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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Mike Bloomberg's Plans For New York City Dont Always Work Out

Developers knocked down a shopping mall to make way for the grand City Point development: new apartments, a retail boulevard, a tower of commercial space. It has yet to materialize.

October 29, 2009
Engine of Bloomberg’s Plan Stalled

Over the past seven years, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has presided over a historic re-envisioning of New York City, one that loosened the reins on development across the boroughs and pushed more than 100 rezoning measures through a City Council that stamped them all into law.

His administration poured $16 billion into financing to foster commercial development and affordable housing and created quasi-local organizations to promote its initiatives and blunt neighborhood opposition.

And when the economy was burning white hot, as it did for several years, the mayor’s plan appeared to be bold and forward-looking, a prescient decision to remake portions of the city in order to lure companies, create jobs and increase economic vitality.

But that vitality is missing in some sections of New York today, where developments spurred in part by easy credit and in part by city initiatives are now stalled or in danger of collapse.

No question, the upheaval in the real estate world was primarily caused by a recession that Mr. Bloomberg had no role in starting and no power to stop. But Mr. Bloomberg has campaigned as a business visionary, better suited than most to lead in tough times, and any review of his term needs to confront his embrace of development as a stimulus tool.

Administration officials say their development initiatives created jobs and housing and revitalized moribund areas, like downtown Jamaica, Queens. Across the city, residential construction doubled under Mr. Bloomberg, to more than 30,000 units a year from 2004 through 2008, before slowing this year.

Construction spending has also doubled since he took office, reaching a high of $32 billion in 2008, according to the New York City Building Congress. The organization projects a 20 percent drop this year.

And if the skyline seems little changed despite the rezoning of some 8,400 blocks, the impact can be seen in old, outlying factory neighborhoods where new housing has risen, or in places like Flushing, Queens, and the Bronx, where signature new baseball stadiums were built.

But things have not gone according to plan in neighborhoods like Downtown Brooklyn, which was rezoned to foster development of new office towers to compete with New Jersey. None have gone up, and other projects, like City Point, a commercial, retail and apartment complex on Fulton Street, have stalled.

Daniel L. Doctoroff, who served as Mr. Bloomberg’s deputy mayor for economic development, said it was na├»ve to view the initiatives in the short term.

“It’s always tempting to sit there and say, ‘Here we are, we’re at the depth of a recession, and therefore, look at all this stuff, it didn’t make sense,’ ” he said. “That is the kind of thinking that has proven time and time again to be completely fallacious when you look at New York City history.”

Ron Shiffman, a former city planning commissioner, said a flaw in the mayor’s approach was its failure to do enough to reap public benefits from a real estate industry he had so readily fostered.

“He didn’t steer the boom,” Mr. Shiffman said. “He did not direct it in such a way that it benefited a more diverse set of populations in the city of New York, and more diverse income groups. It was basically developer-driven.”

Remapping the Future

The administration’s economic development policies started with a simple concept: New York must grow to compete with other cities.

Development became the means toward that end. Create new opportunities for developers, the wisdom held, and good things will happen for New York as a whole. Companies will rush to glorious new towers in reinvented neighborhoods, diversifying the city’s economy in the process.

Many mayors have favored the real estate industry, whose campaign contributions are often generous. Mr. Bloomberg lobbied forcefully for developers even though he did not need their money.

“I think a mistake that mayors have made,” said Seth W. Pinsky, president of the city’s Economic Development Corporation, “is that they’ve really only been willing to push projects where they would be around to cut the ribbon to open the project, and what this mayor has done is to take the long-term view.”

The first obstacle to remaking the city was the lack of available parcels for large-scale development. Rezoning became the solution, Mr. Doctoroff said. He had headed the committee that sought to bring the Olympics to the city and had become familiar with largely undeveloped tracts outside the Manhattan core, like sites along the Brooklyn waterfront.

“That sort of became the genesis for the effort,” he said in a 2007 interview.

The effort became the most extensive rezoning in modern city history. Sections in all the boroughs were rezoned to boost their development potential. Fallow factory sites were recast as places for housing or office towers as the city confronted the idea that it was no longer a manufacturing center. At the same time, the city reduced allowable densities in many neighborhoods that were troubled by illegal or unpopular development.

The City Council adopted every rezoning without major revision. So far, one-fifth of the city has been rezoned.

The development zeal was driven by a projection that the city’s population would grow by one million by 2030.

The city hired two consulting firms at a cost of more than $1.5 million to explore how the extra people could be accommodated. Drawing from that work, the administration created its vision for the future, known as PlaNYC, which was released by the mayor on Earth Day 2007 and included a host of environmental initiatives, like planting a million trees.

“Let’s face up to the fact that our population growth is putting our city on a collision course with the environment, which itself is growing more unstable and uncertain,” Mr. Bloomberg said at the time. “To accommodate nearly a million more New Yorkers, we are going to have to create hundreds of thousands of new homes.”

Seeding Progress

New York City has frequently used money to spur development. Under Mr. Bloomberg, the city drastically increased the low-cost financing it made available to developers, in part because Mr. Doctoroff, a former investment banker, recognized the unrealized potential in some of the city’s balance sheets.

Most of the infusion cost little or nothing to taxpayers. It came in the form of low-interest loans to developers, with money raised by issuing bonds.

The Housing Development Corporation, for example, a public benefit corporation intended to foster affordable-housing construction, has issued $8.1 billion in bonds to support development under Mr. Bloomberg, more than triple the total issued during the administration of Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.

Another quasi-public agency, the Industrial Development Agency, has authorized more than $6.1 billion in new debt since Mr. Bloomberg took office — about 50 percent more than during Mr. Giuliani’s tenure. The largest pieces of that package helped finance new baseball stadiums for the Yankees and the Mets.

The figures for both agencies do not include Liberty Bonds, which were part of the 9/11 federal aid package.

Legally, the city is not responsible for debt incurred by its public benefit corporations, even in the unlikely event that the underlying projects and other financial institutions involved in the bond transactions collapsed. But officials said the city could feel compelled to help bondholders so as to protect the ratings on its other bonds.

“For all practical purposes, if H.D.C. went belly-up, there would be some expectation of the city making good on it,” said Doug Turetsky, a spokesman for the city’s nonpartisan Independent Budget Office.

At times, urban planners have questioned whether the Bloomberg administration has gone overboard in offering incentives to developers. The Hudson Yards on the West Side of Manhattan have been looked at successively as a potential Olympic venue, a football stadium and now an urban village. And the city, through a specially created authority, has issued $2.1 billion in debt to pay for the extension of the No. 7 subway line to the area.

The debt is supposed to be paid from taxes generated by the new development, but if no development occurs, the city could be on the hook for $100 million a year in payments.

A 2007 report by the New York City Bar Association said the Hudson Yards financing scheme “bears an eerie resemblance to the development of Battery Park City,” which nearly defaulted and helped plunge the city into a fiscal crisis in the 1970s. And, it asked, if development of the West Side is inevitable, “why should costly artificial economic incentives be offered to encourage that development?”

Mr. Bloomberg’s Democratic challenger in next Tuesday’s election, Comptroller William C. Thompson, has said the mayor focuses too much on large developments that go to favored builders who receive wasteful subsidies.

When the new Yankee Stadium came up in Tuesday night’s debate, he said: “This is just another example of a giveaway, of the mayor’s giveaway to another one of his developer friends in the city,”

Bloomberg officials say that much of their lending was done to build or preserve 165,000 units of what the administration considers to be affordable housing, an ambitious plan for which the mayor has received many accolades. They point to vastly reinvented areas outside Manhattan’s wealthy core, like the Melrose section of the Bronx, where city financing underwrote new housing developments.

But some of the housing has been for families earning more than $100,000 a year, and some of the income limits expire after 15 years. The Housing Development Corporation has also provided hundreds of millions of dollars in financing that, in the view of advocates for moderately priced housing, subsidized market-rate apartments because the developers enjoyed outsize savings in exchange for a small number of lower-income units.

Marc Jahr, president of the corporation, said that nearly half of the 43,000 apartments it has financed through the mayor’s affordable housing program had been for people who earned 60 percent or less of the area’s median income, or about $46,000 a year for a family of four.

“We think that’s a good, balanced housing plan,” he said, “and one that’s important to the neighborhoods and important to the city to sustain over time.”

Some housing advocates say the gain in moderately priced housing units has been offset by the loss of 200,000 apartments that switched back to market rates under state rent-regulation laws that they say Mr. Bloomberg did not push Albany to change.

“Everyone will admit that New York City can’t build its way out of its affordable housing crisis,” said Mario Mazzoni, lead organizer at the Metropolitan Council on Housing, a tenants’ rights organization. “If you are talking about building affordable housing, the way they conceive of it is as a massive subsidy to developers.”

Grass Roots

Redevelopment can look easy on paper, but there are always neighborhood concerns, even in a place like Willets Point, a 62-acre industrial shanty town of body shops and scrap yards near the Mets’ stadium in Queens. The administration viewed it as an area ripe for economic development if the 225 existing businesses could be cleared.

But such ambitions had flummoxed city planners for decades. No less a builder than Robert Moses had been unable to make room in the area for the 1964 World’s Fair.

Mr. Doctoroff was determined to do better, through a local business group, the Flushing-Willets Point Local Development Corporation, which received half its money from the city. But about half the group’s money was spent doing something not allowed under state law: lobbying city officials. The group’s lobbying, has led to an investigation by the attorney general’s office.

That investigation has expanded into the activities of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, which the city helped create in 2006 to help push through development plans following a broad rezoning of the area.

The city awarded the group a $6 million three-year no-bid contract. The group raised another $1.1 million in private donations, tax records show. And Mr. Doctoroff installed a top aide, Joe Chan, to run it. The partnership has become a key voice for the development of Downtown Brooklyn, inserting itself, critics say, into the debate over a plan to build a Nets area and high-rises at the Atlantic Yards. It has spent some $200,000 on lobbying expenses. Councilman Lewis A. Fidler complained last year that the partnership was using public funds to promote Bloomberg’s congestion-pricing plan.

Citing the investigation, city officials declined to discuss the Brooklyn group’s lobbying, as did Mr. Chan.

A Dream Falls Short

For years, Downtown Brooklyn resembled the textbook definition of back-office space. Class B. Schleppy. No buzz.

Even after the MetroTech development began to emerge in the 1980s, and with it came major corporations like Chase and KeySpan, the core commercial district excited few people.

In 2004, sparked by a push from local business leaders, the city rezoned 22 blocks. The new zoning anticipated 4.5 million square feet of office and commercial space that might keep businesses from moving to New Jersey, as well as 1,000 new apartments. There were hopes for 18,500 new office jobs and 8,000 construction jobs.

Today, much of this future remains unrealized. There are no new office towers. Luxury apartment buildings went up, but many units remain unsold and retail space is unrented, victims of the downturn and a construction glut.

“It seems like in a lot of places, the attitude has been like a field of dreams: If you zone it, they will come,” said Robert Perris, district manager of Brooklyn Community Board 2, which includes the downtown area. “It’s been kind of a mixed bag here.”

Indeed, companies like Bear Stearns have disappeared. Others, like JPMorgan Chase & Company, have downsized their Brooklyn operations. New condo buildings are cutting prices. Several planned projects are stalled as empty lots. Across the city, officials say, the recession has contributed to the stopping of work at about 450 projects.

James Whelan, the former head of the Downtown Brooklyn Council, which created the rezoning plan, sees the new residential development, especially along Flatbush Avenue, which developers once ignored, as an early sign of success. “Is there a commercial office tower built as part of the Downtown Brooklyn plan as we sit here today?” Mr. Whelan said. “No. When is it going to be built? It’s not clear. But as history shows, development is a long-term issue in New York City.”

A similar predicament is evident in Greenpoint and Williamsburg, two old, industrial waterfront neighborhoods in Brooklyn. A 2005 rezoning set off speculation that sent land prices rising to Manhattan levels. Gleaming glass-and-steel structures went up. Now many of them are nearly empty. Other projects foundered on shaky financing.

Now the administration is working to rescue struggling projects. The long-stalled City Point development is to get $20 million in recovery bonds.

In July, when scores of other new condominiums were not selling, and developers risked default, Mr. Bloomberg and the Council stepped in to announce a $20 million pilot program to buy the empty units and use them as affordable housing.

“Private developments that sit vacant or unfinished could have a destabilizing effect on our neighborhoods, but we’re not about to let that happen,” said Mr. Bloomberg.

Actually, Mr. Bloomberg most likely fostered some of the real estate speculation with policies that invited development. But even those who say the mayor’s development record is mixed credit him for taking a long view.

“For good or bad, the rezonings will probably be his most significant development legacy,” said Jonathan Bowles, director of the Center for an Urban Future, an independent research group. “They’ve never got as much attention as the large-scale development projects he was pushing, like the Olympic stadium, but the rezonings are what will ultimately transform a large chunk of the city. Developers will be rebuilding on these for years to come.”

Charles V. Bagli and Jo Craven McGinty contributed reporting.

March 26, 2008
Ex-Official Cleared to Continue Work on Big City Projects

The city’s Conflicts of Interest Board cleared the way Tuesday for Daniel L. Doctoroff, who left City Hall for a private position two months ago, to remain involved in a range of city projects that were begun while he was deputy mayor for economic development.

In response to a request from the Bloomberg administration, the board gave its approval for Mr. Doctoroff to remain on the boards of the Hudson River Park Trust and the Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation, and to serve as an unpaid adviser on the proposed Moynihan Station and Queens West projects.

The board, whose five members are mayoral appointees, also approved Mr. Doctoroff’s participation in the mayor’s sweeping environmental initiatives collectively known as PlaNYC, which includes his congestion pricing plan.

The board’s decision underscores a reality that has often been noted in the city’s development community: Mr. Doctoroff may have left City Hall, but he remains a participant in — and has a big influence over — what is going to be built.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg made it clear that he would continue to rely on Mr. Doctoroff’s expertise on development issues when he announced in December that Mr. Doctoroff was stepping down from his city position to take over as president of Bloomberg L.P., the financial and media giant the mayor founded. Mr. Doctoroff’s last day in office was Jan. 11.

It is not unprecedented for former city officials to be involved with public projects, but in the case of Mr. Doctoroff, the city’s longest-serving deputy mayor for economic development, the list is so long and varied that city officials and even some who serve on boards with him have expressed confusion about his roles. In response, City Hall circulated a memo in January advising city employees how to interact with him.

For a year after leaving public service, former officials are strictly prohibited from appearing before any city agency within the branch of government where they served; the ban is even longer if the subject is one in which the official was directly involved. The prohibitions do not apply, however, if the official is appearing on behalf of the mayor or another government agency.

Some questions about Mr. Doctoroff’s future role remain unanswered.

The board’s 10-page opinion did not address his participation in development decisions about the West Side railyards, known as Hudson Yards, although the city had asked for a ruling on the matter.

John Gallagher, a spokesman for the mayor’s office, said the board did not address that issue after Mr. Doctoroff decided against seeking to remain chairman of the Hudson Yards Development Corporation, the public benefit corporation working on the project with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Rather than retain the mayorally appointed position, he decided to seek to stay on as an adviser. The development corporation has asked the conflicts board for a ruling on that as well, a decision that is pending, Mr. Gallagher said.

Mr. Doctoroff has been a key negotiator in the selection of a developer on the Hudson Yards project. Mr. Gallagher said that because Mr. Doctoroff served on the transportation authority’s selection panel as a private citizen, he did not need a waiver from the conflicts board. But he was appointed to that panel by the Hudson Yards Development Corporation when he was its chairman, and he held the chairmanship through his office as deputy mayor.

On Wednesday, the transportation authority is expected to grant development rights over the railyards, a 26-acre slice of Manhattan overlooking the Hudson River, to Tishman Speyer, one of Manhattan’s largest real estate operators.

Mr. Doctoroff met during the week of March 10 with the teams of developers competing for the billion-dollar project, according to members of the teams, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they did not want to offend Mr. Doctoroff.

Even after he left later on a business trip to Asia, Mr. Doctoroff remained in constant contact with the selection committee throughout the deliberations.

A spokeswoman for Bloomberg L.P. said Mr. Doctoroff was still in Asia on Tuesday and declined to make him available for comment. In an interview last month, however, Mr. Doctoroff dismissed the notion that there might be a conflict of interest between his continuing work for the city and his new role at Bloomberg.

“Certainly, if I felt it was going to create conflict that I thought was going to be harmful to the company, I wouldn’t do it, and I’d be the same way with the city,” he said. “If there was a conflict, I just wouldn’t do it.”

At the time of that Feb. 22 interview, Mr. Doctoroff also insisted that his involvement with the city had been limited since leaving office. He said he had spent just eight hours in meetings about city matters, including congestion pricing and Moynihan Station. That did not include the recent railyard negotiations.

“I care deeply about these projects, I care deeply about the city, despite the fact I don’t work there anymore,” Mr. Doctoroff said in the interview. “I have, in some cases, spent six years on some of these things, and so you know if I’m needed, I’m going to help.”

The opinion issued on Tuesday limits the role he can play in matters involving Vornado Realty, which owns the building housing the Bloomberg L.P. headquarters. The company is negotiating with Vornado for additional space.

The board said that given Mr. Doctoroff’s knowledge, it was best for the city for Mr. Doctoroff to continue his involvement with the Moynihan Station plans. Vornado is a developer of the station project and was one of the companies vying to develop the railyards with whom Mr. Doctoroff met earlier this month. On March 12, Mr. Doctoroff met with the Vornado chairman, Steven Roth, and the M.T.A. selection panel, and last Friday with David Greenbaum, a top Vornado executive.

The opinion advises Mr. Doctoroff to recuse himself from any discussions between Bloomberg L.P. and Vornado for one year from the date of the conclusion of the Moynihan Station negotiations, and from all dealings involving Vornado or Bloomberg L.P. in any of the other projects addressed in the ruling.

Gene Russianoff, a senior lawyer for the New York Public Interest Research Group, said he agreed with much of the ruling but was troubled by the absence of the railyards and the station exception.

“I can see recusing himself from landlord-tenant matters with Vornado, but is Vornado going to say, ‘O.K., we’re going to jack up the rent when we’re trying to make some kind of deal over Moynihan,’ ” Mr. Russianoff said.

Charles V. Bagli contributed reporting.

Holding Mayor Bloomberg Accountable by Brian D'Agostino, PH.D

Brian D'Agostino is a social scientist, author, and educator. He was a New York City public school teacher for eleven years and served as a United Federation of Teachers chapter leader. Brian is currently an independent statistical and policy analyst; visit him at Brian D'Agostino, PH.D

Michael Bloomberg claims to have revolutionized and brought accountability to a vast, dysfunctional public school system. The Obama administration believes him, and promotes his education reforms as a model for the country. But the billionaire mayor’s Democratic challenger Bill Thompson and other critics with insider knowledge are contesting these claims. Thompson was president of the city’s Board of Education the six years before Bloomberg was first elected in 2001, and served as city Comptroller for the last eight.

Bloomberg’s campaign has produced three glossy mailings that favorably compare his eight years of school reform with Thompson’s record as Board president. The mayor claims that he “eliminated wasteful bureaucracy that was doing nothing to educate our kids” and attacks Thompson for supporting “a plan to create more bureaucracy in the schools,” citing several New York Times articles from December 1996. But the plan described in these articles simply gave the chancellor some hiring and firing authority over 32 district superintendents, who had previously reported solely to their local school boards. Bloomberg knows very well this was a necessary corrective for local corruption and patronage politics. Referring to the plan, the Times’ editors wrote: “For the first time in years, New York City can have real hope about its public school system.”

While Thompson helped lay this foundation for further improvement, what Bloomberg added to it was, well, bureaucracy. The 2002 legislation establishing mayoral control had retained the local school districts and simply gave the mayor authority to hire the chancellor and a majority of the Board of Education. Not content to share power with local communities, as required under the legislation, Bloomberg and his chancellor Joel Klein dismantled the 32 district offices and created a centralized bureaucracy with ten regional superintendents, about a hundred “local instructional supervisors” under them, and an army of math and literacy “coaches” to enforce the new top-down instructional mandates in all the schools.

The “wasteful bureaucracy” that Bloomberg claimed to have eliminated was in the 32 district offices, which had provided administrative services to schools and gave parents and local communities access to power when problems could not be solved at the school level. The services for the most part were not provided by the new bureaucracy, and were either added to the workload of school staff or contracted out to private vendors paid out of school budgets. Meanwhile, the new “parent coordinator” in each school was no substitute for being able to voice concerns to a local school superintendent having authority over principals and curriculum.

And what happened to the $100 million saved from dismantling the “bureaucracy” in the districts? According to The New York Times (5/9/03), it was used to pay for a new bureaucracy, including the coaches and parent coordinators who reported up the chain of command to City Hall. Klein and Bloomberg say the money was “put into the classroom,” but it was not used to reduce class sizes or purchase needed materials; the role of the coaches and parent coordinators was to extend mayoral power into the schools.

Measuring School Performance

Bloomberg, of course, presents all of this as a bold and needed makeover of a system that was failing to deliver quality instruction. His ads claim that he holds students, teachers and principals accountable for progress, while Bill Thompson was, according to the New York Observer, “asleep on the job” as president of the Board of Ed. But the Observer comment referred to a lapse by Thompson in monitoring the school construction budget. That failure, and Bloomberg’s separate allegation that his rival “wasted over $4 billion in taxpayer money,” were almost certainly exceeded by the mayor’s billions of dollars in misallocated school funds and no-bid contracts.

As for elementary and middle school performance, Bloomberg claims that math and reading scores went up on his watch (the latter by 27.5 percentage points) while Thompson allegedly saw a 2.2 point drop in reading scores, and no improvement in math. These figures were cherry picked for purposes of the Bloomberg campaign, taken out of context, and calculated using misleading or incorrect assumptions.

By contrast, James F. Brennan, senior member of the New York State Assembly Education Committee, made an impartial and comprehensive comparison of school performance before and after the mayor’s reforms (in NYC Schools Under Bloomberg and Klein, 2009). Brennan examined New York City math and reading scores, both fourth and eighth grade, from 1998 (the first year New York State collected the data) through 2008. He found that New York City fourth graders showed more improvement on these state tests during the period under Thompson, while the city’s eighth graders showed more improvement under Bloomberg. But that is not the whole story.

It is well known that the state tests have been subject to grade inflation. A much more reliable measure, according to experts, is the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Brennan notes that the NAEP results confirm the gains that occurred under Thompson, but not those under Bloomberg. In fact, out of ten urban districts, New York’s eighth graders dropped from second place to sixth on the NAEP reading tests during the first four years of Bloomberg’s reforms.

According to education expert Diane Ravitch, Klein should have concluded from the NAEP results that the curriculum he imposed on the entire city wasn’t working and that he needed to reduce class sizes. But Klein’s response was to disregard the data, and instead make the discredited state tests the centerpiece of his new accountability system for students, teachers, and schools. When scores on these tests spiked in 2009, Klein awarded “A” and “B” grades to 97% of the city’s elementary and middle schools. As in the past, the state’s NAEP scores released less than six weeks later shattered these illusions.

And what about the high schools? In July 2009, a Comptroller Office’s report called into question the improved graduation rate cited by Bloomberg. For 10% of student records audited, schools failed to properly document completion of all graduation requirements. In addition, schools routinely awarded students redundant credits for passing the same course more than once and were often lax in their procedures for reversing failing course grades. In comments on these findings, Comptroller Thompson said, “The mayor’s managerial style has created an incentive for schools to graduate students whether or not they have met the necessary requirements,” and he called Bloomberg’s Education Department “the Enron of American Education.”

Thompson’s report may have caused the Bloomberg campaign to omit the city’s graduation rate and instead to provide in their mailings only the dropout rate, which they claim declined by 6.5 percentage points between the classes of 2006 and 2007, while increasing 4 points under Thompson. But the Comptroller’s audit also calls into question Bloomberg’s official dropout rate; at least 6% of students sampled should have been counted as dropouts in the class of 2007 and were not.

Nor is it clear what the increased dropout rate under Thompson really means. The Daily News (9/19/09) said it reflected the introduction of more rigorous graduation policies during the same time period. This is ironic in light of the mayor’s claim that Thompson “did nothing to end social promotion.”

Finally, the mayor’s mailings say school crime went down 44% under his watch while “School Violence Soared” under Thompson. But neither of the sources cited—the New York Post (6/19/09) on Bloomberg’s record and the Daily News (9/18/95) on Thompson’s—support these claims. I searched the entire Post issue and could not find a single reference to school crime. And the News editorial on school violence appeared ten months before Thompson became president of the Board of Education. It is interesting that both these bloopers pertain to the Bloomberg campaign’s most emotionally charged school issue: public safety. More on that later.

School Reform: Image and Reality

The unsubstantiated, misleading, or false claims in these mailings are part of a larger pattern. The mayor and his chancellor preside over a formidable propaganda machine. Since taking office, Joel Klein has at least quadrupled his public relations staff, which has access to the DOE’s vast information resources. He also chairs the Fund for Public Schools, a non-profit group that has spent millions on subway, bus, radio, and TV ads promoting his record. Supportive media elites include Daily News publisher Mort Zuckerman—a vice chair of the Fund—and New York Post publisher Rupert Murdoch, whose wife Wendi serves on its board. Klein’s Tweed Courthouse headquarters produces a continuous flow of supposedly objective information that dominates mainstream media and opinion, from the streets of New York to White House policymakers.

Tweed Courthouse

But a growing body of literature challenges the Bloomberg/Klein brand and its image of New York City as the world’s epicenter of successful school reform. One book of eye-opening articles is NYC Schools Under Bloomberg and Klein: What Parents, Teachers, and Policymakers Need to Know (2009), available as a free download from Lulu Press. The racial achievement gap, policing of the schools, class size, and Bloomberg’s initiatives regarding small schools and accountability are just few of the chapters.

In July 2008, addressing the U.S. House Committee on Education and Labor, Bloomberg and Klein reported dramatic progress in closing the racial achievement gap. The Jennings and Pallas article in NYC Schools shows that these claims, based on proficiency data, are misleading. A proficiency rate only measures the percentage of students who meet an arbitrary “cut score.” This percentage is unaffected by the performance of students who already exceed the score or fail to meet it. Using proficiency rates to measure performance gives teachers an incentive to work with students just below the cut score at the expense of the majority. Proficiency rates will then improve, even if overall school performance deteriorates.

Based on proficiency rates, Bloomberg and Klein made the misleading claim that they decreased the racial achievement gap in math and reading scores for 4th and 8th graders, including a 50% gap reduction in 8th grade reading scores. But average scale scores, which measure the performance of all students, show that the gap actually widened (by as much as 22%) in all categories except 8th grade reading. There the gap reduction was 6%, not 50% as advertised. And that was little cause for celebration, since the city’s 8th graders as a whole lost ground on the more rigorous NAEP reading test. Black and Hispanic students simply lost less ground than their white and Asian classmates.

The same administration that produced these outcomes put policies into place that continue to adversely affect minority students. Civil rights activist and NAACP official Hazel Dukes has an article in NYC Schools that addresses some of these policies. One of them involved admissions criteria for gifted and talented programs. Research has shown that multiple criteria provide a better guide to future student performance than test scores alone. Disregarding this research, the chancellor required local school districts to discontinue multiple criteria, beginning in October 2007, and to exclusively use high stakes tests with uniform cut scores. Experts had warned Klein to no avail that this policy would particularly hurt minority applicants.

As predicted, in Fall 2008, there was a sharp decline in black and Hispanic admissions—with the percentage of black students admitted to gifted and talented programs falling from 31% to 13%. Five predominantly minority school districts lost their programs altogether. Klein pursued similar policies with similar results at the high school level, requiring Staten Island Technical High School and smaller, newer magnet schools to adopt high stakes testing as their sole admissions criterion. He also presided over a 26% decrease in enrollment between 2006 and 2008 in after school and Saturday programs to help high-needs students wanting to apply to magnet schools.

With Black and Hispanic students losing academic ground, conditions in predominantly minority schools are deteriorating. Failing to proactively address the needs of students, the administration relies instead on a heavy police presence to maintain public safety. Although student enrollment has declined under Bloomberg, the number of security officers—employees of the NYPD—increased to 5,200, giving the school system the nation’s 5th largest police force. More police are deployed for New York City’s one million students than for the entire 2.2 million population of Houston.

An article by civil liberties advocate Udi Offer describes the result: the criminalizing of children, especially minorities and those with special needs. In separate incidents in 2007, two students were arrested and handcuffed, one of them a 13 year old for writing on a desk. The next year, a five year old was handcuffed and taken to a psychiatric ward for throwing a tantrum. Police frequently undermine principals in matters of discipline, in one case even arresting a principal who tried to prevent one of his students from being hauled off in handcuffs. Students, parents, and community leaders have repeatedly approached the administration with alternative approaches to school safety, but the mayor, according to Offer, refuses to participate in a dialogue.

Finally, while committed to policies that have failed low income and minority communities, Bloomberg and Klein neglected one of the most effective policies known to improve academic performance—reducing class size. In 1999, the city began to receive $90 million per year from New York State, and another $90 million in federal funds to reduce class sizes. As Leonie Haimson noted in NYC Schools, this produced significant improvement as long as the funds were actually used to reduce class size. In 2006, however, the city decreased its own funding for smaller class sizes, canceling the effects of these state and federal funds. The next year, New York received an additional $400 million from the state to reduce class size. The city did not allocate the money for that purpose, however, and in September 2008 class sizes actually increased.

Admitting Failure

Although unreported in the mainstream media, the mayor and chancellor have in effect admitted the failure of their education policies. Their current long term strategy is to abandon the public school system they are supposed to be managing in favor of a network of privatized charter schools. Not coincidentally, most of these new schools are not unionized.

The chancellor is reallocating scarce resources and classroom space in support of this new policy, often creating bitter conflicts between public and charter schools housed in the same building. The city’s 78 charter schools enroll a smaller proportion of English language learners and special needs students than their public counterparts, and are permitted in practice to expel low achieving students. All these hard-to-teach students are then dumped into the public schools, which, unlike the charters, have larger class sizes and are not permitted to cap their enrollments. The administration then compares the public schools unfavorably to the charters, even though research shows mixed results—notwithstanding all the advantages conferred on the charters. Klein envisions these publicly funded yet privately managed entities as the future of “public” education. See Grassroots Education Movement and Sarah Knopp.

The purported advantages of charters—human scale, better instruction, autonomous governance—had already existed in some public schools since the 1970s, a little known fact discussed in the article by educator Deborah Meier. Compared to today’s charters, however, these experiments had a more public and democratic nature. They were governed by the faculty, with the support of principals and input from parents and students. Operating under the same resource constraints and union as other public schools, and drawing from the same student population, they tailored instruction to the learning needs of students, not the requirements of standardized tests.

At first, Klein tried to replicate this success. While lauding small school innovation, however, he undermined it by assessing performance in conventional ways. Nor could quality, autonomous schools be mass produced from his Tweed headquarters. Notwithstanding $100 million in supplemental funding from Bill Gates, the administration’s program foundered, and Gates stopped supporting it in 2008. By then, charter schools had emerged as Bloomberg’s and Klein’s new paradigm.

Along with this move to privatization, the administration’s admission of failure was its quiet demolition in 2006 of the very bureaucracy it had created with so much fanfare only three years earlier. The only thing more remarkable than this reversal was its failure to elicit critical commentary and analysis in the mainstream media; Bloomberg and Klein were permitted to declare victory and move on. Having brought “accountability” to the system, they said, the “reforms” were now entering a new phase.

Instead of being told what and how to teach through a bureaucratic chain of command, teachers are now subjected to management-by-numbers. Their performance is measured using “value added assessment,” where student scores on standardized tests at the end of the school year are compared with their scores at the beginning—the difference being attributable to the teacher. With merit pay or job loss at stake, teachers and principals now have test preparation as their primary task. That is driving authentic educators to look elsewhere for work.

Needless to say, this is no way to get kids excited about school, especially those who are disadvantaged and already alienated from mainstream institutions. In fact, it eradicates the love of learning that many students bring to the table. Test preparation cannot cultivate the critical thinking skills and independent judgment needed to be a responsible citizen, an intelligent user of the internet, or even a savvy consumer. Nor can it cultivate the creativity and capacity for innovation that the best 21st century jobs require.

This is the kind of school system that corporate elites, politicians, and lawyers create when they don’t care to collaborate with educators and want an easily quantified and user friendly tool for controlling them. It is a system for creating a large supply of minimally-skilled, diligent and disciplined service workers who will follow instructions without asking questions. And it trains the populace in mindless conformity, making the entire country susceptible to authoritarian rule.

Joyce Purnick’s biography of Michael Bloomberg came out this year. She wrote about a man intoxicated with power—more than most leaders—and who still can’t get enough. To be sure, he also cares about the city’s people, and wants to serve them well. But he imagines he is vastly smarter and more competent than all the city’s teachers, principals, and other public servants, and can forge a better government by concentrating power in City Hall. He has convinced millions, both inside and outside the city, that this is so. But Bloomberg’s record running the New York City public school system shatters this illusion. Isn’t it time for this mayor—whose mantra is accountability—to be finally held accountable for his own performance?

Brian D'Agostino
New York, NY
October 22, 2009

link to Brian's website