A new height of public indignation towards the Department of Education (DOE) was reached last month in reaction to the DOE’s audacious fast-tracking of approvals for a long list of 50 new school co-locations, re-sitings, and grade reconfigurations, with approximately half representing charter schools. None of the proposals would take effect until 2014 or even 2015, well into the new Mayor’s term, and Bill de Blasio has declared he may reverse the decisions after scrutinizing each proposal and seeking proper input from the community. Accusations abound of needless aggravation inflicted upon parents and communities, and wasted tax payers’ money. “A Hail Mary,” scoffed one community board member.
A lawsuit has already been filed by the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) to block the actions, and the presumptive next Public Advocate Letitia James has threatened more litigation to come. “This is legal notice to the DOE – do not delete your e-mails, as I will be an activist Public Advocate,” she pronounced to a cheering crowd at the October 15th Panel for Educational Policy (PEP) meeting, where throngs of politicians, parents, teachers, and students shared over five hours of heartfelt testimony. It was after midnight when PEP members finally voted to approve the first batch of 23 school proposals, keeping intact Bloomberg’s near perfect record of approved proposals from a PEP board stacked with Mayoral appointees (8 of 13).
Although Bloomberg officials have been on a crusade to implore the next administration not to undo their legacy reforms, the DOE’s egregious overreaching in its twilight months has made it even harder for constituents to see through clouds of anger and mistrust to clearly assess the reform initiatives, which inherently take years to fully implement and yield improved student learning. In the aftermath of lost battles for community participation in school decisions, however, a silver lining has emerged, with some promising new approaches put forth on how to restructure the broken system.
City Council Weighs In on DOE Track Record
Another marathon six-hour meeting took place on October 2nd at the City Council’s Education Committee public hearing to address the DOE’s failure to comply with both the spirit and letter of the law mandating public participation in “school utilization” decisions. On the table for discussion was a package of three draft committee resolutions: an amendment to New York State Education Law to require that school closures and co-locations be approved by Community Education Councils (CECs) before a final PEP vote; a one year moratorium on school closings and co-locations to assess impact especially on low income communities; and improved DOE community notification procedures for proposed school changes.
Chancellor Dennis Walcott kicked off the testimony, reading from a dramatic script of anecdotes and statistics portraying the 12-year legacy of Bloomberg’s reform efforts. The city-wide drop-out rate has been cut in half. Crime in schools is down 50%. College readiness as measured by State test scores has doubled. Graduation rates are higher in Bloomberg’s signature small schools versus large traditional high schools. New York City has become a “nationally-recognized model for urban school systems…[by] phasing out low-performing schools and replacing them with new, smaller schools.” This approach, executed on a large scale with only token community input, is often labeled a scorched earth strategy and has transformed the landscape of City schools.
In the last 12 years, 164 schools were closed and 654 new schools opened, including 139 new charter schools. The vast majority of new schools were co-located in existing public school buildings, where today, many district buildings house several schools (five or six in some instances), often small 300-500 student “Career & Technical Education” (CTE) high schools with a specialty focus, such as landscape architecture, television production, and software engineering. Although students in some co-located schools co-exist peacefully, there are daily challenges like separate entrances for kindergartners to circumvent metal detectors for high school students, and lunch times that start at 10:30 to sequence schools in and out of a shared cafeteria. Walcott called the co-location strategy a “bold, new approach” since real estate is scarce and giving families more school choices is central to the DOE’s reforms.
The DOE’s testimony trumpeted some impressive data points, but was off-topic from the hearing agenda, and impatient committee members brought their follow-up questioning back on point. Lew Fidler lectured Walcott, “Engaging is not sending a DOE designated piñata to public hearings where parents are yelling at you; it is having a dialogue.” He continued, “If the process was real, then once or twice the DOE’s decision over the last 12 years would have been changed.” Walcott’s attempt at wry humor was not appreciated by the crowd. “If that’s your threshold, once or twice, then we’ve met that.”
Making CECs More Effective
One flaw in the current system that stakeholders agree on is that CECs are a “poorly empowered body,” as David Golovner from the New York City Charter School Center asserted at the hearing. He pointed to the dearth of parent candidates, “dysfunctional” election process, and CECs that lack quorums, often in low income neighborhoods. Committee Chair Robert Jackson honed in on the core issue to solve, “Yet they are elected citizens just like I am an elected citizen.” He had earlier pressed Chancellor Walcott. “CECs have passed dozens of resolutions that go to the heart of the DOE’s game plan of school closures and co-locations. Has the DOE ever responded in writing or otherwise?” Walcott replied that it was the “policy of the administration not to comment on CEC resolutions.” “You should reconsider that policy,” shot back Jackson. “There should be a formal response.”
Other politicians have stepped up to empower CECs beyond their sole current authority of approving zoning lines. State Assemblyman Keith Wright proposed a bill last year that would require CECs to approve school co-locations. Scott Stringer, former Manhattan Borough President and soon-to-be Comptroller, convened CEC task forces over the years, with Bill de Blasio serving on a 2011 task force as Public Advocate. One of the recommendations that de Blasio has continued to endorse in his Mayoral campaign is establishing “UPEP” (a Uniform Parental Engagement Procedure) for CECs, analogous to ULURP (Uniform Land Use Review Procedure) for community boards, which provides real leverage over land use decisions through a clearly delineated process in the City Charter and related laws. Stringer’s studies also concluded that CECs should become independent from the DOE, with Borough president offices made responsible for CEC member training and support since “it is unreasonable to expect a City agency to effectively promote independent criticism of its own proposals.” CEC elections, one report recommended, should be turned over to a non-profit organization or independent government body.
Ensuring a More Representative PEP
Reconfiguring PEP is another crucial step in improving the current system, and the next Mayor can enact some changes before the State Legislature considers renewal of the current mayoral control structure in 2015. PEP member appointment procedures were a hot topic in the Mayoral debates. Runner-up Bill Thompson proposed reducing the number of Mayor appointees from eight to six, no longer a majority, and allowing CEC Chairs and the CUNY Chancellor to each appoint one PEP member. John Liu’s proposal forced the Mayor and Borough presidents to choose their appointees from a candidate pool vetted by a selection committee. The UFT has its own proposal. Instead of appointing eight of the thirteen PEP members, the Mayor would appoint only five. Borough presidents would continue to appoint five, and the remaining three slots would be filled by appointees of the City Comptroller, Public Advocate, and City Council Speaker.
De Blasio treads a fine line on reconfiguring PEP, stating in his education platform that he “believes in Mayoral control,” but promises that his appointees will be more representative of the City’s school communities. At the same time, he has a “plan to revamp mayoral control” by allowing CECs an “advisory vote” on major school changes such as closures and co-locations.
Gale Brewer, shoo-in to succeed Stringer as Manhattan Borough President, espouses what she calls “the municipalization of PEP.” The City Council would vet and approve each of the Mayor’s proposed PEP appointees, the same process the City uses for appointing members to the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the Health and Hospitals Corporation. In a phone interview, Brewer commented, “The good news is that you get to have a public hearing, and this advice and consent approach will make the Mayor think twice about choosing someone who is not qualified.”
In creating a more effective PEP, term rules also need to be reviewed. Some proposals suggest fixed terms of two to four years, rather than members serving at the will of those who appointed them. Bloomberg’s overnight replacement of three PEP members in 2004 when they did not endorse one of his proposals will not soon be forgotten.
More Worthy Ideas
Other modifications are under consideration to strengthen the management of City schools, such as revising the Chancellor appointment process, re-empowering community superintendents with greater authority over budgetary, instructional, and school space decisions, and bringing the DOE under more budget and legislative control by the City Council. The DOE is the only City agency that does not submit its budget to City Council, and Council members have long complained about lack of access to DOE information. The Council’s Education Committee has earned a reputation as a vigilant watch dog of the DOE, and committee member David Greenfield proclaims that, “No one does more oversight of the DOE than this committee.”
An Open Door for New Mayor
With a new Mayor and administration come January, the door is wide open to redesign the City’s education system, which could range from sweeping governance changes to internal tweaking at the DOE. Given constituents’ exasperation with the style of City management from Bloomberg, often coined the “master who knows better than the people he is serving,” de Blasio may have a short runway to prove that his measures and personnel choices are effective at shifting an imbalanced system that is not serving the needs of students and families. As union leader Ernest Logan expressed at the City Council hearing, “By re-engaging parents and the community, we are just at the beginning of revolutionizing our schools.”