Real School Reform, Now

No more excuses. No more delays. No more double-talk. The time for changing the status quo in New York’s public schools is now. The teachers union will either be part of the process or will be crushed. It’s really that simple.

Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Cuomo have made it clear that they no longer will accept the union’s reactionary worldview that change is unnecessary. In separate speeches this week, Mr. Cuomo correctly noted that “we have to realize that our schools are not an employment program,” while the mayor argued that the “school system shouldn’t be run for the people that work in the school system.”

Both of the statements should seem obvious. To the union leaders who claim to represent the city’s public school teachers, the remarks by the governor and the mayor are nothing short of revolutionary. And it’s a revolution they continue to resist.

Mr. Bloomberg turned up the pressure big time in his annual State of the City address on Jan. 12, when he embraced the idea of merit pay for excellent teachers and vowed to find a way to rid the school system of poor-performing teachers. These ideas are, of course, anathema to the United Federation of Teachers and its leader, Michael Mulgrew. After the mayor spoke, Mr. Mulgrew offered nothing new in response; he dismissed Mr. Bloomberg’s proposal as little more than political theater.

Sadly, that’s the best Mr. Mulgrew could offer. But it’s important to keep in mind that unless the mayor acts with the requisite resolution, Mr. Mulgrew’s cynical, hollow words could prove true. It’s great that Mr. Bloomberg supports merit pay and has threatened the jobs of lousy teachers, but it’s quite another thing to follow up with actions. Mr. Bloomberg will be measured by his actions, not his words.

Surely he knows that, which is why he returned to the theme of school reform during a speech in Harlem on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. School reform is all about changing the culture (and the results) in inner-city schools attended by underprivileged children who need and deserve a better education than they currently receive. As Mr. Cuomo put it, “It is this simple: It is not about the adults; it is about the children.”

Of course, the union’s apparatchiks often say the same thing. When they resist accountability, cover up for incompetent colleagues, and game the system so that the interest of teachers come first, they piously claim to be acting on behalf of the children. By this point, of course, nobody actually believes such nonsense.

The mayor and the governor, on the other hand, genuinely seem to have the children’s interests in mind, which is why they seem more determined than ever to bring accountability into the classroom. It’s a fight they really must win, but a successful outcome is not guaranteed, unfortunately.

Take, for example, the seemingly simple matter of teacher evaluations. A state law passed in 2010 appeared to establish a framework for more rigorous evaluations designed to weed out poor teachers. But the union has managed to block the evaluation process in the city’s public schools, putting in jeopardy $700 million in federal funds that are contingent on the creation of rigorous evaluations. Mr. Cuomo has made it clear that he will impose such a system if the union continues to create obstacles. Districts that do not implement evaluations by next January will not qualify for an increase in state aid.

That’s precisely the kind of tough leadership New York’s school children need, and deserve. The union clearly disagrees. A spokesman said that the governor’s plan to tie increased state aid to the evaluation system was the “wrong approach,” which is another way of saying that it is an approach that puts children first.

As for the mayor’s proposals, he too is in for a fight. His colleagues in city government bowed to the power of Mr. Mulgrew’s union, with Public Advocate Bill de Blasio claiming that Mr. Bloomberg’s proposals were “needlessly provocative.” Does he believe that the system can be improved without provocation? If so, what evidence can he provide for this astonishing assertion? The reactionaries in the teachers union speak to the necessity of provocation. Unless confronted, they are more than content with a status quo that ensures that the incompetent are protected and the gifted unrewarded.

Mr. Mulgrew’s operation has no shortage of powerful allies in city and state government. They will fight fiercely to block the mayor’s proposal to reward top-performing teachers with $20,000 merit bonuses. And they will do everything they can to foil Mr. Bloomberg’s vow to fire as many as half the teachers in the city’s worst-performing schools.

Mr. Bloomberg knows that he has a battle in front of him. He also knows that with just two years left in his term, he has little time to lose if he wants to achieve radical reform. He will have to be necessarily provocative—in his words, and, more important, in his actions.

The mayor and the governor may not care for each other these days, but they surely have one thing in common: They know they’re in for a battle with the teachers union, and they know they simply have to win. For the sake of the children.

Real School Reform, Now