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The Legacy of Joel Klein: Part Three

January 14, 2011

by Norm Fruchter

Public Participation

“I probably could have spent more time, or should have spent more time really engaging people so they really understand the things that drive me.” (Joel Klein, interview with New York Times reporter Javier Hernandez, December 24, 2010.)

In the many interviews he’s conducted since he announced his resignation, Joel Klein has given himself high marks for his eight-year reign as the city’s Schools Chancellor.  One of the few performance areas Klein has criticized is his ability to effectively communicate with the city’s public schooling’s constituencies.   But as the above quote indicates, Klein seems to think communication is the same as one-way transmission, and that efforts at persuasion are the same as dialogue.   Klein and his patron, Mayor Bloomberg, seemed so committed to their school reform ideology that they communicated primarily through policy announcements, and consistently dismissed and ridiculed opposing voices and constituencies.

Klein and Bloomberg took office convinced that traditional educators, community constituencies, and the teachers union were responsible for the poor performance of the city’s schools.  Thus they dismissed experienced administrators as failures and replaced them with business school graduates and consultants with no school or system experience.  They ridiculed community constituencies with years of involvement in schooling policy and practice as special interests or as contributors to educational failure. And they defined the teachers union as a protective organization for ineffective practitioners.  As Klein wrote in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece on December 4, 2010:

“The people with the loudest and best-funded voices are committed to maintaining a status quo that protects their needs even if it doesn’t work for children. They want to keep their jobs by preserving a guaranteed customer base (a fixed number of students) regardless of performance.”

Acting on these views, Klein and Bloomberg defined genuine communication with community and practitioner constituencies as pointless, and chose to marginalize rather than engage them.

Klein and Bloomberg’s core conviction, on taking office, was that community and practitioner participation in educational decision-making had ruined the city’s school system. This was a simplistic but defensible proposition, since achievement results were dismal in most of the city’s community school districts, which had been run by elected boards. But Klein’s solution was corporate-style control rather than more effective democratic participation.   Both leaders constantly insisted that effective corporations weren’t run by consultation or collaborative decision-making, but by concentrating authority and accountability in an effective executive.  The conclusion – what’s good for corporations is good for the school system – followed, as did the assumption that preparing young people to be critical thinkers and effective citizens was no different than producing profits for shareholders and bonuses for executives.

The Klein/Bloomberg administration defined the elected community school boards as unnecessary and dysfunctional structures that muddied the management tasks of running a school system. Therefore much of the communication that parents and community had taken for granted as part of the fabric of democratic governance, such as monthly meetings to discuss educational policy decisions, was dismissed by Klein and Bloomberg as a nuisance.  Communication under Klein became transmission – helping constituencies better understand the administration’s school reform ideology – and public participation in policy-setting became non-existent.

Given these assumptions, distrust, polarization, and endemic conflict – the hallmarks of the Klein regime – were inevitable.  Those constituencies committed to a public role in public schooling consistently opposed the regime’s efforts to muzzle them, and Klein and Bloomberg consistently attacked the critics as troublemakers and special interests. Several meetings of the Panel on Education Policy became so contentious that they had to be cancelled, and Klein was berated at many public meetings.

Running school systems as corporations not only collapses democratic participation. It also encourages a bottom line of reductive goals, such as test score gains, that often fatally compromise schooling’s ultimate goal — building the critical capacities of our youth.  Public participation is not simply democratic process, but an avenue through which current citizens help to shape the education of future citizens.  That reduction of citizen participation is Klein’s most critical policy act.  We will discover, across the next few years, whether the current Chancellor will continue Klein’s denial of citizen voice and participation in the city’s public schooling.

Norm Fruchter is a senior policy analyst at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform

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