long night ahead

City says three separate closure protests won't derail PEP's vote

A snapshot from one of two Panel for Educational Policy meetings about school closures in 2011.

Boisterous protests against school closures have long been accused of lending a circus-like atmosphere to the annual meetings where the Panel for Educational Policy votes on closures. This year, though, the opposition will actually have three rings.

Three separate groups are planning protest actions during tonight’s PEP meeting, where the citywide school board is set to vote on — and presumably approve — 23 school closures and truncations. (Changes to two schools were taken off the table yesterday.)

City officials have vowed not to let the protests disrupt the panel’s proceedings, suggesting that panel members and protesters alike could be in for a long and potentially combative night. Last year, the panel approved 22 closures in two separate meetings that each lasted well past 1 a.m. In 2010, the panel’s vote on 20 school closures took place just before 4 a.m., after more than 10 hours of protests and public comment.

Tonight, the United Federation of Teachers, which has orchestrated the most substantial protests in the past, is planning to start its protest outside Brooklyn Technical High School but then constitute an alternate event, a “People’s PEP,” at P.S. 20, an elementary school with a 600-seat auditorium six blocks away that the union has rented for the evening. Union officials said teachers from the schools up for closure would be invited to give presentations about their schools at the P.S. 20 meeting.

Another group that has been active in opposing the closure proposals, the Coalition for Educational Justice, is taking a different approach: Instead of walking out from the meeting, CEJ members and those active in affiliated groups, including the Alliance for Quality Education and the Urban Youth Collaborative, are marching in protest to it. After a 5 p.m. rally, they’ll walk five blocks east on Dekalb Street to Brooklyn Tech, where they will continue to protest against the city’s proposed closures.

A press advisory for the CEJ event warns that protesters will use the “people’s mic” to amplify their voices during the panel meeting. And they won’t be alone using that strategy. A third protest set for tonight is by “Occupy the DOE,” which grew out of the Occupy Wall Street movement that popularized the human microphone tactic.

The stated goal of the Occupy protesters is to stop the panel from conducting its business by holding an alternate, “democratic” meeting in the same space. Occupy the DOE protesters derailed a special meeting of the panel last fall, and students steeped in Occupy tactics caused Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott to cut short a town hall meeting in the Bronx last week.

A key difference is that tonight’s votes must happen — and, according to the state’s open meetings law, they must happen in public, after public input.

But Walcott said he would not let tonight’s meeting be driven off course by protesters and accused the union of masterminding the Occupy protest in addition to its own.

“There are important proposals up for discussion tonight and my hope is that we will have a respectful process where people can be heard,” Walcott said in a statement. “But if all the UFT wants to do is bus in Occupy Wall Street to disrupt public meetings — which provides absolutely no benefit to students — then we will just have to work around that.  We are prepared to move forward even if there are disruptions.”

The UFT provided some support for the Occupy movement this fall, but it is not providing transportation expressly for Occupy protesters, according to union officials. Still, they said, it is possible that some Occupy-affiliated protesters might board the 13 buses the union is running for families and teachers at schools up for closure. Most of the buses will come from schools in the Bronx, eastern Brooklyn, and Staten Island that could be closed tonight, and Harlem’s Wadleigh Secondary School for Performing and Visual Arts is expected to fill two buses even though its middle school is no longer at risk.

If the protests prove overwhelming for city officials and panel members, state law does allow the votes to be delayed. While the PEP has typically voted on closure proposals in early February, it can legally approve closure proposals up until the end of the school year as long as it has met deadlines for informing the public about the proposals and holding public hearings at each of the affected schools.

Hearings for the 23 schools up for closure tonight took place over the last few weeks. In the coming weeks, the department is poised to formally propose as many as 33 additional closures under the federally mandated school improvement strategy known as “turnaround.” If the city moves forward with those plans, which Mayor Bloomberg announced during his State of the City address last month, it would need to hold additional public hearings and the PEP would need to vote on the proposals. The city has said that would likely happen at the panel’s April meeting.

Rise & Shine

While you were waking up, the U.S. Senate took a big step toward confirming Betsy DeVos as education secretary

Betsy DeVos’s confirmation as education secretary is all but assured after an unusual and contentious early-morning vote by the U.S. Senate.

The Senate convened at 6:30 a.m. Friday to “invoke cloture” on DeVos’s embattled nomination, a move meant to end a debate that has grown unusually pitched both within the lawmaking body and in the wider public.

They voted 52-48 to advance her nomination, teeing up a final confirmation vote by the end of the day Monday.

Two Republican senators who said earlier this week that they would not vote to confirm DeVos joined their colleagues in voting to allow a final vote on Monday. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska cited DeVos’s lack of experience in public education and the knowledge gaps she displayed during her confirmation hearing last month when announcing their decisions and each said feedback from constituents had informed their decisions.

Americans across the country have been flooding their senators with phone calls, faxes, and in-person visits to share opposition to DeVos, a Michigan philanthropist who has been a leading advocate for school vouchers but who has never worked in public education.

They are likely to keep up the pressure over the weekend and through the final vote, which could be decided by a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence.

Two senators commented on the debate after the vote. Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who has been a leading cheerleader for DeVos, said he “couldn’t understand” criticism of programs that let families choose their schools.

But Democrat Patty Murray of Washington repeated the many critiques of DeVos that she has heard from constituents. She also said she was “extremely disappointed” in the confirmation process, including the early-morning debate-ending vote.

“Right from the start it was very clear that Republicans intended to jam this nomination through … Corners were cut, precedents were ignored, debate was cut off, and reasonable requests and questions were blocked,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Week In Review

Week In Review: A new board takes on ‘awesome responsibility’ as Detroit school lawsuits advance

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
The new Detroit school board took the oath and took on the 'awesome responsibility' of Detroit's children

It’s been a busy week for local education news with a settlement in one Detroit schools lawsuit, a combative new filing in another, a push by a lawmaker to overhaul school closings, a new ranking of state high schools, and the swearing in of the first empowered school board in Detroit has 2009.

“And with that, you are imbued with the awesome responsibility of the children of the city of Detroit.”

—    Judge Cynthia Diane Stephens, after administering the oath to the seven new members of the new Detroit school board

Read on for details on these stories plus the latest on the sparring over Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos. Here’s the headlines:

 

The board

The first meeting of the new Detroit school board had a celebratory air to it, with little of the raucous heckling that was common during school meetings in the emergency manager era. The board, which put in “significant time and effort” preparing to take office, is focused on building trust with Detroiters. But the meeting was not without controversy.

One of the board’s first acts was to settle a lawsuit that was filed by teachers last year over the conditions of school buildings. The settlement calls for the creation of a five-person board that will oversee school repairs.

The lawyers behind another Detroit schools lawsuit, meanwhile, filed a motion in federal court blasting Gov. Rick Snyder for evading responsibility for the condition of Detroit schools. That suit alleges that deplorable conditions in Detroit schools have compromised childrens’ constitutional right to literacy — a notion Snyder has rejected.

 

In Lansing

On DeVos

In other news