At the public hearing to co-locate a charter elementary school in the only public middle school in Greenpoint, a parent stood up and asked, “If the NYC DOE [Department of Education] is doing such a poor job by parents, why don’t we open more charter schools?”
Those who think the solution to fixing the problems of urban education is to redirect taxpayer dollars to privatized charters don’t understand what parents want. We want an end to Bloomberg’s “my way or the highway” totalitarian mayoral control of our schools. Before hopping into another dysfunctional relationship with the next mayor, it’s worth discussing our painful love affair with public education, and an abusive city DOE, in order to find our way out of this mess.
In 2002, the mayor wrested control of our public schools from what for thirty years had been the decentralized power of local school boards. This much authority given to the mayor to appoint the New York City schools chancellor, set policy, and create budgets was radical and unprecedented. School boards were erased and the city Board of Education became the Panel for Educational Policy (PEP). A voting body might sound democratic, but the majority eight out of thirteen PEP members are appointed at the pleasure of the mayor. Imagine the public outcry if the U.S. President were able to assign members to the House and Senate as a rubber stamp for all of his policies. The PEP has never voted against Mayor Bloomberg, even as so many of his controversial policies don’t make any sense for public schools. The one time PEP members threatened to vote against Bloomberg with the use of high stakes tests to end social promotion for third graders, Bloomberg removed those appointees the night before the vote in what was dubbed the “Monday Night Massacre.”
Anyone familiar with abusers knows that the first step in developing compliance is to isolate your “partner.” This sheds light on some of Bloomberg’s restructuring initiatives under mayoral control. He abolished geographic district groupings of schools into “regions” (a larger geographic area of neighboring district schools), abandoning regions in favor of “networks,” a nonsensical, conceptual grouping of supposedly like-minded schools from across the city. This is what we’re stuck with today, where my daughter’s network is no longer located in the community where the school is housed, but shared with other isolated schools in Queens, Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island. The system is bizarrely byzantine and utterly disempowering for parents and community members. Finally, the district superintendent, once charged with hiring and firing our district school principals, has been thoroughly neutered. Superintendents aren’t even allowed to visit their district schools without an invitation.
The great irony of Williamsburg complaining about mayoral control is that District 14, which includes Williamsburg and Greenpoint, was held up as a prime example of what wasn’t working with school boards, with over two thirds of our school board seats held by the Hasidic and Polish community even though their combined enrollment in our D14 public schools was less than 7%. Latinos, representing 80% of students enrolled in D14 public schools, were constantly outvoted on issues that were critical to their schools, not the least of which was choosing a superintendent to hire principals and develop curriculum.
The D14 school board, with the help of its 20-year superintendent, William “Wild Bill” Rogers, was shockingly littered with scandals and improprieties, from explicitly segregated buildings to 6 million dollars of public funds funneled into a girls’ yeshiva through payments to no-show staff for schools with phantom students. The absurd residual of this corrupt school board’s disregard for the Latino families they should have been serving is still seen in the oddly named PS380 John Wayne School, which is located in the Hasidic section, with majority Latino enrollment, and named after the Hollywood actor because Superintendent Rogers was a big fan. Students at PS380 sometimes refer to their school as “Juan Wayne.”
Ten years of the mayoral-control experiment hasn’t lessened corruption or cronyism; it’s just citywide now, rather than local. Emails released between former Chancellor Joel Klein and Eva Moskowitz, CEO of Success Academy Charter Network, revealed the special access Moskowitz had to the chancellor and the favoritism she received, all while co-location hearings showed overwhelming opposition to Success Academy schools by local communities. Who was the mayor serving? Even as I write this, a Daily News article discusses a recent PEP vote that approved renewing a 4.5 million dollar contract for Champion Learning Center LLC, in spite of Champion being found to have improperly billed the city for 6 million dollars in previous years.
The reaction from parents to the field of mayoral candidates has been lukewarm, since we know that after the election our only recourse will be Bloomberg’s snide suggestion to “Boo me at parades.” There are no authentic checks and balances against mayoral control. Each candidate simply asserts that she or he will make a better Ruler of All Schools.
Abuse of power is a plague, and accountability to the public is the only remedy. So what can we do?
As it turns out, a lot. And now is the time. Parents can take a lesson from advice given to victims of abuse: Change the narrative of power and rebuild the relationships your abuser severed. Don’t believe the mayor when he implies that public school teachers are your enemy. Don’t accept that parents should only be “involved” in their childrens’ schools. Parent involvement just means helping your kid get to school on time and reading to them. Parent engagement is what we’re after—where people with skin in the game get a meaningful say in policies that directly impact our children. In short, democracy.
We need to start taking advantage of some of the systems that are still in place (due to state laws that Bloomberg wasn’t able to change), including School Leadership Teams (SLTs), where an equal number of elected parents and teachers develop their school’s Comprehensive Educational Plan (CEP) and align the CEP with the school-based budget. SLTs are designed to be democratic institutions. We can form advocacy groups within each public school to keep our school communities informed about what’s happening on the local, state, and national level. We can end any false competition between neighborhood public schools through parents working together to ensure that all our neighborhood schools are great.
We can attend our district Community Education Councils (CECs) and run for CEC positions (applications available in February). The CECs are really only advisory, but they can be a powerful mechanism for gathering community input and setting an agenda for our district. If we want a local say in our local schools, we need to be ready for it.
We have to press every mayoral candidate to stand against mayoral control beyond lip service to parental involvement and input, and reform the structure of absolute power that has been absolutely corrosive to democracy. Remember, mayoral control has only been in place for ten years.
And the mayor isn’t the only elected official in town. State government is just as essential. Mayoral control is a New York State law, and sometimes it appears that there is gubernatorial control of the state Department of Education. Governor Cuomo’s Education Reform Commission came out with a list of statewide policy recommendations, but didn’t include a single public school parent on the panel. The list of recommendations reflects this absence. Skin in the game, people.
Fighting this fight may seem like a lot of work, but sometimes it’s just a matter of making a phone call or signing a petition. More than anything, we have to vote every time there’s an election—especially the local elections.
Democracy is never a fait accompli, but involves ongoing participatory action. We’ve been conditioned to see mayoral control as in our best interest, lest “we, the people” misuse our power. Think about that for minute. Can you imagine our Founding Fathers putting a special clause in the Constitution calling for absolute power for those occasions when “we, the people” couldn’t handle the responsibilities of democracy? Any elected official, be they city, state, or federal, that believes “we, the people” are too inefficient or vested to decide, or too lazy or stupid for power, is un-American, and Americans should vote them out.
The great American philosopher John Dewey describes the charge of public education as creating democratic citizens who will design the pluralistic society we will live in together. How can we possibly teach our children to be democratic citizens, to have the personal, collaborative, and creative power to make their own worlds, if we have ceded our own?
There are groups working on policies in support of our public schools, including our very own WAGPOPS! (Williamsburg and Greenpoint Parents: Our Public Schools!) To find out more about WAGPOPS!, including information on the next public meeting, LIKE us on Facebook at: www.facebook.com/WilliamsburgGreenpointParents.