party like it's 2009

UFT making governance a priority in Albany as new mayor nears

Two members of the Campaign for Better Schools at today's press conference. Photo courtesy of the Campaign for Better Schools
Members of the Campaign for Better Schools, a coalition of community groups, protested against mayoral control when it was up for renewal in 2009.

With the city nine months from getting a new mayor, the United Federation of Teachers is gearing up to ask legislators to ensure that Mayor Bloomberg’s brand of school governance cannot be repeated.

The union wants legislation introduced that would significantly constrain the mayor’s education authority. The proposal closely resembles the union’s school governance platform from 2009, when the law giving control of the city’s schools to the mayor was last revised. But it comes at a time when all of the leading mayoral candidates have pledged to move away from Bloomberg’s imperious approach to school governance.

Some pieces of the proposal, such as to give elected parent councils authority over decisions about where to locate schools, would be accomplished by legislation already pending in Albany. The rest — including stripping the majority vote on the Panel for Educational Policy from the mayor, would require a new bill.

“Our lobbyists in Albany understand that this is now going to become a piece of legislation” in the current legislative session, UFT President Michael Mulgrew said in an interview.

The proposal, which will become official when the union’s Delegate Assembly signs off on it, comes two years before the the law giving control of the city’s schools to the mayor is set to expire. But Mulgrew said now is the time to constrain the mayor’s power.

“We have a system of governance that no one ever thought would be as abused as it has been,” he said. “It would be irresponsible for us to not fight for something different so this cannot happen again.”

Since the legislature gave Bloomberg control of the city’s school in 2002, he has drawn criticism for ruling with a heavy hand and not including communities in decisions about them. Especially after a 2009 revision, the state’s school governance law requires that communities be given a chance to provide feedback about proposed policies, but the ultimate decision lies with the mayor and Panel for Educational Policy, whose members mostly serve at his will.

The leading mayoral candidates have all criticized the way Bloomberg has run the school system and pledged to change the tone at the Department of Education. But only Comptroller John Liu, who released a proposal for restructuring the Panel for Educational Policy last month, has committed to ceding any of the authority he is seeking.

A more common position is one former comptroller Bill Thompson has offered: “I still support mayoral control but it’s more about who the mayor is,” he said at a forum in November.

Responding to the UFT’s proposal today, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn’s mayoral campaign released a statement that said only, “”We are opposed.”

Critics of the teachers union said the proposal would mark a regression for the school system.

“With its latest missive calling for the end of mayoral control of the schools, the union has made it clear that its vision of progress is to return New York City to the days of patronage, graft and corruption with a system that has no accountability whatsoever,” said Chandra Hayslett, communications director of StudentsFirstNY, in a statement.

But Mulgrew said the union was committed to preserving mayoral control, as it was in 2009. “People forget that the school boards were not working very well either,” he said. “We don’t want to go back to that.”

Instead, he said, the union just wants checks and balances on the mayor’s power. In other cities with mayoral control, he said, “Everybody else figured out you needed checks and balances.”

The recommendations were drafted by the union’s committee on school governance, which was reconstituted last fall after becoming dormant when mayoral control was renewed in 2009.

What the UFT is recommending:

Instead of appointing eight of the 13 Panel for Educational Policy members, the mayor would appoint only five. (The union endorsed that configuration in 2009, but then-President Randi Weingarten did not promote it.) Borough presidents would still appoint five. The remaining three slots would be filled by appointees of the comptroller, public advocate, and City Council speaker. Members would serve for three-year terms, not at the will of those who appointed them.

The mayor would choose a chancellor from three candidates selected by the PEP. The chancellor would have already have the credentials to become a superintendent in New York State, and he or she would have to be re-approved every two years.

Community Education Councils would have to approve school co-locations or relocations, as a bill sponsored by Assemblyman Keith Wright would require.

District superintendents would regain some of the authority they lost over the course of the Bloomberg administration. The chancellor would pick superintendents from nominees put forth by Community Education Councils, and superintendents would serve three-year terms.

after douglas

Betsy DeVos avoids questions on discrimination as school safety debates reach Congress

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos prepares to testify at a House Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing in Rayburn Building on the department's FY2019 budget on March 20, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos fielded some hostile questions on school safety and racial discrimination as she defended the Trump administration’s budget proposal in a House committee hearing on Tuesday.

The tone for the hearing was set early by ranking Democrat Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who called aspects DeVos’s prepared remarks “misleading and cynical” before the secretary had spoken. Even the Republican subcommittee chair, Rep. Tom Cole, expressed some skepticism, saying he was “concerned about the administration continuing to request cuts that Congress has rejected.”

During nearly two hours of questioning, DeVos stuck to familiar talking points and largely side-stepped the tougher queries from Democrats, even as many interrupted her.

For instance, when Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from Texas, complained about proposed spending cuts and asked, “Isn’t it your job to ensure that schools aren’t executing harsher punishments for the same behavior because [students] are black or brown?” DeVos responded by saying that students of color would benefit from expanded school choice programs.

Lee responded: “You still haven’t talked about the issue in public schools as it relates to black and brown students and the high disparity rates as it relates to suspensions and expulsions. Is race a factor? Do you believe that or not?” (Recent research in Louisiana found that black students receive longer suspensions than white students involved in the same fights, though the difference was very small.)

Again, DeVos did not reply directly.

“There is no place for discrimination and there is no tolerance for discrimination, and we will continue to uphold that,” she said. “I’m very proud of the record of the Office of Civil Rights in continuing to address issues that arise to that level.”

Lee responded that the administration has proposed cuts to that office; DeVos said the reduction was modest — less than 1 percent — and that “they are able to do more with less.”

The specific policy decision that DeVos faces is the future of a directive issued in 2014 by the Obama administration designed to push school districts to reduce racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions. Conservatives and some teachers have pushed DeVos to rescind this guidance, while civil rights groups have said it is crucial for ensuring black and Hispanic students are not discriminated against.

That was a focus of another hearing in the House on Tuesday precipitated by the shooting last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, falsely claimed in his opening statement that Broward County Public Schools rewrote its discipline policy based on the federal guidance — an idea that has percolated through conservative media for weeks and been promoted by other lawmakers, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Utah Sen. Mike Lee. In fact, the Broward County rules were put into place in 2013, before the Obama administration guidance was issued.

The Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden, a leading critic of Obama administration’s guidance, acknowledged in his own testimony that the Broward policy predated these rules. But he suggested that policies like Broward’s and the Obama administration’s guidance have made schools less safe.

“Faced with pressure to get the numbers down, the easiest path is to simply not address, or to not record, troubling, even violent, behavior,” he said.

Kristen Harper, a director with research group Child Trends and a former Obama administration official, disagreed. “To put it simply, neither the purpose nor the letter of the federal school discipline guidance restrict the authority of school personnel to remove a child who is threatening student safety,” she said.

There is little, if any, specific evidence linking Broward County’s policies to how Stoneman Douglas shooter Nicholas Cruz was dealt with. There’s also limited evidence about whether reducing suspensions makes schools less safe.

Eden pointed to a study in Philadelphia showing that the city’s ban on suspensions coincided with a drop in test scores and attendance in some schools. But those results are difficult to interpret because the prohibition was not fully implemented in many schools. He also cited surveys of teachers expressing concerns about safety in the classroom including in Oklahoma CityFresno, California; and Buffalo, New York.

On the other hand, a recent study found that after Chicago modestly reduced suspensions for the most severe behaviors, student test scores and attendance jumped without any decline in how safe students felt.

DeVos is now set to consider the repeal of those policies on the Trump administration’s school safety committee, which she will chair.

On Tuesday, DeVos said the committee’s first meeting would take place “within the next few weeks.” Its members will be four Cabinet secretaries: DeVos herself, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.

on the run

‘Sex and the City’ star and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon launches bid for N.Y. governor

Cynthia Nixon on Monday announced her long-anticipated run for New York governor.

Actress and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon announced Monday that she’s running for governor of New York, ending months of speculation and launching a campaign that will likely spotlight education.

Nixon, who starred as Miranda in the TV series “Sex and the City,” will face New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in September’s Democratic primary.

Nixon has been active in New York education circles for more than a decade. She served as a  longtime spokeswoman for the Alliance for Quality Education, a union-backed advocacy organization. Though Nixon will step down from that role, according to a campaign spokeswoman, education promises to be a centerpiece of her campaign.

In a campaign kickoff video posted to Twitter, Nixon calls herself “a proud public school graduate, and a prouder public school parent.” Nixon has three children.

“I was given chances I just don’t see for most of New York’s kids today,” she says.

Nixon’s advocacy began when her oldest child started school, which was around the same time the recession wreaked havoc on education budgets. She has slammed Gov. Cuomo for his spending on education during his two terms in office, and she has campaigned for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

In 2008, she stepped into an emotional fight on the Upper West Side over a plan to deal with overcrowding and segregation that would have impacted her daughter’s school. In a video of brief remarks during a public meeting where the plan was discussed, Nixon is shouted down as she claims the proposal would lead to a “de facto segregated” school building.

Nixon faces steep competition in her first run for office. She is up against an incumbent governor who has amassed a $30 million war chest, according to the New York Times. If elected, she would be the first woman and the first openly gay governor in the state.