Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Let the Public Advocate advocate for a new direction for our schools

As one of only three citywide elected officials, the Public Advocate can play an important role in articulating alternative policies from those carried out by the Mayor In perhaps no other area would this be more important than for the NYC school system. because it consumes 1/3 of the City budget, and because the Mayor has untrammeled statutory control to run the schools.

The current Public Advocate, Bill de Blasio, is especially qualified to play such a role, as a public school parent and a former school board member in District 15 in Brooklyn, who considers himself a progressive, community based activist.

Unfortunately, nine months after his election, he has not presented a systematic vision for our public schools, nor a program around which to mobilize change. Recently he released a report criticizing the Department of Education's school co-location policy that has negatively affected dozens of schools by taking important space within them.

Yet even more significant are the threat of budget cuts that threaten to undo the financial gains from the nearly twenty-year struggle of the Campaign For Fiscal Equity lawsuit and the false assertions of the Mayor and Chancellor of immense progress under their regime. These claims have obstructed the adoption of measures which could truly make a difference in the quality of education, such as building more schools, lowering class size, ensuring a broad based curricula, mentoring teachers and principals, and cultivating the civic values of creativity, imagination, and peaceful conflict resolution.

While the reality of little improvement has been apparent to knowledgeable parents and activists for many years, few political figures on the city or state level have been willing to challenge the administration’s assertions of improving student performance and rising graduation rates The recent acknowledgement by the state that their exams and their scoring have become far too easy may provide an opening to change the widespread official perception. It is time for all of us to agree that the gains in test scores were illusory, and that policies such as "credit recovery" which lift graduation rates are just a new name for the social promotion of unprepared students. At best 50 percent of NYC students graduate from high school in four years, and those who do graduate are vastly unequipped for college work or citizenry in a democratic society.

An alternative vision for our schools would begin with support of the policies mentioned above, and would provide structures to train and involve parents, communities, and educators in crafting that vision. It would involve the kinds of recommendations made a year ago by the Parent Commission in its report issued during the legislative debate over mayoral control. (http:

These recommendations offer a new direction for democratic participation and ---through the adoption of an Education Constitution --- mandate a vision for the NYC public school system along with the resources needed to implement that vision for all students. The recommendations include a real role for districts, and the formation of a Parent Union.

Such a vision was presented to the Public Advocate's office by activists from three districts at meeting in April, which was organized by him to begin a process of involving parents in defining the salient educational issues facing their families. However, the response at that meeting by the Public Advocate's staff was dismissive, and there has been no follow-up since.

The challenges facing our schools long predate the Bloomberg-Klein administration. Experienced parents, community members, and educators have addressed these issues for decades. Yet the administration’s reliance on lawyers and business executives rather than educators and parents have brought about few valuable changes, much heavy handed disruption, and the waste of billions of dollars in experiments without any basis in research or experience---such as closing schools, firing teachers, narrowing curricula, and expanding the number of charter schools. They have failed to lower class sizes to the levels the city committed to in the CFE settlement, or to eliminate pervasive overcrowding that prevents adequate space for arts, sciences, and physical education, or to develop an effective program for mentoring teachers and principals.

The Public Advocate could be a galvanizing spokesperson to highlight these failures and present an alternative vision. He would best be able to do so by involving those who have been left out of the discussion. Let him convene a citywide education summit, and establish working committees comprised of parents, community activists, and educators, many of whom have retired because of their disagreement with the current regime.

Collectively such a group could formulate a new direction to replace the mayor’s current, discredited policies. The Public Advocate could use the resources of his office to promote this alternative vision in communities throughout the city. That would spur the kind of debate about education policy which has been missing from this city for too long. ---

Josh Karan has been engaged for 30 years in organizing communities to promote democratic public educational excellence. He has been a parent activist for the past 15 years in District 6, Washington Heights/Inwood, in support of the Campaign For Fiscal Equity lawsuit begun in his district.

1 comment:

Lisa R. said...

An excellent post!

Why don't you copy it to so that it gets a wider readership, including teachers from elsewhere around the State of New York?

Best regards!