Last night was truly one for the history books, at least in the history of NYC public schools: the Panel for Educational Policy, composed of a majority of mayoral appointees, voted down a DOE contract.
After more than six hours of testimony by CEC members, elected officials, students and parents, most of whom opposed its renewal, eight panelists voted to reject the highly controversial Pearson contract to provide the "gifted" test, administered to kids as young as four years old; with only seven members voting yes. This is despite the fact that the Mayor appointed two new representatives in the last two weeks and personally lobbied his appointees to approve it. Stories here: NY1, Chalkbeat, NY Daily News and Gothamist.
It was the first time the PEP ever voted to reject a contract, since they were given this authority in 2009 -- which was meant to provide stronger oversight and a check on corruption. [As I testified in 2011, it didn't work and the panel has rubber-stamped many corrupt and wasteful contracts ever since.]
I wrote about this unsupportable Pearson contract for the Gotham Gazette last week, though I really didn't expect it would be rejected. I also discussed it on my "Talk out of School" podcast with Akil Bello of FairTest, who explained how the test had no validity or reliability, had clearly racially biased results, and to continue giving it especially during a pandemic was absurd.
Even the Chancellor last night admitted that "There is
no research, there is no pedagogical reason why one test to
four-year-olds should be a sole determinant" to entry to a gifted program, while tepidly urging the panel members to renew it for just one more year.
Of all the unprecedented events of last night, perhaps the most bizarre was that Deputy Mayor Dean Fuleihan was brought into the meeting to justify it. Fuleihan couldn't log on at first, so there were about seven minutes of empty time, but when he finally managed, he haplessly tried to explain that now, city officials were serious about changing the program and the screening method and would start planning this after this year. They would go on "listening tours", and ask PEP members for their input, yada yada yada.
This is after the DOE already had a full year to work on changing this process, which they promised they would do the last time they asked the PEP to renew the contract, sometime last year. Also see the leaked DOE memo from July - showing DOE had already been discussing how to proceed for many months.
Chalk this down to more indecision and inefficiency of Mayoral control -- depending on one, very fallible person to make all decisions for nearly a million public school students. The total ineptitude of the process recalls de Blasio's unconscionable delay in closing the schools in mid-March when the pandemic was at its height, and his failure to plan for their reopening till sometime in mid-July. (Check out my Myths of Mayoral control testimony for more on this point.)
Fulehain though in charge of the city budget has no background in education, so it was very strange that of all the people in the universe, he was the one brought in to defend the contract on the Mayor's behalf-- but perhaps it was to allow him to make the (unconvincing) claim that the DOE would be "reimbursed" for the five million dollars the administration of the test would cost. Reimbursed by whom he didn't say.
There were so many eloquent, incisive, passionate comments from parents, students and advocates, it's impossible to recount them all, but here is a transcript of the entire night, from the sometimes unreliable automatic transcription service used by DOE.
Check out Lucas Healey's comments at 19:20:54, a District 75 student, and the points made by CEC 2 member Eric Goldberg . Here is the brief testimony on behalf of Class Size Matters by my assistant, Michael Horwitz. Read Jessica Byrne, President of CEC 22's comments at 19.53, about how sick she was of the political manipulation leading to the night's vote.
Two different CEC leaders said it was outrageous to spend $5M on this program, when hundreds of students in their districts still didn't have computer or other devices to be able to access remote learning, and thus were at risk of not graduating: Kaliris Salas Ramirez of CEC4 in E. Harlem, and Ayesha Irvin of D5 in Central Harlem.
Shino Tanikawa, another CEC2 member and a member of the Mayor's School Diversity Advisory Group that recommended dismantling the entire gifted program more than a year ago, called in from Japan and spoke at 20:40:
It's actually unbelievable to me that we're having this conversation in the middle of the pandemic, when we have students who don't have devices. Who don't have internet connectivity. Who don't have food and whose parents don't have a job. Who might become homeless tomorrow.
And we are talking about G&T that serves thousands of students at most; in 2019 3,700 offers were made. That's it.
And we're spending so much time and energy and money and debate on this one, we really should be working on making sure that all our students but particularly those who are historically marginalized have what they need to thrive. Even in the pandemic. Instead we are here, pleading with you to just vote this down so we can move onto more important things.
$5 million. Just imagine what you can do with $5 million. Here's one idea. A lot of schools are going to own money back to central because of register loss. And a lot of families actually left the system it seems this year. Instead of making schools pay back what they owe, start using some of these $5 million. There are other places where we can use this $5 million I know of…Please vote No.
Here are the comments of PEP members, extracted from the transcript, who explained their positions on the issue, many of them very emphatic and revealing, including the PEP chair, Vanessa Leung and co-chair Lori Podvesker, both mayoral appointees who nearly always vote in alignment with the Mayor.
Lori specifically decried the pressure that had been put on her by the Mayor to vote yes. Shannon Waite spoke at length about the deep racial bias that this test and the entire gifted program represented. She acknowledged that she had been appointed to fill the seat when another Black member of the PEP was forced to quit after she voted against the closures of two schools, and wondered if she too would be replaced after she voted no. Yet another Mayoral appointee, Gary Linnell said he changed his mind during the course of the evening, because of all the CEC members who spoke against the test.
The Bronx BP appointee, Geneal Chacon, and the Queens BP appointee, Deb Dillingham, explained that they were voting to approve the contract even though this was contrary to their personal views.
The Manhattan BP rep, Michael Kraft, and a Mayoral appointee, Natalie Green Giles, voted to approve the contract without any comment; while the Brooklyn rep April Chapman and Staten Island rep Peter Calandrella voted against the contract without explanation either. Here are all the votes:
Seven votes yes: Isaac Carmignani (mayoral appointee); Deborah Dillingham (Queens BP appointee) , Eric Henry (Mayoral); Geneal Chacon (Bronx BP), Natalie Green Giles (Mayoral); Michael Kraft (Manhattan BP); Larian Angelo (Mayoral)
Eight votes no: Tom Sheppard (CEC appointee); Lori Podvesker (Mayoral); Gary Linnen (Mayoral); Kathy Park Price (Mayoral); Shannon Waite (Mayoral); Peter Calandrella (Staten Island BP) ; April Chapman (Brooklyn BP); Vanessa Leung (Mayoral)
God knows what will happen now. The mayor during his presser today said he was determined to go ahead with the program anyway:
...for the families and there's thousands and thousands of families. I think it's about 15,000 each year, typically, that want to get their kids in those gifted and talented programs. I'll tell them I'm a parent. I was a public school parent. You will have an opportunity to apply for those programs this year. We'll work on the right methodology and we'll announce it soon. But families can hear directly from me. Yes, you will be applying for the opportunity for your kids to be in those gifted and talented programs, and we'll get an update to folks soon.
Why this Mayor, who ran on trying to ensure equity in our schools, chose this particular hill to die on is anyone's guess. If you have a theory or a comment or would like to share your testimony from last night, please do it it in the comment section below.