02/16/2011 03:48 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Students Challenge Bloomberg's Control Over Schools

Americans are watching political unrest in the Middle East hoping it will bring a democratic turn to the region. Last week Jay Leno quipped, "Huge riots continuing in Egypt. Experts say one of the problems over there is, there's a huge difference in wealth between the extremely rich and the vast majority of people who have nothing. Well, thank God that could never happen in this country."

Well Jay was both right and wrong. Huge gaps in wealth and opportunity have shaken dictatorships across the Middle East. But they are also starting to shake the power of wealthy autocrats in the United States, or at least in New York City, where high school students, many from poor neighborhoods in the South Bronx, have spearheaded a campaign to overturn the mis-education policies of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his latest sidekick School Chancellor Cathy Black.

Bloomberg has been trying to close what he calls large failing high schools and create new designer mini-high schools across the city. Of course these schools are "failing" because the city has been pulling more promising and middle-class students, academic "3s" and "4s," out of the larger schools and sending them to the new minis. As a result the minis are miraculously successful, at least temporarily, and Bloomberg can claim credit. Meanwhile the larger schools are left with students from more troubled families and communities, the academic "1s" and "2s." More than 100 schools have already been phased out, but the reality is that educational performance in New York City is not significantly improved.

Rather than blame poverty in the city or the tracking of students for the problems facing these schools, Bloomberg blames the teachers, and is using it as a weapon to break tenure and seniority. Experienced, more highly paid teachers in these larger schools who were satisfactory for years while they had better performing students are now declared incompetent and threatened with dismissal. It is a thinly veiled anti-union move by Bloomberg, which if it succeeds, threatens every working person in the city, and perhaps even the nation. We could all become temporary workers with no protection and could more easily be fired once we achieved a higher salary.

A weakened union movement, after decades of anti-union assaults in the United States dating back to the Reagan Administration, has not effectively fought back. But New York City high school students are determined not to allow the Mayor and Chancellor to close their schools and undermine their teachers, while preparing them for 21st century jobs as associates at McDonald's and Walmart.

At a recent rally at the Department of Education's staged hearings on school closings, students, teachers, and parents opposing Bloomberg-Black policies chanted "Whose schools? Our schools," blew whistles, and rang cowbells. One student held up a sign, "Egypt is N.Y." At one point, the room reverberated with the sound of bongos. The hearing started at 6 PM and at 7:10 a large portion of the audience marched out, forcing the panel to suspend the hearing for a half hour. One student explained, "We know what the DOE is going to going to do, we know what the Panel of Educational Policy is going to do, they are going vote to phase out Jamaica High School because they are paid by Bloomberg, they are just a bunch of puppets. They are going to do exactly what Bloomberg says. So we are out here because we know they are not listening to us. So why should we listen to them."

This student and the other protesters had a right to be skeptical. At the end of the hearing, the Panel for Educational Policy simply confirmed decisions that had already been made. The next day, Bloomberg contemptuously dismissed the protesters as "embarrassing for New York City, for New York State, for America" in a radio interview. He also accused them of having a nostalgic attachment to high schools they attended thirty years earlier, although if Bloomberg had attended the hearing or even watched the television coverage he would have realized this was a much younger crowd.

At this rally, students, teachers, and parents were supported by some anti-Bloomberg politicians. Tony Avella, a state senator from Queens there to oppose the closing of Jamaica High School, declared, "If it takes a revolution in this city we are going to take back our schools." He also scolded Chancellor Black, saying: "You should not be sitting there as chancellor. You have no educational experience." City Councilmember Charles Barron of Brooklyn criticized Black for the disrespect she showed to citizens expressing their democratic rights.

Days before the hearing, Councilmember Barron and over twenty other people were arrested at a protest outside the city's Department of Education headquarters when they formed a human chain across Chambers St. in downtown Manhattan. This group included students organized by the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition and its youth affiliate Sistas and Brothas United.

Readers of my posts know I have been working with Pablo Muriel, a teacher at University Heights High School in the Bronx, and his students for a number of years. These students remain active in the anti-Bloomberg coalition despite the fact that last year they lost the battle to keep their school on the Bronx Community College campus. I have to say I find their continued activism inspiring. Over 100 students from University Heights attended the rally at Brooklyn Technical High School against the latest round of school closings. After the rally, a number of the students emailed Pablo and me about their involvement.

Andrea Escoboza wrote: "This may sound very cliché but the rally was an amazing learning experience. Most of the students found the experience empowering immediately, but I felt both enlightened and disturbed. I realized that I once thought that everything was equal. That is extremely naive. The way the [education] panel completely disregarded the speakers and our demands for democracy and education showed me the reality. This hearing was carefully planned so we would fail. I was angry at first but now I feel just as empowered as my mates because I know I have to protest and use all the power in my might to fight for what I deserve. This is what I learned."

Thalia Quezada wrote: "I think that all the things that this school has done, such as go to protests and fight for our and other schools is great. It shows that this is important and how no one is just thinking about themselves anymore. Everyone is getting together to fight the closing of schools because it affects everyone. It is something that we are all going to fight to stop it. I want to stand up for what is right."

Randy Hernandez wrote: "I did not go to the rally because I pick up my little sister from school everyday and my mom had a doctor's appointment. I am kind of mad at myself for not going because I really want to show support for other schools. The DOE [Department of education] is always saying 'stay in school and go to college.' But they are trying to prevent us from getting an education."

And Francisco Gomez warned Bloomberg and Black: "It started with University Heights High School and now is turning into the whole New York City. This is a historical issue for the future. People see how people abuse their power."