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Tales Out of School.

The media devoted most if its page-one stories about the memoirs of Joe Fernandez, the ex-chancellor of education for the New York City school system, to the juicy tidbits that sell newspapers: The revelation that Fernandez nearly overdosed 40 years ago as a teenager and his political snub of Mario Cuomo. The soap opera was revived in early February when the school board ousted Fernandez after feuding with the chancellor over his stands on gay rights and condom distribution. But the most significant story about Fernandez was still ignored by the press: He had, through his memoirs, offered the public its first hard tour inside the beleaguered New York City school system.

Here Fernandez provides lessons on why janitors in New York City are paid $58,000 annually but don't do windows. Or why the Board of Education can't fire principals with tenure no matter how badly they screw up. The real scandal, as Fernandez aptly demonstrates in his book, occurs silently every day.

The story begins with Fernandez as a troubled teenager in Harlem. A nearly fatal drug overdose at age 18 convinced him to change course and join the Air Force, leading to his college degree at age 27. His early story drifts between seminal moments and the obligatory nostalgia better stored in a diary. But it was as a math teacher in Florida's Dade County that his philosophy on education really began to take shape--a philosophy that centered on parental and teacher involvement in each school's decision-making process. Why not involve those who battle with the system the most--and who understand its problems the best? "My feeling was that you gain more by bringing people in than by trying to keep them out," Fernandez writes.

From this he derived a solution to education bureaucracy called "School-based Management," which he implemented with some success in Dade County as superintendent in the late eighties. The concept is both simple and elegant: Have each school run by a cadre of parents, teachers, and the principal, all working to set school policies in areas from budget to curriculum to personnel. Eliminate needless middle-men who waste resources in their fights for territory between the school and the school board. Finally, create a system of performance feedback so that the effectiveness of strategy introduced at the top can be judged by results rather than politics.

The organizational theory of creative, proactive involvement at all levels is not new. The great statistics guru W. Edwards Deming first proposed these ideas to a ravaged, dispirited Japan in the fifties, a time when U.S. auto manufacturers poopooed the importance of customers and employees. Today, the Japanese consider Deming a national hero--and sell some of the best cars in America.

Can education be handled the same way? Fernandez found that with 32 districts, each with its own superintendent and school board, New York "had tyranny of local dominions . . . So going in, I made up my mind I would attack bad governance whenever and wherever I saw it, and if it meant finding out exactly how much clout the chancellor had for what he needed to do, all the better." Thus, he added to his theory of proactive involvement the need for a strong, centralized backer (himself) to defend reform against the entity which has the most to lose from reform--the bureaucracy of the system itself.

Though he can try, one chancellor can't enforce accountability on a system as mammoth as New York's (more than 120,000 employees, I million students, and a budget of $7 billion a year). Fernandez was able to build a coalition of editorial boards and public support on the outside but seemed to get trapped in the politics of blame on the inside. He spends much of the remainder of the book delving into the play-by-play nuances of his original salary negotiations and subsequent personality conflicts with the city's school board, along with explanations of why he wasn't after New York Mayor David Dinkins's job or why the city provided him with an expensive brownstone in Brooklyn. All this would be boring except that it reveals how the reformer can become a prisoner of his own office.

"The truth is that in a job like this you reach a point where it's time to move on anyway. You begin to sense it when conflicts start going off in series, like exploding firecrackers," he says with acrimonious prescience. No one can handle a system that large. School districts in New York, and the nation, for that matter, need to be broken down into manageable independent entities run by competent reformers--rather than one gung-ho chancellor trying to move a glacier, or one secretary of Education with a strategy and no fiscal clout--for Fernandez's system of school-based management to have the support and accountability it requires.

Polly Toynbee is the social affairs editor of the British Broad-casting Corporation.
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Author:Foley, Brendan
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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