The city was all abuzz yesterday about Mayor Bloomberg's "Monday Night Massacre," in which the mayor ousted three members of a "Panel for Education Policy" in order to ram through his hard-line policy against social promotion. "This is what mayoral control is all about," Mr. Bloomberg said the night of the massacre. The mayor's critics see the move as somehow undemocratic. That complaint strikes us as ridiculous — what's the point of giving the mayor control of the schools if he's to be hamstrung by a panel that he himself appoints?
The critics, including some of the mayor's friends and people we hold in high regard, point out that as a matter of tactics, this was clumsily executed. A real political pro would have lined up these votes privately with patronage or pork weeks ahead of time. Mr. Bloomberg is known for his quiet, behind-the-scenes, nonconfrontational style, arguing that it gets the best results in negotiations with, say, Governor Pataki. Of all the targets to pick a fight with — Mr. Pataki, the unions, the MTA, Washington — when Mr. Bloomberg finally gets tough, it's with a bunch of his own appointees that no one has ever heard of?
All this process-related carping may be correct, but there's a counterargument, too. In picking a fight here, Mr. Bloomberg is taking a stand on an issue that matters — public education — and underscoring for the voters that he, and he alone, is responsible. He's not going to blame some panel for failure. He's not going to accept failure. And he's not the kind of guy that trades pork or patronage for principle. It's actually bold leadership.
Indeed, amid all the talk of the process by which the mayor got his way, there's a danger that the principle will be lost. But the principle is an important one. As Mayor Koch and Herman Badillo have written in The New York Sun, the issue of social promotion is at bottom a question of standards. For too long our public schools have merely shoveled students along from grade to grade without requiring them to actually learn something. If you can get from third grade to fourth grade without reading or writing, where does it stop? The answer is, it doesn't, and we wind up with high school graduates who have not earned their degrees and who know it.
It would be logical to see the people interested in public education in this city cheering the mayor and his schools chancellor on in this effort to raise standards. Instead, all too many are complaining about the process by which the standards are being raised or, worse, accusing the mayor of cynically manipulating the test scores by preventing the failing third-graders from being part of the pool of fourth-graders that take higher-stakes tests.
If the mayor wants to build on the bold victory he won Monday night, he could do it by telling the parents and politicians who favor social promotion and who oppose higher standards to go start charter schools of their own. Or to start private schools that could benefit from school vouchers. That way parents could choose where to send children and employers and colleges could choose where to seek students — either from schools where moving on to the next grade signals that a pupil is just a year older or from schools where it means a student actually learned something.