Fresh off yesterday’s revelation that Cathie Black may be associated with human rights abuses during her stint as a Coca-Cola executive, a petition drive is picking up steam. The petition requests that the waiver Black needs to receive as a non-educator appointee for Schools Chancellor be denied. Petition organizer Justin Wedes agreed to answer a few questions about his suddenly popular initiative.
Billy Wharton: Tell our readers about your petition effort. What are you trying to accomplish with this? Who is the target? Is there a precedent for denying such a waiver?
Justin Wedes: This petition is an open letter to State Commissioner of Education David M. Steiner that I wrote the night of the mayor’s first press conference last week. I thought it would be a good idea to post it to the web and see how many people would sign it with me, since I knew a lot of parents and teachers were caught off guard by the quick resignation of Klein and the immediate appointment of this relative unknown in the Education world. I didn’t think that, just one week later, I’d be looking at the words I wrote with nearly 10,000 signatures (plus comments) underneath them.
The comments, by the way, are very insightful. I urge you to read through them. I’ve spent the last 7 days reading each and every comment and I am so impressed with the educational community and their insight and desire to be part of what should really be a more public process than the Mayor has had here.
There is a precedent for a credentials waiver being denied, in fact several. One case is that of Robert F. Wagner Jr. who, in 1983, was denied the job. At the time, Wagner was serving as Deputy Mayor and was arguably much more “exceptionally qualified” than Ms. Black is today, but community outpouring for a minority candidate along with sharp words from the Rev. Al Sharpton and others won out and we got Alvarado. Incidentally, then-Mayor Ed Koch supported Wagner, and now has come out in support of Ms. Black.
BW: Tell us a little about your background as an educator. What inspired you to take up this petition effort?
JW: I taught in a public transfer school for dropouts in Brooklyn for two years. I saw the best and worst of the system as a teacher, a fundraiser, a union chapter leader, and a strong advocate for underserved kids. I do this because I don’t believe the system is broken – far from it! What I worry about, and what inspired me to do this, is the complete centralizing of all administrative decisions and processes and the subsequent privatizing of our public system. New York City has an amazing public service to offer to its young folks, and I would argue that it’s improved in many ways under Klein. I just don’t attribute all of those improvements to Joel Klein, because I see the teachers on the front line doing the hard work. If that work is to be successful, we need a leader at the helm with experience.
BW: How do you see the role of the Schools Chancellor? Can you imagine another public education system in New York? If so, what does it look like?
JW: I think that State Law, in laying out the qualification requirements for the job, sees the Chancellor as more than what Mayor Bloomberg calls ‘a manager’. A manager, say at a hedge fund, does not need an advanced degree and licensing. A manager simply directs people and facilitates their work together. I see the Chancellor as embodying the vision of the organization, and driving it forward with a deep understanding of what it means to be a teacher, a principal, a social worker, or a student. Klein had a lot of the enthusiasm and drive, if not always the concern for teachers. I don’t see any of it in Ms. Black.
No, I can’t imagine another public education system in New York City that gives every kid a chance. I think some people in the DOE envision one, but to me it looks too full of charter schools and public schools competing like free market players in some strange and cutthroat “educational marketplace”, as Klein said about his move to News Corp.
BW: If people oppose the Cathie Black appointment, what would you advise them to do beyond just signing your petition?
JW: If people oppose the Cathie Black appointment, I would presume that they care about the system enough to try to do something about it. It’s one thing to petition the commissioner for a waiver denial, but I really think the next step is for the progressive leaders out there to come to some consensus on an alternative to Cathie Black. I heard a couple names mentioned today, and I know there are plenty of good educators who are also good managers in this city. Also, whatever your view on mayoral control, there are important ways to make your voice heard in this system. The PEP meetings, although they sometimes feel rigged, do offer a small opportunity for public input. But the biggest thing is just working to make your voice heard so that the Mayor and the PEP feel and hearthe push-back to their actions.
BW: Where do readers go to examine the petition?
Billy Wharton is a writer, activist and the editor of the Socialist WebZine. His articles have appeared in the Washington Post, the NYC Indypendent, Spectrezine and the Monthly Review Zine. He can be reached at email@example.com. Become a FAN on Facebook.