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August 9, 2007 [feather]
Bloomberg's school yard

We talk about accountability so much in education circles. Sometimes it seems that it is becoming one of those words so overused that it doesn't mean anything anymore--precisely because it means whatever the user wants it to mean. "Academic freedom" is one of those terms--many of its advocates inside academe have radically rewritten it in the name of upholding it. So is "assessment." And "accessibility." And, of course, "diversity."

Anyhow. Sol Stern has an interesting piece in City Journal about how the idea of accountability has been circulating within Mayor Bloomberg's bid to rescue New York City's schools. Bloomberg acquired control of the system in 2002, arguing that in exchange for authority, he would be accountable. Now, Stern shows, what looked like a straightforward arrangement is beginning to look like an instance of massive rhetorical sleight of hand:

Stirring public unease is the realization that what Bloomberg really meant by accountability was one election, one time. If you didn't like the way that mayoral control was working under Bloomberg, you could vote for Democrat Freddy Ferrer in the 2005 mayoral election (Bloomberg's last, because of term limits). But what could you do after that election? Bloomberg's suggestion: "Boo me at parades."

The arrogance of that response demonstrates how little Bloomberg really seems to care about accountability. In fact, his Department of Education routinely undermines accountability with a public-relations juggernaut that deflects legitimate criticism of his education policies, dominates the mainstream press, uses the schools as campaign props, and, most ominously, distorts student test-score data. Without transparency, real accountability doesn't exist.

Admittedly, any mayor taking over the city's dysfunctional school system would need an effective information campaign to win public support for the wrenching changes necessary. But Bloomberg also wants to conquer new political frontiers. If he does run for president, it will be partly on his education record.

That ambition has driven the administration's media operations on education. It's why the Department of Education's communications office is 29-strong, four times as many employees as worked in the press office under the old Board of Ed. And that doesn't include the city hall press operation, which often joins in promoting new education initiatives, or the substantial public-relations and marketing services that the administration has received from companies, either pro bono or paid for by third-party private contributions.

Stern goes on to list numerous examples of how Bloomberg has chosen to sugarcoat and even manipulate the facts in order to make his regime look more successful than it is. And thus New York learns one of those lessons that humanity seems to need to learn over and over and over again, always at its own expense--that when you create personal fiefdoms for people, power-grabbing and self-promotion follow. New Yorkers fell for Bloomberg's game because they were seduced by the aura he created with the promise of accountability. But now they have been reminded that accountability is truly in the eye of the beholder--and that when the person who is to be held accountable gets to decide how and when and whether that works, he or she is not accountable at all.

posted on August 9, 2007 9:59 AM

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