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The Buck Stops Elsewhere

I grew up in Long Island, and I’ll never forget the construction of a local park, named for a spectacularly corrupt local politician. For years, we rode our bicycles past the park, watched piles of dirt move from one side to the other, and nothing of consequence happened. As long as they kept shuffling back and forth, it gave the appearance of progress. When I hear talk of “reform” from Tweed, I always think of those ever-shifting dirt piles.

For example, snow is falling, and that can only mean it’s school-closing time again in New York City. According to Tweed, these schools are failing and must be replaced ASAP. It’s not their fault the schools are failing, because nothing is their fault, and anyway, it’s not their job to fix schools.  What is their job? Nobody really knows. And anyway, why should they bother fixing schools when they can simply rename them, fill them with different kids, and pretend the old ones never existed?

If schools they started specifically to replace closed schools don’t pass muster, that’s not their fault either. The folks at Tweed are ready and willing to close the schools they opened, and take no responsibility whatsoever. The important thing is they’re going to open even newer ones, and whether they end up closing is not their problem. It isn’t Tweed’s fault, it isn’t Chancellor Klein’s fault and it isn’t Mayor Bloomberg’s fault either. Here in New York City, that’s called “accountability.”

Chancellor Klein defends his decision to close Queens schools, saying there will be new ones. Yet even if you rely on a highly enthusiastic article about new Queens construction, you can only conclude the city’s plans are woefully inadequate. For example, it mentions a $71-million project that will provide 150 seats. But it’s clearly not going to make the slightest dent in the 33,000 seats needed for Queens high schools.

This same article suggests another $181 million will be spent, but gives no clue as to how many seats it will buy. Given the apparent cost per pupil, it’s highly doubtful Queens will see more than 500 seats total. There’s also a Catholic school in there bound for conversion, but I’m going to wildly speculate it will accommodate far fewer than the 32,000-plus we’re looking for. And here’s the kicker — not all the newly planned seats are for high schools anyway.

Tweed lucks out when articles don’t mention how many seats will be created, let alone how many are needed. It’s unlikely readers who rely on such reporting will have any idea how much the already unconscionable overcrowding will remain unaddressed.

In fact, it’s entirely possible, under the new plans, that overcrowding will be exacerbated. For example, Chancellor Klein plans to close Jamaica High School. Yet he doesn’t plan to devote the building entirely to high school students, opting to admit kids as young as sixth grade. Thus, there will be actually be fewer high school seats in a high school building under his proposed scenario.

Those of us who work with teenagers are acutely aware when change is needed. For example, if Tommy Hilfiger is deemed not as cool as Abercrombie and Fitch, your t-shirt needs to be replaced immediately. Teenagers need change, and passing trends must be respected. As the parent of a teenager, in charge of buying whatever new cool thing has suddenly become absolutely necessary, I understand exactly how this works. The DOE, though, not only buys into teenage-style trends, but seems willing to replace the t-shirt with a pair of socks, thereby making things even worse.

The main problem for which Tweed bears no responsibility is its chronic and utter unwillingness to repair, let alone acknowledge, what may be broken. On December 16, like a mantra, the DOE’s Debra Kurshan repeated that funding follows kids, that what schools they attended wouldn’t affect that, and that all kids got exactly the same resources in Mayor Bloomberg’s New York. You’d think that it made no difference whatsoever where kids went to school, and wonder why, therefore, any school anywhere would be closed for any reason. Nonetheless, they were closing this one. That Jamaica would be a neighborhood without a neighborhood school was of no consequence whatsoever, nor did it merit lip service from Ms. Kurshan.

Despite the claims about equal funding, speaker after speaker got up and compared the conditions in Jamaica to those at Queens Collegiate, the small school located in the same building. Why do they, with 163 students, have 20 Smartboards, while Jamaica, with 10 times that number, has only two? Why does Jamaica pay 25% more for teachers? Why haven’t Jamaica kids got regular teachers three months into the school year?

The big question, of course, repeated in various manifestations was this: Why couldn’t they fix Jamaica instead of closing it? Ms. Kurshan stated studies showed closing schools was more effective than fixing them, but didn’t bother to cite any sources. This indicated clearly, though, that they hadn’t bothered sending a team of experts to try improving the 116-year-old landmark school. Have they even got a team of experts capable of doing so?

Rather than fix struggling schools, what the DOE actually does is shoehorn small schools or charter schools into every available space. In the case of Queens Collegiate, they managed to prove the Jamaica building was not as scary or dangerous as people thought, and that with proper attention and resources, kids would come. Queens Collegiate is publicly touted as “developed in collaboration with the New York City Department of Education, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation.” Is there anyone who actually believes that doesn’t entail funding above and beyond that which Jamaica receives? Don’t hold your breath waiting for Tweed to extend that experiment to neighborhood schools.

In the case of my school, Francis Lewis, they saw we did well, so they shoveled hundreds of additional kids in year after year. Though we tried many, many things to alleviate the overcrowding, the only response from Tweed, for years, was to continue filling every available space with every available kid. If we faltered as a result, does anyone believe they’d have hesitated one moment before closing us too?

Really, why should they? Doing so might mean they’d have to foot the bill for real improvements, like decent conditions or reasonable class sizes. It’s far easier to shuffle and hide problems, like so many piles of dirt, loudly scapegoat teachers and unions, and hope nobody notices.

So far, it’s worked like a charm.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.