a long shot to make Klein’s list of schools that can ignore the new mandates.

There’s plenty of anxiety, too, at top-flight schools like P.S. 234 in Tribeca, P.S. 199 near Lincoln Center, and P.S. 321 in Park Slope. Parents fear that all the time and money they’ve invested to help their schools craft excellent, sometimes idiosyncratic, curriculums implemented by passionate teachers will be swept aside, to be replaced by … well, no one’s quite sure what.

Parents, however idealistic, are rattled by the prospect of their own kids being lost in a giant experiment.

Klein’s driving idea is to create a lean and rational bureaucracy that supports standardized instructional methods instead of woolly patronage deals. There’s a satisfying tidiness to his decreeing that one reading and one math curriculum will be used in 1,000 city schools. But applying those tools to 1,000 different populations will be unavoidably messy. Especially since Klein and his team, led by deputy chancellor Diana Lam, have spelled out almost none of the details. They haven’t discussed, for instance, what will become of the vast special-education and bilingual programs.

Not only are multiple layers of sclerotic bureaucracy supposed to be eliminated, but dozens of principals are likely to be fired or shunted into other jobs; teachers at every level retrained; even the delivery of school lunches is supposed to be streamlined. And the entire transfiguration is to be accomplished by September, while George Pataki tries to slash $478 million from the city’s school budget.

An elite 200 schools, meanwhile, are to be exempted from the revamping—though the selection standards are still secret. The number strikes education experts as not only arbitrary but low: “Of course, it depends on your definition,” says one former Board of Education analyst, “but there are easily 300 good schools.” Steve Sanders, who heads the State Assembly’s education committee, says, “If you’re counting how many provide a quality or excellent education, the number of ‘successful’ schools should be two or three times higher.” To cull 200, Klein won’t pick the schools ranked highest in test scores, because such a group would be so white as to be politically untenable. Instead, he’s grading on a curve that factors in socioeconomic criteria. Klein’s calculations will make college football’s Bowl Championship Series rankings look as simple as the directions for slice-and-bake cookies.

In Greenwich Village, Michele Farinet, the PTA co-president at P.S. 41, is practically apoplectic over the possibility of missing the cut. “If we’re not in the top 200, then it’s not really a list of top schools,” she says. “And there’s no in-between? Everyone else is branded a failure? This turmoil affects people. People will be very upset if we lose our freedom.”

One of the new regional administrators describes the 200 club as a public-relations device. “The mayor and the chancellor have set this up so they can have some victories,” says the executive. “A year from now, they want to be able to say, ‘Fifty more schools are moving up into the exempt group! Look, we’re succeeding!’ ”

Parents sorting through kindergarten options are baffled. “We’re African-American, and the private schools lack diversity, plus the cost means you give up the dream of ever retiring,” says Glenna Meeks, the mother of twin 4-year-olds. “But everything in the public schools is so precarious. And with the reorganization, you just don’t know what you’re getting yourself into.” She sighs. “Going to school wasn’t nearly this complicated when I was growing up in Kentucky.”Carmen Fariña is doing her best to be reassuring. Certainly her track record helps: For ten years, Fariña was the principal at P.S. 6, the Upper East Side’s finest public elementary school. In 2001, she took over Brooklyn’s District 15, which stretches from Cobble Hill to Borough Park, and many of its schools have improved significantly. Those achievements are why, two weeks ago, Fariña was promoted to “super-super”—one of ten administrators selected by Klein to command the ten new “regions” that will subsume the 40 existing school districts. For Fariña, this means she’s now responsible for 80,000 students instead of 20,000, and that for the first time she’ll steer high schools in addition to elementary and middle schools.

Daunting is one word she keeps using as she addresses parents on a chilly Wednesday night in Carroll Gardens. The other words Fariña repeats are I don’t know.

“I’m not being evasive,” she says at the outset. “It’s just that for many of the questions both you and I have, we don’t have the answers.” On one specific topic, Fariña is refreshingly blunt: Asked when the top 200 schools will be announced, Fariña says, “If it were up to me, never.”

It speaks highly of Klein that he’s chosen regional superintendents, like Fariña, who are unafraid speak their minds. But the chancellor’s unwillingness to disclose the particulars of the new educational regime is leading him into gnarly old thickets.

“I pushed my members to be open to change,” says teachers-union president Randi Weingarten. “And they started out being open. But the fear factor is escalating. Everybody has questions, and nobody can answer them. I’m seeing a change in my members from being open to being frustrated.” Weingarten suspects Bloomberg and Klein aren’t hiding the details. “I don’t think they’ve worked things out themselves.”

For school-system veterans, some cynicism is perfectly rational: They’ve seen more educational “revolutions” fade than they can count. When a West Side principal is asked about the chances of the current turmoil driving away highly motivated middle-class parents, she shrugs. “We always get more applications in a recession,” she says.

Even if thousands of parents can’t bail out, physically, to Brearley or to the ’burbs, Bloomberg and Klein risk driving out their spirit. Getting that spark back would take more than clever restructuring.

Joel Klein’s 200 Club