How is Cathie Black qualified?

January 25, 2011

THERE IS something "prunty" about the new chancellor of schools in New York. ( defines prunty as "Needing a shower, feeling 'funky', not smelling good.")

Cathie Black has been handpicked by Mayor Michael Bloomberg to be the new overlord of the city's 1 million students and thousands of teachers. Black has never attended a public school. She has neither a master's degree, nor a bachelor's, in the field of education.

What makes Black qualified to be chancellor? Let's glance at her resume: a member of the Council on Foreign Relations; on the board of directors at IBM and Coca-Cola. Her previous job? President of Hearst Magazines, publishers of Cosmo, Town & Country and O--the latter a magazine that solely exists to put Oprah Winfrey on its cover.

She is also author of Basic Black, a self-help book for middle managers in need of career inspiration, written in fourth-grade English. According to the mayor, overcrowded classes and upcoming budget cuts call for an experienced business manager. Teachers, principals and parents need to be managed. Students definitely need to be managed, if they are going to be the half-educated automatons the job market demands they become.

At a recent meeting with parents in Tribeca, Mrs. Black joked that her solution to overcrowded schools was "birth control." As if, in a frenzy of copulation, the city's working-class population had conspired against her to pump unwanted children into the school system. Smell a bit prunty?

The hundreds of teachers, students and parents who packed into the auditorium of the Brooklyn Technical High School on January 19 to meet the new chancellor think so. A large contingent of the unruly crowd at the "Panel for Educational Policy" (PEP) meeting was from Jamaica High School in Queens. Black and Bloomberg have put this school, along with 25 others, on the chopping block.

Jamaica High wasn't one of the schools Black visited during her crash course on public education. "We're not failing you, you're failing us," a Jamaica High teacher scolded Black and the underlings who surrounded her on the panel.

If there were people in favor of the school closings, which will bring the total during the Bloomberg administration to 116, they didn't show up at Brooklyn Tech. A member of the Ad Hoc Committee to Stop School Closings and Charter Takeovers hit the nail on the head, telling the panel, "Bloomberg manages the schools with a business model. If schools aren't making grades they are shut down. And students have to play a lottery to get into [the charters] that replace them. There's money for charters, stadiums and real estate...but not money for schools."

IT IS unlikely the crowd had any effect on the PEP. For their part, they might as well have been encased in glass. Their mics were turned low and their voices traveled from the stage as if behind a muffled partition.

At the beginning of the meeting, Black recited some jargon about "opportunities for the 21st century" while the crowd chanted "How do you spell racist? D-O-E." For the rest of the meeting, Black looked bored and distracted. She occasionally caressed the black pearls around her neck as a deluge of people, who for years, day in and day out, have weaved through the halls of New York's public schools, took to the microphone and let her and her PEP entourage have it.

At one point, 20 or so teachers, red capes on their backs bearing the insignia "RR" (for "real reformers"), stood up and began singing, "This little school of mine, ain't going to let it close." The meeting chairman, who sounded like a judge in a made-for-TV movie, demanded "silence." The audience instead joined in and provided a rhythm section for the singing teachers. Either they didn't hear or wouldn't heed his command.

By this point, his recriminations only added fodder to the ruckus atmosphere. The police, dispersed around the room, did nothing. (Perhaps if their PE classes had been better funded, they would have.) Black took it all in with boardroom-sedated eyes; her side of the room was the dull spectacle of bureaucratic decay.

Facing a major budget crisis, the city is attempting to slash pensions, fire teachers and replace schools that under-perform in rigorous and meaningless tests with elite schools. Rather than face factors like poverty, class size and school funding, the Department of Education has opted to pay consultants bundles to design tests and analyze data.

John Jay High School in Park Slope is full of students from all over Brooklyn who attend John Jay because schools in their neighborhoods have been shut down. Despite drowning in boos and catcalls, the PEP voted 10-0 to squeeze a "selective school," where the city will spend $2,000-3,000 more per student, into John Jay.

At the end of their song, the red-caped teachers proliferated the air with condoms--making a point about Black's "priorities." So far, the birth control devices have had no effect on New York's education system. But teachers, students and parents who have been organizing on a grassroots level are beginning to make an impact. They are preparing for a citywide rally on January 27 to support public education in the face of corporate slash-and-burn techniques.

The United Federation of Teachers has agreed to endorse the rally, which is quite an accomplishment given the lethargic union's historical reluctance to have anything to do with mobilizing on their membership's behalf.

New York's school system is in desperate need of reform. Students sometimes have to commute through the boroughs for hours and arrive in classrooms hungry. There is a shortage of paper, pencils and books. Teachers, demonized in the media as pension-greedy loafers, live in fear of being terminated and complain of being forced to do little other than preparing students to take standardized tests.

Real reform will come from the families and teachers who are the heart of New York's schools and not from business managers.
Peter Rugh, from the Internet

Click here for a full list of demands from the Grass Roots Education Movement.

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