Leonie Haimson on mayoral control, inflated test scores, class size and criticism of Randi Weingarten on mayoral control:
I find it very disappointing. I don’t think she’s looking out for the real interests of the teachers, who overwhelmingly in surveys have expressed their dissatisfaction with Joel Klein and the current system. They are as concerned as parents with overcrowding, excessive class sizes and the fact that our schools are being turned into test-prep factories. This is really diminishing their ability to do their job effectively, and they have expressed that in many ways, in many forums.
Back and Forth: Leonie Haimson
June 8th, 2009
Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters, has more than a few things to say about mayoral control of schools. In fact, she and a dozen other critics of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s school governance system have just compiled their grievances into a new book, entitled NYC Schools Under Bloomberg and Klein: What Parents, Teachers, and Policymakers Need to Know, just in time for the looming reauthorization vote in the Legislature. She sat down with City Hall to discuss her distrust of test score data released by the Department of Education (DOE), her frustration with overcrowding and her opinion of the billionaire boys club pushing reauthorization.
What follows is an edited transcript.
City Hall: Hypothetically, if mayoral control is reauthorized and Mayor Bloomberg and Joel Klein retain of control over the system, what is the next step for you?
Leonie Haimson: It depends on what you mean by mayoral control. There’s a huge range of proposals out there. And even ours, you might say that the mayor would retain a good deal of control over the system. When we met with [Assembly Speaker] Shelly Silver, he said that the mayor’s always had control. And to some extent that’s true, because the mayor’s always been able to control the budget and had tremendous influence over the board of education in terms of persuasion and politics.
So there’s so many different varieties and options out there and different degrees of what people are calling mayoral control, I really think it’s not that simple even to define what it means.
But assuming that the system is not significantly changed to give more voice to parents, the way we want there to be more voice to parents and more checks and balances at every level of the system, I think we’re looking at irreversible and damaging changes to our public school system in the years to come. I really believe that much of what the mayor and the chancellor are doing has the effect of undermining the whole notion of neighborhood public schools and their connection to communities. So, I see real dangers out there—unless the system is significantly reformed—that we are going to not even recognize what our public school system looks like in the future.
CH: And yet they point to increasing test scores: we saw math scores have increased significantly, as proof that their experiment is working …
LH: I can tell you that nobody who’s looked at the state test scores believes them anymore. Even the [Board of] Regents don’t believe them. [Chancellor] Merryl Tisch was very skeptical; there are other Regents that will be even more skeptical if you talk to them because you don’t see increases like that unless the tests have gotten significantly easier over the years. I can tell you that there’s just no chance that those state test scores would ever be replicated by any independent assessment. And we know that in the past the big jumps in state test scores have not been replicated in the national assessments, called the NAEP. And we’ve just come out with a book about the Bloomberg/Klein record. We understand that there’s a terrific state test score inflation going on. And every independent assessment that’s been done has looked at these state tests and said they cannot be valid, they just cannot be valid. You don’t see increases like that in one or two years. And you know, you talk to Bob Tobias, who used to be head of testing for DOE, you talk to almost anybody, it doesn’t make any sense.
CH: Is there something that state policymakers can do in the reauthorization of mayoral control that would go toward addressing the class size issue for you?
LH: Well, already the state passed a law saying that New York City had to reduce class sizes, and what’s happened is class sizes instead have gone up. So, we’ve made it very clear to state legislators that New York City not only is not complying with the law—has no intention of complying with the law in this regard. And they should take that very seriously. And when we testified before the State Senate and Suzi Oppenheimer, who’s the chair of the Senate Education Committee, she kept on saying things like, “What makes them think they don’t have to comply with the law?” you know, and [Assembly Education Chair] Cathy Nolan asked them that as well during the Assembly hearing. So they have basically thumbed their nose at the state as it is, and Joel Klein has already announced that class sizes will go up further next year, and that if he had his way he would shrink the teaching force by 30 percent. So, I think they’ve made their intentions very clear. If we see the current system renewed, we will have to take some kind of action to see that state law is complied with. What that action is at this point I don’t know. We are going to get a new commissioner soon—hopefully he’ll be a little bit more serious about the law than this current commissioner is.
To tell you the truth, I don’t know what the next step is. I’m so focused on trying to win at least a partial battle by the end of June. I’m sure after this whole thing is over we will go back and regroup and try to figure out what the next steps are. But we’re also trying to fight a battle over the capital plan, which is also inadequate to meet the needs of New York City students. It’s only providing about one-third of the seats necessary to eliminate overcrowding and reduce class size to mandated state levels. And we’re seeing increased overcrowding, we’re seeing hundreds of kids on waiting lists for kindergarten and we’re seeing increased class sizes—and this capital plan will not deal with any of that, especially given the enrollment growth that’s expected throughout the city in the coming years.
CH: What do you make of UFT President Randi Weingarten’s change of heart about mayoral control?
LH: I find it very disappointing. I don’t think she’s looking out for the real interests of the teachers, who overwhelmingly in surveys have expressed their dissatisfaction with Joel Klein and the current system. They are as concerned as parents with overcrowding, excessive class sizes and the fact that our schools are being turned into test-prep factories. This is really diminishing their ability to do their job effectively, and they have expressed that in many ways, in many forums.
CH: What are you not seeing in the press coverage of mayoral control that you wish was being covered more?
LH: There is a critique out there that I think the reporters themselves know very well, that they understand that these test results are inflated, they understand that the picture put out by this administration is often very skewed and inaccurate, and to some degree they’re not allowed to report on that to the degree that they’re able to. You talk to reporters off the record, they don’t believe this stuff. It’s similar to the legislators and it’s similar to a lot of people in the city. If you look at the City Limits article that was published yesterday, a very critical article on mayoral control and this administration, and yet the number of people who wouldn’t talk on the record because of fear of repercussions—there was so many that they actually had to put a little appendix on the end of the article to explain that.
So I think everybody knows that the mayor is using his personal money and his city money and his power in every single way, either to get people to speak out on his behalf—when it comes to something like Learn NY, the Fund for Public Schools, the Education Equality Project and all the rest—or simply to keep their mouths shut, one or the other.
It’s not just top down. I hate to exaggerate, but it really is, you know, sometimes when you talk to people, it’s as though they’re afraid, you know, it’s almost as though we’re living in a Stalinist Russia or something. I mean it isn’t that way, because you know obviously he can’t put us in prison or I wouldn’t be speaking out if that were true.
ABOVE: photo by Andrew Schwartz