On Tuesday evening, I attended an event with Joel Klein, hosted by The Atlantic, in conjunction with his brilliant article in the latest edition (www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/06/the-failure-of-american-schools/8497; see my last email). It was videotaped and excerpts are now posted on: http://bcove.me/xuan1aun. Klein first comments on "constituent services" – here's what he wrote about this (and the political context of our schools) in his article:
Let's start with the politicians. From their point of view, the school system can be enormously helpful, providing patronage hires, school-placement opportunities for connected constituents, the means to get favored community and business programs adopted and funded, and politically advantageous ties to schools and parents in their communities.
During my maiden testimony before the State Assembly, I said that we would end patronage hires, which were notorious under the old system of 32 school districts, run by 32 school boards and 32 superintendents (a 2002 state bill granting Bloomberg mayoral control of the city's schools abolished the 32 boards). At my mention of patronage, the legislators, like Captain Renault in Casablanca, purported to be "shocked." Nevertheless, after the hearing, when I went to thank committee members, one took me aside and said: "Listen, they're trying to get rid of a principal in my district who runs a Democratic club for us. If you protect him, you'll never have a problem with me." This kind of encounter was not rare.
Similarly, I faced repeated requests for "constituent services," meaning good school placements for wired constituents. After we reorganized the system and minimized the power of the 32 local superintendents—the go-to people for politicians under the past regime—a local official called me and asked, "Whom do I call for constituent services after your reorg?" I replied, "What's that?" Impatiently, he asked, "How do I get a kid into a school when I need to?" I jokingly answered, "Oh, we must have left out that office in the reorg" (actually thinking, silly me, that the school system should use equitable rules for admission). He said, "Go fuck yourself," and hung up. Despite our constant efforts, or because of them, this kind of political pressure—and payback if we weren't responsive—happened at every level. Even more important, politicians can reap enormous political support from the unions representing school employees. The two national unions—the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association—together have some 4.7 million members, who pay hundreds of millions of dollars in national, state, and local dues, much of which is funneled to political causes. Teachers unions consistently rank among the top spenders on politics.
Moreover, millions of union members turn out when summoned, going door-to-door, staffing phone banks, attending rallies, and the like. Teachers are extremely effective messengers to parents, community groups, faith-based groups, and elected officials, and the unions know how to deploy them well. And just as happy unions can give a politician massive clout, unhappy unions—well, just ask Eva Moskowitz, a Democrat who headed the City Council Education Committee when I became chancellor in 2002. Brilliant, savvy, ambitious, often a pain in my neck, and atypically fearless for an elected official, she was widely expected to be elected Manhattan borough president in 2005. Until, that is, she held hearings on the New York City teachers-union contract—an extraordinary document, running on for hundreds of pages, governing who can teach what and when, who can be assigned to hall-monitor or lunchroom duty and who can't, who has to be given time off to do union work during the school day, and so on. Truth is, the contract defied parody. So when Moskowitz exposed its ridiculousness, the UFT, then headed by Randi Weingarten, made sure that Moskowitz's run for borough president came up short. After that, other elected officials would say to me, "I agree with you, but I ain't gonna get Eva'd."
In short, politicians—especially Democratic politicians—generally do what the unions want. And the unions, in turn, are very clear about what that is. They want, first, happy members, so that those who run the unions get reelected; and, second, more members, so their power, money, and influence grow. As Albert Shanker, the late, iconic head of the UFT, once pointedly put it, "When schoolchildren start paying union dues, that's when I'll start representing the interests of schoolchildren." And what do the members want? Employees understandably want lifetime job security (tenure), better pay regardless of performance (seniority pay), less work (short days, long holidays, lots of sick days), and the opportunity to retire early (at, say, 55) with a good lifetime pension and full health benefits; for their part, the retirees want to make sure their benefits keep coming and grow through cost-of-living increases. The result: whether you work hard or don't, get good results with kids or don't, teach in a shortage area like math or special education or don't, or in a hard-to-staff school in a poor community or not, you get paid the same, unless you've been around for another year, in which case you get more. Not bad for the adults.
But it's just disastrous for the kids in our schools.
Then, Klein talks about how people in the (well heeled) audience would NEVER allow their own children to be randomly assigned to a NYC public school, yet we do nothing when other peoples' kids are:
"There's not a single person in this room – and I'm looking at Joe Williams because his kids go to my former schools – nobody in this room allows me to assign their kid randomly to a public school in New York – you would go nuts. And yet you allow me to randomly assign other peoples' kids, indeed the neediest kids, the kids who grew up with the worst hand in our city, and they get assigned not randomly, they get assigned to a school that every single one of you would become a revolutionary if your kid was in. And we tolerate that! Why do we tolerate that? It's either because we believe one of two things: we believe we can't do any better, or we believe these kids are irredeemable. And we have empirical evidence on both: Eva [Moskowitz], who's here tonight, KIPP schools…go visit these schools and see the entirely different – and these are not small differences – the entirely different results that they're getting. So if you know that, then how do we go to sleep at night saying, "Well, our kids are fine."?