mayoral (mind) control

New coalition aims to sway 2013 race using education research

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer spoke at a January press conference on school closures that drew four mayoral contenders, including him.

Not satisfied with simply railing against the Bloomberg administration’s education policies in the lead-up to the 2013 mayoral election, more than 20 community and advocacy groups have formed a coalition to urge a different path.

And if the coalition, called A+ NYC, is successful, that path will be lined with education research.

A+ NYC is the latest entrant into a crowded field of education advocates aiming to influence the mayoral election. It is driven by many of the same advocacy groups that just four months ago signed on to New Yorkers for Great Public Schools, which aims to oppose Mayor Bloomberg’s schools policies.

But organizers of both coalitions say they have very different strategies. Participants in A+ NYC say their coalition doesn’t share the blanket opposition to his education policies that New Yorkers for Great Public Schools proclaimed when it announced itself in May. Instead, they say, the new coalition is about policy, not politics.

“I think that this coalition is not focused on Bloomberg at all,” said Megan Hester, a coordinator for the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, which supports the Coalition for Educational Justice. “It’s focused on what we want from the next mayor.”

Hester said A+ NYC, which convened for the first time last week, would focus on compiling education research to share with candidates as they develop their platforms. Eventually, she said, A+ NYC would establish its own policy recommendations and push candidates to adopt similar positions.

Education platforms have been hard to come by from the candidates so far. Bill Thompson has called for an end to school closures; Bill de Blasio said he’d cede some mayoral control to the Panel for Educational Policy; and Christine Quinn has said she’s a supporter of Bloomberg’s rent-free charter school co-location policies.

But put together, the six Democratic mayoral candidates have offered little indication about how they will ultimately govern the public school system if they are elected.

That’s because it has been a politically safe bet for candidates to spend more time bashing Bloomberg, whose popularity on education has withered in recent years, than talking about what they support.

And that’s largely the approach that the union-backed New Yorkers for Great Public Schools adopted when it launched as a direct response to the formation of StudentsFirstNY, a group that supports many policies that the teachers union typically opposes. To make sure that those policies — which include tenure reform, school closures, and more charter schools — do not pick up momentum in the next administration, New Yorkers for Great Public Schools plans to focus on political operations, such as voter registration drives and advertisements.

“We’re going to make sure the StudentsFirst New York agenda won’t become the agenda of New York City,” said Jon Kest, executive director of New York Communities for Change and a head organizer for the coalition. “We’re not advocating a specific policy agenda other than that the last 10 years have been an abject failure.”

The attitude has isolated some education advocates who hoped for a more proactive, forward-looking approach.

“There was no substance,” said Noah Gotbaum, a parent leader and candidate for public advocate who was briefed on New Yorkers for Great Public Schools’ plans earlier this year. Gotbaum said he considered himself part of the coalition and  supported its goals, but declined to sign its pledge. “There wasn’t really a discussion about what people wanted the coalition to stand for.”

Indeed, New Yorkers for Great Public Schools hasn’t gained steam since its arrival on the scene. Its social media pages have been dormant for months, and its online pledge list has attracted only about 100 signatures, a far cry from the 100,000 that its website says is the group’s goal. Kest said he expected more pledges to come as a result of union organizing efforts.

And even education leaders on the other side of the aisle have agreed that the conversation is growing old. Last month, Success Academy Charter Schools CEO Eva Moskowitz derided some candidates for not speaking with conviction on education.

Mark Winston Griffith, of the Brooklyn Movement Center, said he shared Gotbaum’s and Moskowitz’s concerns.

“I don’t want to be defined by what we’re against,” said Winston-Griffith, who is a member of the A+ coalition. “I want to be defined about what we’re for.”

That’s where organizers for A+ NYC believe they fit in.

Many of the coalition’s members are traditional opponents of Bloomberg and his education policies. The Alliance for Quality Education, New York Communities for Change, and New York’s chapter of the NAACP have received financial support from the teachers union and been a regular presence at school closure and charter school co-location protests in recent years.

But Hester said the policy recommendations that ultimately come out of the A+ NYC coalition won’t necessarily reflect an anti-Bloomberg line or a pro-union line.

“We’re really just trying to focus the conversation on research on what actually works,” she said.

But a hint of ideology can be found in early recruiting fliers that were sent out by A+ NYC to advocacy groups this summer. A one-page fact sheet describing the coalition uses much of the same language employed by New Yorkers for Great Public Schools to denounce StudentsFirstNY.

“Already a handful of wealthy individuals have joined together to pledge $50 million to stay the current course, dominate the public debate, and define the politics of education in our city,” reads the sheet, which Hester said was sent out in error.

The A+ coalition has laid out an ambitious agenda for the next six months. Reporters weren’t invited to attend last week’s meeting, but organizers and meeting attendees shared planning documents with GothamSchools that provided more insight about their activities.

The group plans to create a “policy clearinghouse” website where it will publish research summaries on more than 20 education topics. Hester said mayoral control would not be among the topics.

Eventually the coalition will begin meeting with candidates’ staff, host dozens of town halls across the city, and train parents to spread the word about its policy recommendations in local communities.

And even if its means are different from that of New Yorkers for Great Public Schools, the end goal for A+ NYC is still the same, according to its fact sheet, which was sent to advocacy groups recruiting them to join: “By election season, A+NYC will have the power to influence the education agenda of all major mayoral candidates.”

the end

A 60-year-old group that places volunteers in New York City schools is shutting down

PHOTO: August Young

Citing a lack of support from the city education department, a 60-year-old nonprofit that places volunteers in New York City schools is closing its doors next month.

Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15, its executive director, Jane Heaphy, announced in a letter to volunteers and parents last week.

In the message, she said the group had slashed its budget by more than a third, started charging “partnership fees” to participating schools, and explored merging with another nonprofit. But the city pitched in with less and less every year, with no guarantee of consistency, she said.

“This funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization,” Heaphy wrote. “We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure.”

The group — which began as part of the city school system but became its own nonprofit in the 1970s — says its volunteers work with more than 100,000 students in more than 300 schools every year, many of them faithfully. When then-84-year-old Carolyn Breidenbach became the group’s 2013 volunteer of the year, she had been helping at P.S. 198 on the Upper East Side daily for 12 years.

Heaphy’s full message to volunteers is below:

Dear [volunteer],

It is with a heavy heart that I write to inform you Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15 of this year. This organization has worked diligently over the last few years to sustain our work of engaging families as Learning Leaders, but the funding landscape has become too challenging to keep our programs going. While we have been able to increase our revenues from a generous community of funders, we have ultimately come to the conclusion that without a consistent and significant base of funding from the NYC Department of Education, we cannot leverage foundation grants, individual donors, or school fees sufficiently to cover program costs.

In the face of growing financial challenges, Learning Leaders reduced its costs as thoughtfully as possible — and in ways that did not affect our program quality. Rather, we sought to deepen and continually improve our service to schools and families while eliminating all but the most necessary costs. These efforts reduced our budget by more than 35 percent.

At the same time, we sought greater public support for our work with schools and families across the city. We are grateful to the foundations and individual donors that have believed in our work and provided financial support to keep it going. We were gratified when schools stepped up to support our efforts through partnership fees. While these fees only covered a portion of our costs, the willingness of principals to find these funds within their extremely tight school budgets was a testament to the value of our work.

Throughout an extended period of financial restructuring Learning Leaders advocated strongly with the Mayor’s Office and the DOE [Department of Education] for a return to historical levels of NYC DOE support for parent volunteer training and capacity building workshops. While we received some NYC DOE funding this year, it was less than what we needed and was not part of an ongoing budget initiative that would allow us to count on regular funding in the coming years. Several efforts to negotiate a merger with another nonprofit stalled due to the lack of firm financial commitment from the DOE. Over time, this funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization.

We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure. If you have questions or concerns about opportunities and support for family engagement and parent volunteer training, you can contact the NYC DOE’s Division of Family and Community Engagement at (212) 374-4118 or [email protected].

On behalf of the board of directors and all of us at Learning Leaders, I offer heartfelt thanks for your partnership. We are deeply grateful for your work to support public school students’ success. It is only with your dedication and commitment that we accomplished all that we did over the last 60 years. We take some solace in knowing that we’ve helped improve the chances of success for more than 100,000 students every year. The Learning Leaders board and staff have been honored to serve you and your school communities.
Sincerely,

Jane Heaphy
Executive Director

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.”