Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Playing Politics

Yesterday, Comptroller Bill Thompson (who is running for mayor) released a report essentially saying that the graduation rate in New York isn't as great as the Bloomberg administration is saying. The "blistering audit" (seriously) looked at a sampling of student transcripts and found that 10% of their sample didn't indicate that students had met the graduation requirements. For instance, there was no record of passing the required regeant's exams or students were given multiple credits for passing the same course two or more times.

In other words, the numbers on the graduation rate may be a little bit doctored. That the Bloomberg administration may be cooking the books a little bit on this stuff is not exactly a novel concept. In fact, that's been one of the more frequent complaints about Bloomberg and one of the reasons that the Mayoral control bill that passed the Assembly (but famously not the Senate) gave oversight over educational data to the Independent Budget Office.

In responding to the Comptroller's audit, the Mayor's campaign spokesman said:

“Instead of politicizing the comptroller's office with phony attacks, Mr. Thompson should be explaining his own failed record on education. The facts are clear: When Bill Thompson ran the old dysfunctional Board of Education graduation rates were flat and dropout rates increased. Under Mike Bloomberg's leadership, graduation rates have skyrocketed and dropout rates have fallen. Bill Thompson had a chance to help oversee our schools and he failed. Why would we ever want to go back again?”

What struck me about the response is that there is no attempt to rebut Thompson's findings. The attack here presupposes that he's wrong and that the graduation rate really is better under the current administration. Otherwise, the comparison to Thompson's tenure as BOE chair is meaningless. (Note: Later in the day, there was a rebuttal to the methodology of the audit.)

At this point, the discussion (if it can be called that) has devolved into a round of throwing accusations about who's "playing politics" with education. The answer is obvious - they both are. And that's really part of the problem here.

The good thing about mayoral control is that it is designed to give accountability to the mayor for the school system. Whether this happens in practice or not is less clear, but that's the idea. However, when a politician (or anyone) is going to be judged on something, they're going to want to make sure that they make that look as good as they can. Given the deep problems of education that likely will require long term solutions, a politician caught in a four year election cycle is going to be reduced to spin and cosmetics. Maybe the long term solutions will be put in place too, but the focus is going to have to be on what's going to look good immediately.

As long as we're looking for quick fixes for deep, entrenched problems we aren't going to get where we need to be.

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