Wednesday, January 9, 2013

A Teachable Moment: Bloomberg Veers Off Course In Gun Violence Prevention Debate

From the New York section of Monday's New York Times
Just as the discussion concerning gun violence prevention was receiving crucial national focus in the wake of the Sandy Hook school killings, gun control advocate New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has cheapened the debate by likening New York City’s United Federation of Teachers to the National Rifle Association.  (See: Teachers Irate as Bloomberg Likens Union to the N.R.A., by Al Baker, January 7, 2013.)

Yes, that’s the NRA that in response to school shootings has suggested that the solution to too many guns is more guns, including lots of guns sent into schools so that problem of too many guns can be mediated via shoot-outs on school terrain between the good guys and the bad guys.  May the purchaser of the biggest, most recently purchased technological marvel in firepower win!  (See: Monday, December 31, 2012, Guns As The Solution To Guns? A Meditation on Corporate Solutions In General.)

True, Bloomberg in maligning the teacher’s union was wanting to make the point that the NRA doesn’t represent its rank and file members and true, that same point was made by me in the article I just linked to above.  In that article I went on to observe that the policy positions of the NRA leadership objecting to multiple very sensible proposals to prevent gun violence, while they may be attuned to the manufacturer’s interest of selling a maximum number of guns, diverge from what most Americans want.  In the end the policy positions of the NRA leadership actually represent the views of a very small fragment of the population found only at the extreme ends of the spectrum.

All of that, while true, does not make it appropriate for Bloomberg to make his point by suggesting that the teachers union leadership cares as little for the children in our schools or for protecting general welfare as the NRA.  Notwithstanding such inappropriateness, Deputy Mayor Howard Wolfson dug in, defending the mayor with a statement reiterative of this exact theme just two days later:
“As the mayor has said before, the union is a special-interest group focused on advancing its agenda, whether it’s in the public interest or not. . . Their refusal to agree to a fair evaluation deal is just the latest example of this.” 
It's really not fair to suggest the teachers union doesn’t care about our public interest in teaching our children, to set it up oppositionally, virtually as if it were a dichotomy.  Even if the teachers union does have its own special interests to advance which likely creep up in the priorities they set forth in their agenda:, the fact is that if the children of New York are well taught and enthusiastic about their education it strengthens the teachers union by making the union look good and giving it allies amongst the parents.  It also means that much more often teachers will enjoy the kind of meaningful experiences in the classroom that most of them probably factored in as compensation when they chose a profession that is not very financially rewarding.

By the same token it would hardly be fair to say that Bloomberg cares nothing about the welfare of New York’s schoolchildren or how well the city school system works to teach them because, similarly, when the system actually works to give children good educations it helps Bloomberg look good.  But to acknowledge this is not to say that Bloomberg doesn’t have his own special interests prevailing in his agenda for the school system.  Bloomberg is notorious for favoring the marshaling of statistical numbers that can make him look good as mayor irrespective of underlying substance.  Also, of course, he would like to spend less on education than the teachers union would advocate.

Bloomberg has introduced into the school system a destructive focus on teaching to the tests when, in actuality, education is about having an enthusiasm for learning. . . . . .  Most of the facts we learn in school when we drill to take tests of debatable relevance wind up being forgotten.  What can stick with well-taught students is something less measurable, the enthusiasm for learning with which they can become imbued and the self-motivation they develop to keep building upon their skills.

Bloomberg’s pursuit of a shift to charter schools to privatize and profitize education also does not speak well of a commitment to public education on his part.  One can easily argue the abstract merit of creating new schools and allowing them to compete with each other in a quasi-marketplace structure that embraces consumer choices that informed parents can make, but with charter schools the devil is in the details and if charter schools can cherry pick the best students out of the system, determine their optimal class size when public schools can’t, and procure superior funding and facilities, then they are a discriminatory drain on the rest of the system.  They are also, of course, an ill-concealed effort to sidestep the teachers union.

It is disconcerting that when Joel Klein, Bloomberg’s long-term Chancellor of Education, left his post he went to work for Rupert Murdoch.  Murdoch (whose vast empire includes the “fair and balanced” Fox News) promotes charter schools and Murdoch hired Klien, a champion of charter schools, to oversee Murdoch’s branching out investments into education (according to the Times, he was being “charged with pursuing `entrepreneurial ventures` that cater to the educational marketplace”).  More recently, 2012, Klein’s work for Murdoch has consisted of efforts to soothe the Murdoch’s wire-tapped and politician manipulation scandal.

There was compounding confoundment when Klein’s departure was followed up by Bloomberg’s appointment of  Cathie Black, whose very brief 95-day tenure ended with a forced resignation.  Whatever Bloomberg’s intent was when he hired Ms. Black for her private sector media-company salesmanship expertise, she was not up to the job of running an education system.

I could argue that the teachers union, whatever its special interest concerns, still has a deeper and broader commitment to the core values of public education than Bloomberg, given the mayor’s inclination to get distracted with the competing matters he makes his priority.  Instead, I will just say that, whether or not such an argument would carry the day, it is good that we have the teachers union as a counterweight to Michael Bloomberg considering the inevitable pitfalls of self-interest on both sides.

I do not question Bloomberg’s commitment to quelling gun violence.  Unlike other issues (like protecting the environment) where he has acted inconsistently and swung with the polls, Bloomberg has been consistent from the very first about regulating guns.  However committed he may be to making a strong case for this cause, dragging in the subject of public education and the teachers union for such careless pot-calling-the-kettle-black mud-slinging has undermined his efforts.

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