After listening to New York State Education Commissioner John King speak at our recent state union convention, I wrote about the story he told about his father insisting on teaching his students despite an order from his boss stay home until the cast on his injured arm was removed from his arm. The punch line of King’s story was his father shattering his cast on the school office counter and proceeding to his classroom. My response to his story was, “While I’m sure the Commissioner meant his story to convey a sense of his genetically determined will to see the policies of State Ed through, upon reflection, the story offered an insight into what in more appropriately dubbed fanaticism, a fanaticism in support of failed policies every bit as extreme in degree as his father’s breaking of his cast. Suddenly, his very smooth, articulate defense of the indefensible policies of State Ed made sense to me, scary though that sense may be.”
That fanaticism is again evident in a copy of a King letter I received to an official of the Buffalo NAACP. The Commissioner was responding to a letter from the NAACP essentially supporting the position of the Buffalo Teachers Federation to insist that students who are chronically absent from school should not be counted against the record of a teacher on the new Annual Professional Performance Review. While King’s letter draws a distinction between viewing student attendance as a factor in a teacher’s APPR and excluding a student completely from the evaluation, it’s the closing of his letter that grabbed my attention in the same unsettling way his speech to the convention did. His letter closes with, “For decades, Buffalo schools have offered discouragement instead of hope. I want to change that. Growing up in Brooklyn, there were countless times my teachers could have written me off because I was an urban African-American and Latino male or because my parents passed away and weren’t there to provide me with support. But my teachers didn’t write me off, and school became my refuge, a place that gave me the opportunity to grow and learn. I will not write off the students of Buffalo, even those struggling with chronic absenteeism. They deserve the same chances I had. The school district, administrators, teachers, families and the community must all take responsibility for working together to ensure that happens…”
This global indictment of the Buffalo school community is to say the least extreme. Knowing numerous members of the Buffalo Teacher Federation and their President Phil Rumore, I am shocked that the education leader of our state would write such a blatant falsehood. Does the commissioner know that there are schools in Buffalo that are by any measure as good as any in the state? How does he know that the teachers in Buffalo offer their student no hope? How could he know that? From test scores? Are they now to become the indicators of student hope? The fact is Commissioner King has no evidence whatsoever that the professionals in the Buffalo School are any less committed to the community’s children than his teachers were to him. If there are any people who do not write off the children of Buffalo, it is the dedicated professionals of the Buffalo schools who each day confront the brutally savage effects of the scourge of poverty on that city’s children. With very limited resources, they struggle to keep hope alive in these children, only to have their heroic endeavors crapped all over by an education commissioner whose answer to the problems of inner city public education is to blame teachers for social problems the society is unwilling to face. If he wants to talk about hope, Commissioner King ought to start thinking of offering some hope to the teachers of this state that the people in charge of public education in Albany have a clue.