Gillard Should Repudiate Klein’s Skulduggery

Julia Gillard has invited New York Schools Chancellor, Joel Klein, to Australia to counter widespread criticism of the Rudd Government’s policy on reporting individual school performance. She wants Klein to help clear the ground for her to introduce school performance reports similar to those used in New York.

She should know that the Klein’s reporting model is widely derided by educationalists, teachers and parents in New York. She should also know that Klein’s response to their criticisms involves much skulduggery which she should repudiate.

Klein has employed a huge public relations staff to “spin” his policies in the media and counter criticism. He apparently has more PR staff than education policy advisors in his office. One of their key functions is to spread misinformation about the success of his policies. Of course, this is standard practice in government nowadays, and mostly people have become fairly immune to it.

However, a more sordid feature of Klein’s administration of the New York school system has been to use taxpayers’ resources to silence dissent and intimidate critics.

Last year it was revealed that New York City Education Department officials were compiling dossiers on its critics to besmirch and discredit them. Such a dossier was used to orchestrate an attack through the Murdoch press on one of the key critics of Klein’s policies – renowned US educationalist, Diane Ravitch, Professor of Education at New York University.

According to the New York Sun on 31 October 2007 , the Department of Education compiled a seven-page dossier on Ravitch from her writings and secret recordings of her speeches. This information was handed over to Kathryn Wylde, president and CEO of the Partnership for New York City, an organisation of corporate CEO’s which provides funding and other support for various initiatives on behalf of Mayor Bloomberg and Klein.

Wylde, in turn, used the dossier to write a scathing attack on Ravitch in Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post on 30 October 2007 , accusing her of irrational opposition to Klein’s policies and implying that her criticisms were personally motivated.

[In passing, it is interesting to note that the financial corporation funding Klein’s visit to Australia, UBS, is a partner firm of the Partnership for New York City. This organisation is fully behind the Bloomberg/Klein re-organisation of the New York public school system and is even funding some of the programs. So, it seems that Klein can call on this organisation for all kinds of support.]

A spokesman for the Education Department, David Cantor, even defended the decision to make a dossier on Ravitch. “She’s the most influential educational commentator probably in the United States. If she is typically either distorting what we’re doing, or if she is reversing long-held opinions in order to attack us — that’s an indication that there’s something more there than fair-minded observation,” Cantor told the Sun.

The whole incident served only to highlight and sustain one of Ravitch’s most serious criticisms of Klein’s Department and the Mayor’s office – the way they respond to criticism. She told the New York Sun:

The legislature eliminated the independent [school] board; they eliminated the community boards, and now the mayor and the chancellor are trying to shut down all independent critics.

She responded further on her blog on 6 November 2007 :

The fact that they compiled a dossier on me and then turned it over to someone to write an attack is a frightening misuse of government power. They think they did nothing wrong. They think that if journalists and academics can compile files on people, so can they. They forget that they are not journalists or academics: They are government. Wouldn’t you think they have enough to do managing 1,500 schools without having time to pursue those who dare to question their policies?

I believe that all of this—the taping, the dossier, the attack by a surrogate—was a blatant effort to silence me. And as I said in my response, if they could silence me, I would serve as an example to anyone else who criticized them.

What does this say about the state of education and democracy?”

Other critics of Klein and the Bloomberg administration made similar points. For example:

Mayor Bloomberg and a handful of his millionaire/billionaire friends are actively recasting the City’s public school system in a corporatist image of their own devising. They seek no input beyond their own well-heeled coterie, brook no dissent, dismiss parents as ignorant or irrelevant, spend millions on misleading and self-congratulatory public relations campaigns funded by the same cronies, and now attack those who dare speak out. Public and private moneys intended to help the public schools are being diverted into a personal PR machine that simultaneously touts the Mayor’s purported “successes” while stamping down dissent from any and every quarter. [New York Public School Parents Blog 31 October 2007 ]

Sol Stern of the Manhattan Institute told the New York Sun that:

It’s been clear for a while that City Hall and the Department of Education want to cut off all serious debate about their education policies. But they’ve never stooped so low as to try to delegitimise the country’s leading historian of education.

He wrote in the New York City Journal of 1 November 2007 that:

The administration’s attack on Diane Ravitch is not just another disagreement about education policy; it’s an effort to undercut the free discussion necessary for democracy to flourish. But it won’t work, not in New York City. The sooner the administration stops demonizing its critics and starts debating them, the sooner we can have a rational examination of how most effectively to govern our schools.

Such bullying, anti-democratic behaviour is not welcome in Australia. Gillard should clearly repudiate such sordid behaviour.

Trevor Cobbold

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