- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 18, 2004

When it comes to shaking up the statusquo, Washington’s Mayor Williams can learn a thing or two from New York’s Mayor Bloomberg — if, that is, Mr. Williams is to become the education mayor he professes he wants to be.

New York’s movers and shakers — indeed, even Albany — are aflutter with chatter about a very shrewd moveMr. Bloomberg made earlier thisweek. Having been granted control of New York’s public school system by the state legislature, Mr. Bloomberg fired two of his own appointees on the school panel after they refused to go along with one aspect of his schoolreformplan.Mr. Bloomberg wants to discourage social promotion and raise the bar on teachers as well, so he offered a reasonable proposal: Third-graders who test below basic on standardized tests should be retained in the third grade.

Well, not unexpectedly, the hissy fits flew hard and fast from the educational establishment — from the teachers union straight up to the editorial page of that venerable gray lady, the New York Times. In an editorial headlined “Politics and school promotion,” the NYT chastised Mr. Bloomberg for making both a political and an educational mistake, and then launched into status quo drivel: “What would really help,” the NYT editorialized, “would be smaller classes, skilled teachers and more intensive instruction.” The only things missing from that editorial were Teddy Kennedy and John Kerry’s bylines.

The New York Post and the New York Daily News, meanwhile, hit the proverbial nails on the head in their editorial comments. The Daily News editorialized: “Children who fail in third grade fall steadily further behind classmates as the years go by. By seventh grade, many are on their way to dropping out. Helping them to read a bit better in the beginning will at least give them a fighting chance to catch up.” Said the NY Post: “[H]is tenacity in demanding that kids be sufficiently prepared before moving on to fourth grade is the first glimmer of hope for city kids in maybe decades. Mayor Mike has now proved, beyond a doubt, that he is ready to use the powers he won in the reform to shake up the system.”

The mayor’s own comments gave perspective and texture to his motives. “In the olden days,” he said, “we had a [school] board that was answerable to nobody. And the legislature said it was just not working, and they gave the mayor control.”

Bloombergcritics,of course, brushed that message aside and instead tried to slay the messenger. The boss of the teachers union called the firings “a Monday night bloodbath,” and a mayoral wannabe dubbed Mr. Bloomberg’s actions “educational totalitarianism” and said they were “more suited to a ‘Sopranos’ episode.” Still another critic tried to draw a comparison to the Watergate scandal.

The stinging criticisms are unfair, but to Mr. Bloomberg’s credit, he was unbowed. “We’re going to help these children, or I’m going to die trying,” he said.

Such passionate rhetoric is missing from the “school reform” debate in the nation’s capital, where there is considerable movement and political posturing, but no one willing to take political risks or block the educational establishment from blocking the schoolhouse doors.

The reform-minded officials who occupy Washington’s City Hall, and there is but a handful of them, are gun shy about losing favor with the unions and other lobbies. School officials, meanwhile, refuse to yield to parents pushing for school choice for fear of losing control of those huges pots of money dedicated to public schools. So, they all occasionally stand before the cameras and point their fingers at the “system,” then retreat to their cushy offices and wait to see what happens. Without failure, the results of their action (inaction?) come to pass: “Children who fail in third grade fall steadily further behind classmates as the years go by. By seventh grade, many are on their way to dropping out.”

There is, though, a glimmer of hope in Washington. Like Mr. Bloomberg and New York state lawmakers, Washington’s mayor and the D.C. Council are considering cutting off the head of the snake. What a blessing for the city’s children if that comes to pass. If not, with publicly funded vouchers on the horizon for the coming school year, D.C. school officials will have fewer children to lure into the snake’s basket.

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