Opinion
Reading & Literacy Opinion

Those Lazy, Crazy, Hazy Days of Summer

By Diane Ravitch — July 07, 2009 4 min read

Editor’s Note: After this week, Diane Ravitch and Deborah Meier begin their annual summer break. Their blog will return in September.

Dear Deborah,

We have had fun these past couple of years exploring our differences and our agreements. It is clear that the point where we diverge most strongly is whether anyone should set common standards or curriculum outside the individual school. And the point where we agree most strongly is on the role that schools should play in advancing our democratic purposes as a society.

This past week’s events in New York City have caused me, as well as many education advocates and parent activists, to despair about the prospects for democracy in education. The law that granted sole control of the public schools to the mayor expired on June 30, and many advocates hoped that this would provide an opportunity to rethink control of the public schools to expand democracy. For seven years, the mayor has run the schools without any checks and balances, which we know are integral to any democratic functioning. The law provided for a board of education, but our mayor renamed it the “Panel on Education Policy” and turned it into a rubber stamp.

The reason the law expired was that our state’s legislature has been tied up in knots for weeks. The lower house—the Assembly—renewed the mayor’s unrestricted ownership of the public schools with only a few cosmetic changes. The upper house—the state Senate—did not act, because the Republicans and the Democrats are locked in a 31-31 stalemate and unable to pass any legislation. The customary tiebreaker is the lieutenant governor, but there is none at present, because ours, David Paterson, was elevated to governor when the former governor, Eliot Spitzer, resigned in a scandal.

So, last week, when the mayoral control law expired, the former governing structure was resurrected. It now seems as if a corpse was hauled out of a graveyard. Under that structure, the mayor appoints two people, and each of the five borough presidents picks one. In the past, there was a presumption that the elected officials would each pick a distinguished community leader to represent them on the city’s Board of Education.

So, while parents and advocates celebrated what they briefly dreamed was a new day, the elected officials delivered a stunning shock. Rather than select distinguished community leaders, the mayor picked two deputy mayors to represent him. The borough president of Queens picked the mayor’s deputy for education to represent that borough. With only one exception, three other borough presidents picked one of their deputies as their borough representative. Only one borough president, in the Bronx, had the courage to select an independent person, the former president of Hostos Community College.

The new board, on which the mayor controlled six out of seven votes, quickly voted to vest all of its powers in Joel Klein, who has been running the school system for the past seven years, and to petition the legislature to promptly pass the mayoral control bill, thus preserving the status quo of the past seven years.

What a cynical sham. How shameless. How can we speak of democracy in education when democracy is so easily subverted by our elected officials?

On to happier subjects.

I finished the book on which I have been working for the past couple of years. It will be published by Perseus next spring. Those who are regular readers of our blog will recognize many of its themes. The blog served as a sounding board for ideas that I was working through as I was writing, and many of our readers helped me see things more clearly with their astute comments, questions, and challenges. One of our faithful readers, Diana Senechal, was my research assistant and crack editor these past few months. I was very lucky indeed to have her help.

I plan to catch up with my reading. I have only two books on my table. One was recommended by Mike, one of our readers. It is Gerald Grant’s “Hope and Despair in the American City.” As soon as Mike suggested it, I ordered it because I so admire Grant. He is a wonderful writer. His book, “The World We Created at Hamilton High,” is one of the best that I have read in many years.

My main summer reading is George Eliot’s “Daniel Deronda.” I loved Eliot’s “Middlemarch,” as well as “The Mill on the Floss” and “Silas Marner” (the latter is a book that I hated when it was assigned in high school, but loved as an adult). I have wanted to read “Daniel Deronda” for many years, but kept putting it off. The time is now.

Having just completed a book that required me to read dozens of education books, new and old, in the past year, I don’t want to read anything more about education this summer. I want to immerse myself in literature. I expect to read poetry, too, which I love. Every once in a while, I get tired of reading about education, and must attend to my own education in literature and history. I also hope to attend to my health and physical well-being by swimming, biking, and gardening. And I expect to undermine my mental health by beginning a partial renovation of the kitchen.

To you and to our readers, have a great summer!

Diane

P.S. Happy (belated) Independence Day! I took this picture of the Southold Public Library’s float in the July 4th parade.

A beautiful day to celebrate our freedoms! It was my 2-year-old grandson’s first parade. He loves books, just like his grandma.

—Diane

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.