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Tag Archives | Bloomberg

The Price of Public Education

Caleb’s school is having a fundraising drive. The PTA wants to get 85% of families to donate to its General Fund, which is used for everything you can imagine, short of paying teachers’ salaries. When I was PTA President at Liam’s school a few years back, fundraising was the hardest part of the job (second-hardest part of the job? Not screaming back at people who were–by screaming at me–screaming at the teacher/principal/DOE/their own childhood).

The PTA has been sending out fundraising emails all week, pushing class parents to remind parents that those classes who hit 85% participation will get to attend a magic show in the auditorium…while the non-compliant other classes sit in their desks doing math worksheets. It’s fundraising through parental guilt.

But one class parent has taken this fundraising really quite to heart. Here’s an email that circulated this morning (with all identifying details removed):

…At this stage, I would say that the option of making phone calls to parents who have not contributed should be considered as well. Phone calls would help get something out of at least 50% of those who have not contributed at all. We should aim to get at least a dollar out of everyone as a token of their support for PTA. This strategy will definitely take us over the 80% mark.

III. The three Kindergarten classes deserve applause for their amazing participation rate.

I am surprised to see that XXX class has not attained the 80% mark. The XXX Class parents need to do more. I am sure, with more effort this number can be improved. I am willing to send out emails to XXX class families  but don’t want to override Class parents. We can do it if we think “Failing is not an option here”

Clearly XXX class will be taken to the thumbscrew room and tortured until they all pony up.

To her credit, the Chair of Fundraising (read: volunteer mom, who also has a full-time job) emailed a response that reminded this parent about the reality of life in public school: a huge range of incomes and cash-flow situations; families without easy email access; families for whom English isn’t even the second language but the third or fourth; and so on.

Other than my own college experience, I have never been in a private school, so maybe it’s a whole different vibe in that realm. Maybe when you send your kid to private school you implicitly agree to be part of the phonathons, or to ante up thousands of dollars at the school auction, in addition to giving outright to the general fund–and I imagine that if you’re a family on financial aid at these schools, it might feel a little weird. A friend of mine, whose son went to a really ritzy school for a little while (on a full scholarship) said that the unwritten rule seemed to be financial aid parents did the scut work, while the big donors just… wrote checks.

But public schools are free, right? Our tax dollars at work and all that? Which is why of course some folks (New Jersey, I’m talking to you, but alas,you’re not alone) protest tax hikes aimed at bolstering dwindling education budgets: if they don’t have any kids in schools, then the failing schools aren’t their problem. Other parents think that hey, the school gets its money from school budgets and so why should they throw in extra cash? It’s public school, not private school, so there shouldn’t be any fundraising.

Now I could turn my attentions here to Cathie Black, who went to a private Catholic high school in Chicago, a private Catholic college in DC, sent her kids to boarding schools in Connecticut (to the tune of about 45K per year) — and of course she herself lived in CT until a few short years ago, when she moved to the Upper East Side, a neighborhood not known for its failing schools.  And I could ask what on earth Cathie knows about life in public school or I could wonder, as a friend did this afternoon, about the fact that apparently Bloomberg couldn’t find anyone in the entire five boroughs who had any experience in education and who might be interested in the Chancellor’s job.

But I won’t talk about any of that.

I will only say that in public schools, fundraising has become a fact of life. Parents are expected to give–and give and give and give–because budgets are stretched so thin. My friend Brenna pointed out that on top of being asked to donate to a general fund, there are the slide rulers, the calculators, the twenty-five item “must have” list that teachers hand out on the first day of school (not to be confused with the teacher “wish lists” for the classrooms), the gym uniform fees, the field trip fees, the book fairs (a percentage of every book you buy goes to the school), the bake sales (which can account for thousands and thousands of dollars in any PTA budget)…By the end of the year, many families will have donated thousands and thousands of dollars, one way or another, and the public schools that serve these families are lucky to have them. Because of course, there are many more schools where all they have is what the Board of Ed gives them, and nothing else.

The tone of that email I got this morning, telling me that “failure is not an option,” seems like serious overkill–as if Gordon Gecko (in the first movie, not the second) was somehow a member of the PTA.

But then again, there aren’t many things more important than educating children.  Maybe failure really isn’t an option.

I don’t know the answer. I wish I believed that Cathie Black does.

Continue Reading · on November 14, 2010 in Education, NYC, Politics

Why I’m Not the New Chancellor of NYC Schools

I know why Mayor Bloomberg didn’t tap me to take over from Joel Klein.

I’m overqualified.

I taught public high school for four years, have a doctorate in literature and have been teaching college students for longer than I care to remember.  Both of my kids go to public schools; I went to public schools until I got to college.  But apparently the best qualification to run the NYC schools is to be…completely uninvolved with education.

Joel Klein resigned earlier this week (do we break into a chorus of “ding dong the witch is dead…”? ) and Bloomberg has appointed Cathie Black to replace him. Cathie is a former chairperson of Hearst Magazines and, according to Bloomberg, is a “superstar manager.” The fact that she sent her own kids to private boarding schools in Conneticut, or that she herself went to parochial school in Chicago, or that she has absolutely no experience with education at all–none of that matters.

According to Bloomberg, what matters is that Black knows about “jobs, jobs, jobs… what our students need.”  Well, yes, they need jobs–but we’re talking about kids coming out of high school, not college. What they need before they get a job is how write and read and add; they need to be in buildings that are not jammed to the rafters and falling apart; they need the arts and gym; they need fewer bureaucrats and better teachers who are paid better salaries…the list is endless. Do the schools really need to be headed up by someone who was the publisher of USA Today? Really, the best we can do is the publisher of the McPaper? That’s the standard to which we aspire?

Magazines and newspapers are things, widgets that can be stacked up and counted. There’s a schedule of production, the content is generated, the pages are compiled, and voila, there’s your magazine. And you sell it for a certain price (or download it or steal it from the airplane or whatever) and you get a certain amount of profit. Granted, the world of paper publishing has been rocky the last few years, but still, basically, a magazine is a widget.

News flash (hey, Cathie, yep, talking to you): a kid is not a widget and learning (alas) does not happen on a set production schedule. If it did, I never would have come so close to failing Trigonometry (Mrs. Orr, wherever you are, I wish you well: you tried, you really did). So if kids aren’t widgets, then why hire someone whose expertise is in widget-sales?

I guess, though, that she is very very, very good at selling magazines. Maybe that does qualify her to run the largest school district in the country. I mean, some NYC schools sell magazine subscriptions as fundraisers, so right there her expertise is going to be very helpful.

Continue Reading · on November 10, 2010 in Education, NYC

Snow Day


Everyone and their mother will be posting pictures of The Great Snowstorm tonight and who am I to buck the trend?

Here are the boys on their vintage flexible flyer (by vintage, we mean “it belonged to daddy” who is himself approaching vintage age). This not-so-great photo was taken by the puller of the sled, at about 10 oclock this morning. On 4th Avenue. Doesn’t look that snowy, does it?

Moi the mommy mule pulled those kids all the way down 4th avenue to KMart where we snagged the last pair of snow boots in perhaps all of Manhattan, over to Washington Square Park, and then all the way back across town to the faux-bucolic village of Stuyvesant Town (In honor of the snow, I will save my rant about Tishman Speyer for another day). 

The boys occasionally had to portage the sled across streets that didn’t have enough snow to support the sled runners, but mostly…I pulled. Like some sort of fortyish reindeer.  We made it to the countryside of Stuy Town, had ourselves a grand time slamming down a hill on the Flyer, and then walked home because the sled rope–also vintage–had frayed beyond any possibility of retying. There was much moaning and caterwauling at the injustice of having to walk (we’d been outside for a long time by this point) and perhaps some tempers were lost out there in the snowy reaches of Stuyvesant Square. Perhaps. But I’m not naming names.

Tempers fraying like our vintage sled rope, we made it home, for hot chocolate, followed by much strewing of bionicles across the floor, then a friend came over and all the boys bowed down before the great god wii, while the mommy mule realized that her back ain’t what it used to be.

And finally, lest you think that three hours in the snowy slush this morning wasn’t enough, the boys all went out onto our building’s terrace, on the 15th floor, where the wind had whipped the snow into humps and mounds, just right for forts, snowballs, and general mayhem.  Me? I stayed inside and tried to avoid stepping on sharp-edged bionicle pieces.

Was it really necessary? Was it really such a Huge Freakin Blizzard?  Were conditions truly so complicated that kids couldn’t have been at school? Nah, probably not.  Do King Julian and Maurice (aka Bloomberg and Klein) have egg on their face as a result of canceling school so early? Nah, probably not (dammit).  Did the boys have a grand old time in the snowy day? Yeah, they probably did. And yeah, their pink cheeks and shrieks of joy as they raced down that hill in Stuy Town were totally worth the price of a vintage sled rope and my aching back. Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.

Continue Reading · on February 10, 2010 in Children, NYC

Seriously, He Banned Bake Sales. No, Really, He Did.

nocupcake.jpgThe other day on the playground, a mommy friend said, “did you hear? Bloomberg banned bake sales in the schools.” 

I thought she was kidding–we’d beeen the PTA Co-Presidents last year, and bake sales had been an ongoing aggravation: when to schedule them, how to staff them, how to scan every donation for potentially lethal ingredients (nuts! sesame seeds! wheat!), how to make sure that all the kids got a chance to exchange their sweaty quarters for a chocolate chip cookie.

But despite the aggravation, we staged those bake sales, yes we did. And there are four thousand, five hundred and twenty-two reasons why we did so: the four or five bake sales we held last year brought in 4,522 dollars.

That’s a lot of sweaty quarters.

That much money allows our PTA to foot the bill for 5th graders whose families can’t afford the price of the 5th grade class camping trip; to pay for kids who might not otherwise be able to join the track team; to fund instrument rental for kids who REALLY want to play the trombone, but whose parents don’t have any extra money in their budgets.

The joke is that this is no joke: the DOE really and truly has put a policy in place that bans bake sales.

Bake sales sell unhealthy food, according to Mayor Mike and his sidekick, Joyless Joe, and so they are going to save our tubby children from further expansion.

Banning monthly or bi-monthly bake sales seems a tad…um…bass-ackward, frankly, if your goal is healthy kids with healthly habits.  What about…having gym class more than once a week? Or a post-lunch recess period that lasts longer than 20 minutes? Oh–right–I forgot. Those activities would take time away from Very Important Test Prep.

So okay, clearly more exercise is out of the question because Data Collection and Accountability matter more.

Let us then consider the school lunch menu for elementary schools in Manhattan, shall we?  Today’s choices are Sweet & Sour Roasted Chicken, Golden Fish and Cheese, White Rice, and if you’re at a SchoolPlus cafeteria you can get collards with sweet tomato.  Anyone want to place bets on how many fourth graders are getting the collards? And could someone define “golden fish” for me? If you drop your kid off for the free breakfast, she could have had a turkey patty with cheese on a biscuit, or pancakes with syrup. Tomorrow’s lunch is something called Southwest Style Beef that comes with something called “Baked Scoops.” Not sure baked scoops of what, exactly, but I’ll bet it’s…healthy. 

And as we peruse our school lunch menus, let’s not even THINK about what all my friends are calling the “scary hamburger article” in Sunday’s Times.  I mean, given the choice, wouldn’t you rather your kid eat a sugar-bomb cupcake than hamburger meat that’s potentially riddled with E. coli or god knows what else?  Can the DOE can guaran-damn-tee me that the burger patties, taco beef, and “baked scoops” on their lunch menus come from utterly safe sources? Given that the USDA is pretty much in cahoots with the beef-packing industry, I’m thinking that’s a promise that will be a long time coming.  

So yeah, let’s ban bake sales instead of equipping school kitchens so that they can actually cook. Right now, most school kitchens simply assemble food from a list of DOE approved ingredients: frozen pre-roasted commodity chickens, for example. Would anyone like to think about the source of something called a “commodity chicken”?

Notice that I’m not even talking about how school organizations and PTAs are supposed to make up the shortfall in their budgets if they can’t hold bake sales. The Times article quotes a school official as saying that maybe schools could hold walk-a-thons to raise money, instead of bake sales. Hmm… let’s see. Collecting money from donors, finding a route, organizing the participants, hoping it doesn’t rain…versus a table in the cafeteria stocked with treats brought in by parents.

Okay, now maybe smokers felt the same way when smoking was banned in bars, but no one yet has said that a cupcake a month causes cancer. Banning bake sales brings to mind the word “draconian” – also ridiculous, farcical, and you’ve-got-to-be-fucking-kidding (if I hyphenate it’s one word, right?)  It’s like cutting off your hand because you’ve got a hangnail.

I’m fighting back, dammit. I’m going to send Liam and Caleb to school EVERY SINGLE DAY with lunchboxes filled with cupcakes, cookies, brownies, maybe even the occasional gummy worm–and I’m telling them to share with all their friends.

Let Bloomberg send the Sugar Stasi after me. They can have my cupcake when they wrestle it out of my fat sticky fingers.


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Continue Reading · on October 7, 2009 in Education, food, NYC

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