An enlightening mayoral forum on education was held on June 14th at Murry Bergtraum High School near City Hall, co-sponsored by Class Size Matters, NYC Kids PAC, and other parent organizations. Six candidates participated, including Democratic front-runners Bill de Blasio, John Liu, and Bill Thompson. Notably absent were Christine Quinn and Anthony Weiner, and none of the Republican candidates attended. The organizers did an excellent job articulating the most pressing issues for parents, but the prickly concern most palpable in the auditorium that night was the balance between Mayoral control and parent empowerment.
Consensus on Issues Raises More Questions on Solutions
The forum’s strict format required candidates to provide only a “yes” or “no” answer on whether they would endorse specific actions as Mayor, with responses tallied on a giant screen projected behind the dais. After this lightening round of sorts, the moderator, Juan Gonzalez, an investigative reporter for the Daily News and Democracy Now, circled back through the panel and selected certain candidates, not all, to elaborate on their positions. With no guarantee of air time, candidates nimbly stayed within the ground rules. When John Liu was asked the question, “Would you minimize the use of high stakes standardized tests and agree not to use tests to decide which schools to close and which students to be held back?” he cleverly answered, “yes, yes, and no.”
These lightening rounds quickly identified actions that all candidates agreed on: reducing class sizes, expanding special education services, upgrading facilities, and more after-school programs. Many of these initiatives with broad consensus require substantial funding, and only a few candidates referenced their fiscal policies. De Blasio said he would pay for universal pre-K and after-school programs for middle schoolers by “taxing the wealthy,” spurring raucous cheers from the audience. John Liu sparked the same reaction when proclaiming his intention to “go after the billions of dollars the State still owes the City from the Contracts for Excellence.” C4E set a formula for State-wide education funding and mandates transparency and public input on spending, but funding has been frozen for several years due to an esoteric State budget mechanism. According to the Education Law Center website, the shortfall has accumulated to over $7.7 billion and has “dramatically increased class sizes…and cut services for at-risk students.”
Balancing Mayoral and Parental Control: Subtle Differences Among Candidates
Questions around Mayoral control and parent empowerment did not lend themselves to binary answers and elicited more measured responses. Thompson would have the Mayor appointing only 6 of the 13 seats on the Panel for Educational Policy (PEP) versus 8 under the current system, explaining, “I don’t need a majority of seats and if I can’t convince one more PEP member then something is wrong.” De Blasio would control a majority of 7 of the 13 seats, but appoint “parents who can disagree with me” since they would have fixed terms rather risk being removed at the will of the Mayor. Liu proudly referred to his proposal “No More Rubber Stamp” released in January, whereby the Mayor would continue to select eight members, but only from nominees chosen by a committee of community members, labor leaders, educators, and elected officials.
In regards to the election process for Community Education Councils (CEC’s), de Blasio, Liu, and Thompson all responded “yes” to giving public school parents the right to vote for CEC parent members. The current system of PTA/PA officers (President, Secretary, and Treasurer) selecting CEC parent members was recently challenged in a lawsuit filed by the NYC Parents Union against the NYC Department of Education (DOE), claiming that the system excluded public school parents in the selection process and undermined parents’ ability to campaign. A court injunction held up release of the May CEC election results for several weeks, but by month’s end, the judge ruled against the plaintiffs, reaffirming the separation of education and election law that gives the Mayor and Chancellor latitude to set CEC election procedures.
The third and last tricky question in the forum’s governance and parent empowerment category was whether CEC’s should have the authority to approve co-located charter schools and school closings, with this power written into the Chancellor’s regulations. De Blasio and Thompson courageously said “no,” but in the same breath committed to a temporary moratorium on co-locations and closings until parents could be included in the decision making process. De Blasio suggested that “CEC’s should do what community boards do on land use decisions.” (Community boards hold public hearings that the applying agency must attend to address concerns from community members, followed by a formal community board vote and recommendation to the City Planning Department.)
Forum Lights a Spark for Voters
Given an audience of parents whose concerns over the last several years have been cumulating to the point of festering, much of the evening was taken up with the requisite lambasting of Mayor Bloomberg and the DOE which brought interspersed entertainment. De Blasio: “Only parents who can afford lawyers win fights for basic services.” Thompson: “This administration is less diverse than Giuliani’s.” Liu: “The DOE is run like a giant corporation and marketing firm.” (Candidates were unanimous in mandating that the Chancellor be a veteran educator and that release of student data be prohibited without parental consent.)
Thankfully, the event’s disciplined structure and skilled moderator kept panelists on point and made the forum worthwhile, not just for parents, but all voters. There is simply no substitute for seeing candidates in the flesh, presenting themselves and their policies in front of a live audience. The format of this forum revealed which candidates had the courage not to tell voters what they wanted to hear, as receiving a perfect 100% score with all yeses was probably not a good indicator. Thompson’s low score of the night, with 33% yeses, on the other hand, might indicate that as a five-term president of the former NYC Board of Education, he takes a process-driven approach to determining action steps rather than a unilateral quick-fix.
Whichever candidate is elected Mayor will face the daunting task of creating strong schools for all NYC children, plus a newly structured system with more parental involvement in decision making. Voters will thus need to be all the more diligent in deciding which candidate is up to the job. Digging deeper into the candidates’ education proposals is warranted, in tandem with analyzing their fiscal policies to pay for such proposals. Perhaps the most valuable benefit of attending a forum is that it generates a craving to learn more, and there is plenty of time between now and the fall elections to assess this large field of Mayoral hopefuls.