Sunday, June 25, 2017

Our 2017 Skinny Award dinner; a wonderfully joyful and inspiring evening!

Our Class Size Matters Skinny award dinner was held last Tuesday, June 20, and it was terrific, despite a last minute change of venue because the restaurant where it was supposed to be held unexpectedly closed. Many people told me it was the best Skinny award dinner ever. Amir of Casa La Femme welcomed us with open arms; the restaurant is luxurious and spacious, with good food, and a belly dancer even turned up at the end of the evening. Sorry if you didn't make it, but there's always next year. Below is the speech I gave and some photos; there are many more on the Class Size Matters Facebook page here. See also the video of the CPE1 parents singing below.  The evening was also covered by bloggers Arthur Goldstein and Norm Scott.

Welcome to our 9th annual Skinny award dinner. This is always one of the most joyous and inspiring evenings of the year for me and I hope for all of you as well.

Carol Burris, Diane Ravitch  and John Allgood.
Before getting started Some special people I want to thank – first of all, the Class Size Matters board – Diane Ravitch, Patrick Sullivan, Monica Major, Emily Horowitz and Cynthia Wachtell.

I want to thank Diane, Cynthia and Susan Ochshorn of Early Childhood Education Policy Works for their generosity and helping to underwrite the dinner tonight.

My fellow NYC Kids PAC members who are here tonight – many of whom also volunteered to help set up and check you in -- Shino Tanikawa, Karen Sprowal, Fatima Geidi, Gloria Corsino – all great parent leaders. Also Benita Lovett-Rivera, our brilliant graphic designer, who helped with the turnout and success of tonight’s event.

I want to thank Dr. Audrey Baker and Dr. Gerry Baker, for coming and to congratulate Audrey for receiving her Doctorate of Educational Leadership just a few weeks ago.

Karen Sprowal and Jan Atwell
I want to thank Jan Atwell with teaching me everything I know about education policy and politics and has been my mentor in this area for many years Whenever I don’t know the answer to a question I just ask Jan.

And most of all, I want to thank my husband Michael Oppenheimer for supporting me every possible way – financially emotionally and telling me that what I do is worth doing, even as his own job and mission is literally saving the world from climate change.

When we started this in 2009 we held it at a little cafĂ© on Chambers Street. Never did I imagine that I would still be doing this nine years later. Now I want to explain why this is called the Skinny awards: First of all, we’re a Skinny organization, with a very modest budget; and the name is meant to contrast with the Broad award, given by the billionaire Eli Broad to public school systems that conformed to his corporate reform ideology. Finally, the award is given to people who give us the real “Skinny” on NYC schools.

There are also a bunch of previous Skinny award winners I’d like to recognize who are here tonight:

Diane Ravitch won our first Skinny award in 2009 – and since then has led the nation, through her incredible intellect, knowledge and passionate and eloquent writing in advocating for our public education system, and protecting it from the privatization efforts of and the assorted billionaires, corpocrats and Silicon Valley executives who would like to privatize education I barely have time to read her prolific and prodigious blog every day – I have no idea how she manages to write it all.

Also here tonight is Robert Jackson who received the award in 2010 – for his role as the chief
Robert Jackson, Gretchen Mergenthaler; Sarah Morgridge
plaintiff in the CFE lawsuit, in which he sued to obtain funding equity for NYC schools and also for his excellent work chairing the City Council Education Committee for many years.

Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa is here tonight; please give her a round of applause. Her election as Chancellor is probably the best thing that happened to education in our state in many years; she won the Skinny award along with Regent Kathy Cashin in 2012.

In 2013, Teacher and bloggers extraordinaire Arthur Goldstein and Gary Rubinstein, received the Skinny awards, and in 2014, Carol Burris former principal of South Side HS on Long Island who is now doing a stellar job as Executive director of the Network for Public Education.

Barbara Harris, Kemala Karmen, Lisa Rudley
Also here tonight is the amazing Lisa Rudley Executive Director of NYS Allies for Public Education; Kemala Karmen from NYC Opt out and Rosalie Friend, Jane Maisal, Katie Lapham and Fred Smith from Change the Stakes– who collectively won the award in 2015 for their amazing work leading the opt out movement.

Now for the 2017 Skinny awards.

Wendy Lecker from the Education Law Center is not only a brilliant pro bono attorney but also has a terrific weekly column in the Stamford Advocate newspaper. She has represented the rights of NYC public school students since the days of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity case, and in numerous successful lawsuits since then -- including making the NYC Department of Education comply with the law when it comes to holding borough hearings on the
Wendy Lecker of Ed Law Center
Contracts for Excellence plans.

Most recently, she forced Governor Cuomo to provide legally mandated funds to struggling schools despite his efforts to withhold them. She is about to represent CSM and NYC parents on another legal matter, which I’d hoped I could announce tonight, but has been unfortunately delayed due to circumstances out of our control. Wendy Lecker, will you come up and accept your well-deserved Skinny award?
One of the most extraordinary stories of this year is how a student newspaper at Townsend Harris HS in Queens called the Classic helped bring down an interim principal named Rosemary Jahoda, by reporting on numerous examples of her unacceptable behavior, including refusing to address the discrimination of Muslim students, delaying sending student transcripts to colleges, micromanaging teachers, and other instances of insensitivity to students and teachers alike. They live-streamed a student sit-in to protest her actions when the Superintendent was visiting the school, and posted a recording of the principal's conversation with a staff member, in which she used foul language.

Brian Sweeney, Sumaita Hasan, Mehrose Ahmad of Townsend Harris
For all their conscientious reporting, the newspaper received the ultimate compliment from DOE officials in the age of Trump, who called their stories “fake news.” Instead, a teacher at the school countered this way, and I quote: "These students double and triple check their sources and the DOE should have done as much vetting on Miss Jahoda."

Their work was repeatedly hailed in the NYTimes, WNYC and local papers for helping to build support for the principal’s removal, which finally occurred in April. Mehrose Ahmad and Sumaita Hasan, students and co-editors of the Classic, and your faculty adviser, Brian Sweeney please come up and accept your well=deserved skinny award for your brilliant reporting and courage, and for giving us the real Skinny on NYC public schools.

Laura Barbieri of Advocates for Justice
The next awardees are very special to me. Advocates for Justice have fought for the rights of public school students in innumerable cases, including representing CSM in a lawsuit we helped file against Arthur Schwartz went up to argue the case in state court, he was the sole attorney against five attorneys for the city and the DOE, and an army of other attorneys who trooped in from three private white shoe law firms representing Success Academy and other charter schools.

Yet Arthur was not daunted, argued the case brilliantly, and we would have won that lawsuit, except in the meantime the Legislature and the Governor changed the law and took that clause out.  allowing the DOE to only charge $1 to charter schools for co-locating in public school building; as the state law said at that time that if the DOE if they chose to give space to charter schools they would have to charge them market rates. When

Since then Arthur and Laura Barbieri, Special counsel at Advocates for Justice, have sued DOE to stop other charter co-locations and against charter school discrimination against special needs students; Laura has also represented the parents and students in E. Ramapo in federal court, against their school board diverting public school funds to promote their own religious schools and discriminating against students based on race, color, national origin, ethnicity, and religion.

Most recently, Laura represented Class Size Matters in the lawsuit we pursued to ensure that School Leadership Team meetings are open the public and we won vs DOE, first at the Supreme Court level and then in a unanimous decision by the Appellate Court this fall. And incredibly, like Wendy, they do all this work for free! Arthur and Laura – please come up and receive well-deserved our Skinny award .


The amazing parents of Save CPE1
Now last but not least, we want to celebrate and honor an amazing act of organizing organization and advocacy by the parents of Central Park East, who refused to let the principal installed at their school destroy its wonderful spirit and traditions. The school founded by Debbie Meier in 1974 has long prided itself on its progressive philosophy and democratic form of government., and when parents discovered the DOE had installed a principal who not only had not background in progressive education but put teachers who opposed her in the rubber room, grilled children in her office trying to get them to make unfounded accusations against their teachers without the knowledge of parents, and lied to them, they didn’t give up.

Instead, they fought back. They attended every single PEP meeting and urged the Chancellor to act, held numerous rallies, signed petitions, and finally in April, sat in at their school overnight – daring the DOE to arrest them. The last straw was when the principal banned two of the parent leaders from the school on trumped up charges, Jen Roesch and Kaliris Salas-Ramirez. After being subjected to more than a year of bad PR and damaging headlines, the Mayor and the Chancellor finally conceded and the principal resigned last month. For their incredible bravery, hard work, and persistence in saving their school, will Jen and Kaliris on behalf of Save CPE I, please come up and accept your award.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Some fact checking & historical context on community school boards and what happened last time Mayoral control lapsed

Well it happened.  The NY Legislature adjourned last night at 11:30 PM without making a decision on whether to renew mayoral control, which otherwise lapses at the end of June. Senate Majority leader John Flanagan is still holding out for more charter schools in exchange for extending mayoral control , though he doesn't have a single charter school in his own Long Island district, and his constituents would likely be very upset if any were proposed.  He portrays himself  as the great champion of NYC black and brown children -- though most political insiders understand that he is simply doing the bidding of his biggest contributors among NYC hedgefunders and pro-charter school PACs.

At the same time, Mayor de Blasio and the Chancellor continue to deliver scare stories and repeat like a mantra that we will return to the days of "chaos and corruption" of local school boards; and the media is repeating their stories as gospel apparently without apparently doing any fact-checking.  As I mentioned briefly before in the blog, the local school boards lost all their power to hire, fire and let contracts in 1996, years before the adoption of Mayoral control, with nearly all power centralized in the Chancellor.  Here is an excerpt from the brief history in Gotham Gazette:

Under the prodding of then-Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew, the New York State Legislature in 1996 redefined the responsibilities of local school boards, taking away much of their power, including the authority to name a the district superintendent.

Today, school boards no longer manage day-to-day affairs within the district or hire or promote school district employees, including principals. Instead, the local school boards set educational policy, mostly just by helping to select a superintendent for the school district. Even here they don't have the final say; the chancellor does....

Rodney Saunders, a strong proponent of the local boards, says he ran for school board, an unpaid position, in 1996 because, after his daughter started kindergarten, he felt he had a vested interest in working to improve the school system. He says some people run for school board after serving as a leader of a school parents' association, while others see it as a first step in entering the political arena. About 30 percent of school board members have children in the school system.

Saunders says, "School board members, as elected officials, can use the power of the parents and the press to call attention to conditions that exist within a specific school or the entire district, such as the need for additional seats or buildings because of severe overcrowding."

He believes that corruption among board members is rare, but that the community boards have been convenient scapegoats. "The press and Board of Education were always blaming school boards for failures," he complains. Now that the community boards have less power, and "we can't be blamed, it's 'the parents' fault' or the 'students' fault.'"

Even Assemblyman Steve Sanders, who was a driving force behind passage of the 1996 school reform legislation, stops short of advocating the complete elimination of school boards.
"We should not have a school system without a place in the structure for parental involvement in decision making," Sanders says. "I'm more comfortable with the way school boards are today."

As I also pointed out in the blog, as did Patrick Sullivan, former Manhattan appointee to the Panel for Educational Policy, mayoral control is no check against corruption -- and the DOE proposed several multi-million dollar contracts to be awarded corrupt vendors under both Mayors Bloomberg and de Blasio. 

Josh Karan believes this is an opportune time for the Legislature to take a serious look at the 2008 recommendations of the former Parent Commission, which I belonged to.

You can also check out what I wrote the last time the Board of Education met in 2009, when mayoral control temporarily lapsed before resuming later that summer.  All the borough appointees immediately voted to re-appoint Chancellor Klein and gave him unlimited authority, including signing over their fiduciary duties to approve contracts.   Here is a less angry account from the NY Times at that time. 

In any case, whatever happens up in Albany this time, I believe the views of parents will likely be of only minimal importance to decision-makers and power politics will rule as usual.

Josh Karan: an opportunity to revise Mayoral control and what should happen next

Guest blog by Josh Karan below.  Though I'm not as optimistic that parents will have any say in what happens if and when mayoral control lapses, the Parent Commission which was a part of in 2008 did have a rigorous analysis of what was wrong with mayoral control and how to improve upon it. We invited any parent or parent advocate to be part of our group, held panel discussions with experts on school governance and critical education issues, and deliberated for an entire year before coming up with our consensus recommendations. For those who would like to see what we proposed, you can check out our full report here. -- Leonie

We have an unexpected opportunity to influence how NYC schools are governed, which could make them more engaging of and accountable to communities. 

Since 2002 the granting of control of the schools to the Mayor by the NY State legislature has required periodic re-authorization.  Presently such granting of power expires July 1, and there has been a deadlock between various factions as to the terms for its reauthorization.

Therefore, according to staff of one NY State Senator, the NYS legislature will be convening a Special Session after July 4 to address the issue of NYC school governance. 

This has panicked proponents of Mayoral Control, including the di Blasio administration, and many others, who view Mayoral Control as responsible for great improvements in educational outcomes.  They are seeking a multi-year, re-authorization, while Republicans and some Democrats, want to link re-authorization to an expansion of Charter schools, and an audit of how the school system has been spending its money.  

Proponents of Mayoral Control have argued that the alternative would be a return to what they assert were corrupt, unrepresentative, local Community School Boards.  

This impasse allows some opportunity to affect the debate, perhaps resulting in the Special Session granting only a short-term re-authorization, while we work to re-invigorate the discussion about the role of parents and communities in the formulation of the structure of decision making for public education, as well as its goals. 

The context can be proposals that a group of us, calling ourselves The Parent Commission, compiled in 2008, when then Mayor Michael Bloomberg first desired renewal of his control over NYC schools. 

At that time, over many months, a group of 15-30 parent activists discussed various proposals for democratic governance of NYC schools, and the mission that should underlie the school system. It issued a series of recommendations which again are pertinent. 

They can be viewed at:

Not everyone on the Commission agreed with every proposal, but we came to a consensus, which we offered as the basis for discussion about how our schools should function.  

These proposals are again timely.  They offer an alternative to the binary positing of opposites, whereby the only alternatives are seen as either authoritarian Mayoral Control or the old corrupt Community School Boards.  We believed that pretending there were only two possibilities reflected a failure of imagination in the public discourse, and its capture by those with a point of view about public education that would not well serve the majority of its students. 

Anyone wanting to be involved in talking to legislators about this, please contact me:


A summary of the Parent Commission proposals:

A)  Central Governance Structure 

We recommend a governance system distinguished by an educational partnership that includes the Mayor, a Board of Education whose members will strive toward cohesion and consensus, and new independent oversight agencies to verify financial and academic outcomes, investigate corruption, and respond to parental complaints.

B) Restoration of Community School Districts as meaningful entities

— whereby CEC’s have an important role in choosing the District Superintendent, who in consultation with the CEC and District Presidents Councils, and Community Board will help develop the annual capital plan, the district’s class size reduction plan, the Contract for Excellence spending, and the District Comprehensive Education plan, and whereby CEC’s have the full authority under the law to approve school siting, selection, restructuring, expansion, and reconfiguration of schools, as well as the closing, opening and relocating of all traditional public and charter schools in their districts.

C) Establish an Education Constitution to Proclaim the Mission of the NYC School System to provide the vision and mandates necessary to provide all our city’s children with a truly comprehensive, public and democratic education

Recognize that more than governance must be addressed, because through a variety of governance structures and chancellors over the last 40 years, little has changed for the majority of students, who are primarily low-income children of color.  The Parent Commission sought an explicit and legally binding statement of what education is intended to accomplish, to be embodied in a Constitution for the New York City Public School System that would codify in law a shared mission with core principles, primary goals, and a policy framework that must be respected and upheld by whomever is governing the system. Only in this way can our public servants be held to account for the money, resources, programs and staff needed to provide educational excellence for all.  Some mandates might involve resources for facilities and support staff and class size requirements, while others might involve educational philosophy regarding the use of multiple forms of assessment; the necessity of valuing diversity of ethnicity, race, and class; as well as the educational importance of racial and economic integration of schools.