Barrett on the Mayoral Race: Thompson Comes Unglued About schools, Bloomberg Tries to Paddle Him

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If the latest poll numbers are to be believed, Bill Thompson is now a real candidate for mayor. So it's time for all of us in the media to start treating him like one, and for him to start sounding like one.

He hardly sounded like the measured and thoughtful man we know him to be when he called for Joel Klein's dismissal and branded the Department of Education the "Enron of American education" last week.

I said on NY1 Friday that Thompson had gone from hibernation to hyperbole, disappearing for so long we weren't sure he was running, and then exploding with outrage over audit findings that raised meaningful questions about the Department of Exaggeration, but bore no resemblance to counts in an indictment (Enron was a criminal fraud after all).

Of course, the comptroller's audits did not prove that the department was cheating on graduation rates and test scores. DOE set up that straw man to distract from Thompson's actual findings. No audit in this city or state ever has exposed that level of manipulation. It's an impossible standard for an auditor, whose job is to examine the system DOE has in place to make sure its diplomas and test triumphs are earned, as these audits responsibly did. I have read the 158 pages of Thompson's audits and DOE's response—DOE won the paper chase, accounting for 96 of those pages—and my conclusion is that Thompson has established that DOE's system of checks and balances tilts suspiciously in favor of the best possible result for Klein and Bloomberg.

That would mean, for example, that instead of the claimed 10 percent hike in the graduation rate since 2005, it might have gone up something less than that, hardly a rationale for dumping Klein (or Bloomberg for that matter), but sufficient reason to wonder if Klein considers it part of his job to co-produce Bloomberg's commercials. Despite all of DOE's smoke, it doesn't directly challenge Thompson's top conclusions on the first and second page of these two audits.

I asked DOE's Andrew Jacob, who was actually barred from one Thompson audit press conference, if the department disputed these four core findings, and he swore they did. I'm linking to the email and you see if you think he did. To me, DOE has deliberately and smartly huffed and puffed and appeared to blow Thompson's house down, without ever really disputing his central findings.

In fact, Jacob actually proves one key Thompson finding while attempting to rebut it. Thompson charged that "schools are given considerable authority with minimal oversight by DOE" in determining if students are meeting graduation standards. In Jacobs's answer to me, he lists several ways that schools decide, even though their funding is partially determined by maximizing these numbers, to "update" and in fact upgrade student records right before and right after graduation. The individual schools just do it Nike-like. If Mike Bloomberg were running against an incumbent whose re-election rationale pivoted around such school-by-school decisions—wide open to unchecked, home-court, advantages—his tabloid-owner allies would be jumping up and down, crying foul.

The tabloids predictably echoed the Bloomberg campaign's portrayal of the audits as political, with the Daily News calling the Thompson findings "the most cynically fabricated accusations in many a political season." But DOE's responses pointed out that the testing audit started in December 2007 and the graduation audit started in July 2008, long before anyone thought that Thompson would be running against Bloomberg or that Bloomberg would be running at all. In fact, in December, Bloomberg was telling reporters he wouldn't seek a third term if the term-limits law changed because "I am a believer that a new person can do it better," and Thompson was so friendly with Bloomberg he called the mayor's budget in January "a testament to prudent fiscal planning." As late as July, Thompson was still heaping the praise on Bloomberg, citing the $6.6 billion surplus that the mayor had accumulated and insisting that because of it, the city was "relatively well-positioned to cope" with the economic downturn.

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