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Sunday, March 22, 2009

The final Assembly hearings on governance

There was a long line outside the New York Technical College in Brooklyn Friday morning, for the final New York State Assembly hearings on NYC public school governance and mayoral control. Hundreds of people from East Brooklyn Congregations (EBC), and a smaller group from Learn-NY, both groups closely allied with the administration, filled the sidewalk, sporting pro-mayoral control buttons and signs. There were also many parents, unaffiliated with any organization, who were far less enthusiastic about the current system, which leaves them without any input in how their children's schools are run.

Once inside, there seemed to be an unbridgeable chasm between supporters and opponents of mayoral control. But upon examination, there were few who didn't support greater checks and balances on the powers of the mayor and chancellor and increased parent input.

Comptroller William Thompson and a representative from Borough President Marty Markowitz started off the hearing by declaring themselves strong supporters of mayoral control. But having made that statement, each followed with recommendations that were similar to—if much weaker than—those of the Parent Commission on School Governance and Mayoral Control; for example, to support a more independent school board, with members with fixed terms to replace the current Panel on Educational Policy, stronger roles for Community District Education Councils (CDECs), and an independent body to audit test scores and graduation rates.

Thompson proposed a model like that currently used in Boston, in which the Mayor appoints members from a group of candidates first screened by a committee made up of stakeholder groups. (Brooklyn Congressman Anthony Wiener made a similar, if less specific, statement later on.)

The EBC spokesperson, Rev. David Brawley, testified to the improvements in the schools in his community that he said were brought by mayoral control. But, when pressed for what changes he would like to see, he suggested an independent parent advocacy center, similar to the Parent Commission's proposal for an Independent Parent Organization (IPO) and affiliated Parent Academy. An IPO was also the centerpiece of a proposal from former Congressman Major Owens and his Central Brooklyn Martin Luther King Commission.

A number of sincere speakers from charter schools testified about the educational opportunities these schools offered students who would otherwise languish in their neighborhood public schools. But none of them asked why these opportunities, including smaller classes, are only available in charter schools and not in our regular public schools, or even why continuing mayoral control is necessary for these programs to continue. By pitting charter school parents against opponents of mayoral control, the DOE has cleverly divided parents into two camps that are fighting each other instead of an administration that refuses to provide a quality education to all NYC public school children.

As a representative of the Citywide Council on Special Education, Parent Commission member Patricia Connelly spoke early, to great effect. After describing the especially dismal situation that exists for students with special needs and the lack of a voice for parents of these children, she also described how the DOE routinely makes decisions about opening and closing schools without community involvement. "The Parent Commission rejects the condescending autocracy that currently masquerades as parent engagement," she stated.

A number of other speakers referenced the Parent Commission's recommendations, including several CDEC members. By the time our panel got a chance to speak at 6:30 PM, we were rushed a bit, but other members of the Parent Commission had already had a chance to fully present our proposals in the Bronx. All in all, the Parent Commission seems to have made quite an impact.

As this was the first of any of the five Assembly hearings I had attended, I was most interested to watch the various members of the Assembly Education Committee in action.. They spent a huge amount of time fiercely questioning the speakers from the Department of Education, including Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott; Deputy Chancellor for Teaching and Learning Marcia Lyles, Eric Nadelstern, Chief Schools Officer; Deputy Chancellor Chris Cerf; James Liebman, Chief Accountability Officer, and Martine Guerrier, Chief Family Engagement officer. Even though many of the DOE officials had clearly been prepared in advance (and Cerf carried a thick white binder entitled “Briefing Book” on his lap), they seemed strangely unprepared for many of the specific questions asked.

For example, Hakeem Jeffries asked for the black male graduation rate—a figure the DOE had not include in their testimony and that none of them appeared able to provide, even though graduation rates was supposed to be the focus of their testimony. Jeffries himself supplied the shocking figure of 32%.

Alan Maisel asked how many principals had been trained, to what effect , and at what cost by the Leadership Academy. Cerf and Nadelstern could offer no specific numbers, but claimed that the Academy had produced “hundreds of people” who were doing great work.

Nick Perry called the controversial practice of “credit recovery” the “dirty little secret” of schools, in which students who otherwise failed their courses could “catch up” by attending a few weekend sessions. Hakeem Jeffries followed up by asking DOE officials how many students graduate from high school as a result of credit recovery. Nadelstern said that the number of students benefiting from this policy was “impossible to calculate,” but claimed that the practice was long-standing.

Deputy Mayor Walcott made the unconvincing argument that though they might not have all the data available, at least with Mayoral control, “you know where to get the answers”(!!) Several legislators talked about how unresponsive the DOE had been in keeping them informed. Michael Benedetto complained that an elementary school in his district that he had once attended was being closed and turned into a charter school with little or no advance warning. Nick Perry recounted how he had tried to get Martine Guerrier to return his phone calls to no avail.

Jim Brennan questioned DOE claims of achievements that had actually started before their tenure (he has released a report on this subject). Mark Weprin lit into the DOE for appearing to deny the extent of test prep occurring in the schools, instead of true teaching.

Daniel O'Donnell described the letter grades schools receive on their Progress reports by the Yiddish word “fakakta ,” saying that no parent believes them. He asked why DOE was not following the law by failing to establish an “audit committee”– as had all other school districts throughout the state. He questioned why charter schools are not educating their fair share of special needs students or English Language Learners (and he returned to this question with every charter school provider who testified).

Chair Cathy Nolan expressed her understanding, as a public school parent herself, of how the DOE's parent surveys were constructed to manipulate a favorable response, and ended the DOE questioning with a comment on how the administration appears to be creating a “two tier” system that “smacks of triage,” allowing charter schools to provide smaller classes, while refusing to allow our regular public schools to do the same.

It seems clear that the Education Committee is prepared to make major changes in school governance, even if mayoral control is not rejected outright. Mark Weprin said that the only question was what changes they would recommend. Of course, how this will play out in the Senate and with the Governor is yet to be seen.

When I left at 7:00 pm, a large and vocal contingent from the Campaign for Better Schools had recently arrived. With only an hour left in the hearings, less than half of the remaining 50 or so people who had signed up to testify—largely parents and teachers—had yet had a chance to speak. Clearly, many parents are fed up and wanted to take advantage of the rare opportunity of these hearings to have their voices heard, especially as the legislators appeared interested in what they had to say. This was a refreshing contrast to the hearings held by the administration, in which they make it very clear that could care less what we parents think. --- Ellen Bilofsky

Check out the news stories about the hearings here: A Diverse Set of Voices Struggles to Be Heard on School Control (NY Times);State Assembly Holds Final Hearing on Mayoral Control of Schools (WNYC radio); Thompson Calls For Changes To Mayor-Controlled Schools (NY1); City Controller William Thompson's control issue (Daily News); Thompson: Let mayor keep school control, but limit his options (Gotham Schools)


Pogue said...

The parents have done fantastic work with these hearings. If changes are made to Mayoral Control so much credit has to go these dedicated parents and the politicians who have truly listened. Yet, it is a shame that Randi Weingarten and the leadership of the UFT chose not to go along for the ride. The fright and apprehension they show this city administration is deplorable. Children, neighborhoods, staff, and teachers are all victims of the DOE's educational "gutting". Again, bravo, parents.

Anonymous said...

Kudos to Leonie Haimson and Ellen Bilofsky for Ellen’s account of Friday’s hearing --- and especially for Ellen’s recognition of the way that the DOE has pitted charter school parents against public school parents.

The whole mayoral control issue would be moot if City government were not so completely dominated by the Mayor.

Since 1989, New York City has not had a board of directors --- the old Board of Estimate --- whose eight members used to interact every day because they needed their colleagues’ cooperation to get major contracts approved, direct Board of Education policy, formulate the budget, approve major land use changes, etc., etc., etc. The Mayor couldn’t run the City without them. So he had to listen to them when they spoke about parental involvement, school zoning, or programs for the gifted and talented.

Today’s Mayor has to listen to no one.

Neither will his successor.

The only way out of this situation is for the New York State legislature to create a New York City Charter Revision Commission and re-visit the ancient and hallowed idea that power shared is power moderated.

Alvin Berk

Anonymous said...

just curious, where did that photo come from? i have a hard time believing that there are 40+ kids in a class, with so many kids going without desks. actually looks like one class visiting another. what school is that?