Bloomberg Defeats Social Promotion

New York City schoolchildren have a friend in Mayor Michael Bloomberg, though you wouldn’t know it from all the grandstanding and bellyaching coming from the teachers’ union and United Parents Associations in the wake of the passing of the Mayor’s plan to end the social promotion of failing third-graders. Unlike the education bureaucrats who have presided over decades of disorganization, Mr. Bloomberg wants kids to learn, rather than the current practice of mindlessly advancing students grade by grade until they end up with a high-school diploma, but without the reading and math skills needed to survive in the work force. So now third-graders who score in the lowest ranking on next month’s English and math tests will have to repeat third grade, unless they can show improved scores after summer school or their teachers can make a case for an exception. This means that as many as one in five third-graders will be held back.

Shocking? Of course. But the only alternative is to turn a blind eye, pretend the students are doing just fine, and perpetuate a process which has failed to adequately educate millions of children in the past.

Third grade is a critical time; research shows that 74 percent of children who are poor readers in third grade remain poor readers in ninth grade. As each year passes, the learning gap grows for those lacking reading and math skills; the risk increases that many will drop out and become caught in a downward spiral of social and behavioral problems. Since this is an important juncture for students, a strong tutorial program in third grade would be beneficial, and should immediately be implemented as a centerpiece of the Mayor’s and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein’s agenda.

In order to win approval of the new policy, Mr. Bloomberg fired three members of the city’s Panel for Education Policy just before the plan came up for a vote. The Mayor’s reason for doing so was plain: He’s staked his Mayoralty on improving the schools, and he’s not going to allow entrenched interest groups to stand in his way. The reactions to the firings were predictably long on drama and short on substance: Randi Weingarten, the teachers’ union president, absurdly compared Mr. Bloomberg’s actions to “the Watergate Saturday night massacre.” Former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, who is said to be planning a run against Mr. Bloomberg in the next election, also spoke against the Mayor’s decision, which raises the question: Does Mr. Ferrer really want to go back to the days when a strongly independent school board paralyzed progress?

Michael Bloomberg is not willing to live with a system that has tolerated failure for generations of city kids. This makes some people nuts. But it will make kids smarter.

Does Brown University Owe $10 Billion?

As was not uncommon in the 18th century, Brown University was built with tainted money: The Brown family, which funded the university and gave it its name, included slave owners and indeed a slave trader, John Brown, who became treasurer of the college. And records show that at least two slaves helped build University Hall, which houses the office of Brown’s president, Ruth J. Simmons. While these unsavory facts do not necessarily single Brown out from other universities and institutions which date back over 200 years, Dr. Simmons has formed a Committee on Slavery and Justice to investigate Brown’s historic connection to slavery, to organize seminars and research projects, and to determine if the university should pay reparations. The committee will have two years to complete its work; Dr. Simmons has made it clear she expects the committee to recommend some sort of action from Brown.

Herself the great-granddaughter of slaves, and the first African-American president of an Ivy League university, Dr. Simmons has raised intriguing issues for universities and other organizations that exist largely because of past philanthropy. Does a philanthropic institution have an ethical responsibility to give back any ill-gotten gains it has received throughout history? As a practical matter, is this even possible? In Brown University’s case, is this whole process just a pretentious public-relations scam, a way of positioning the university on the politically correct cutting edge? Is this the naïve meandering of a wide-eyed libertarian, or is it the honest, fair-minded, compelling and right thing to do?

Practically speaking, what would a bill for reparations come to? It’s known that at least two slaves worked on the construction of Brown’s buildings, and it wouldn’t be surprising if Dr. Simmons’ investigation discovers that John Brown also used slaves to cut the university’s lawns, clean the dorms and serve the students’ food. Assuming, conservatively, that the Brown family had 25 slaves working at the university for two and a half years, and that these slaves should have been paid a wage of 15 cents an hour, then, if we impute the compound interest rate at 6 percent, Brown University would today owe more than $10 billion.

That’s a lot more than a few African-American Studies scholarships.

New Yorkers Get Heard

It was a simple idea: Devise a three-digit telephone number that New York’s citizens could call to obtain basic information about city services, or even (hard to believe New Yorkers would be so inclined) to voice a complaint. And so, at Mayor Bloomberg’s urging, New York’s 311 help line was launched a year ago.

It has been a fantastic success. More than six million 311 calls have been made, and while not everybody came away a satisfied customer-that would be too much to expect-it’s clear that the system’s capable operators have been able to successfully steer people through the city’s bureaucracy and offer some measure of psychological relief.

The 311 system is part of Mr. Bloomberg’s campaign for accountability in city government. New Yorkers now feel better connected to City Hall. If they have a complaint, they no longer have to figure out where the complaint should be made, or how to get it done. With one telephone call, they can make their opinion known to people who presumably can do something about it. That eliminates the bureaucratic black hole into which complaints fell in the past. New Yorkers don’t have to go through political intermediaries, speak with unknowledgeable clerks and secretaries, or turn page after page in the telephone book. One call gets the job done.

The success of 311 has helped take a load off the 911 system, which is designed for emergencies but often is used simply for inquiries and non-emergency complaints. And because the system is run by the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, bureaucrats in other agencies can’t hide their failures from the Mayor. He’ll find out about problems from the citizens themselves.

So congratulations are in order to City Hall, the 311 operators and staff, and to New Yorkers themselves: They saw an opportunity to make their voices heard, and they took it.

Bloomberg Defeats Social Promotion