the road to city hall

Mayoral hopefuls stump before anti-Bloomberg education group

Comptroller John Liu was one of four likely mayoral candidates to speak at an event in Harlem hosted by a group that opposes the Bloomberg administration’s school policies.

In a series of short stump speeches last night to a group fiercely opposed Mayor Bloomberg, four Democratic mayoral contenders delivered abbreviated versions of their visions for the future of education in New York City.

Given just five minutes to speak, the candidates didn’t have much time to get into specifics — something that, 10 months before the primary election, most are being careful about doing.

If anything, the night was an opportunity to make a good first impression for New Yorkers for Great Public Schools, the group formed by union and progressive community leaders to oppose the Bloomberg administration’s schools policies in the mayoral election. Interspersed among the candidates’ speeches, parents and religious leaders criticized the co-locations, budget cuts, and school closures that have taken place under Mayor Bloomberg.

The appearance was also an important one to make for candidates who hope their path to victory includes a coveted endorsement from the teachers union.

As each candidate was being introduced, he or she took a seat next to United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew in the front pew. Then each candidate had five minutes — which sometimes stretched closer to 10 — to make his or her case to the audience of more than 1,000 parents, community leaders, and activists who had crowded into Harlem’s First Corinthian Baptist Church.

The first candidate to speak was Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, who criticized the Bloomberg administration’s handling of school closures and co-locations.

“Are we actually trying to save schools, or are we taking the cheap way out and closing schools that could be saved?” de Blasio asked. (De Blasio has previously said he supports school co-locations, though not in the way Bloomberg has handled them.)

But de Blasio did not go as far as two other contenders, Bill Thompson and Comptroller John Liu. Both said they would put an immediate end to closures, while Liu called for a moratorium on co-locations as well, promises that went over well with the spirited crowd.

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, an early favorite in polls who is seen as Bloomberg’s closest ally, received the chilliest reception of the night. Her stump speech drew booing, led by Donny Moss, an activist who is one of Quinn’s fiercest detractors, not normally on education issues.

Quinn focused her speech on making kindergarten mandatory, something she encouraged legislators to do this year, and on the council’s efforts to boost middle school quality. She did not speak about school closures or co-locations, both of which she has said before that she supports.

“Quinn was dragging around the ball and chain of Michael Bloomberg, which will help her with some audiences, but clearly didn’t help her with this one,” said David Bloomfield, a professor of education at Brooklyn College who attended the event.

Organizers said after the event that they had come away optimistic that all of the candidates would represent a change from the status quo.

“All of the candidates started spelling out ways they will take the schools in a new direction by unifying New Yorkers around a positive agenda for reform,” said Zakiyah Ansari, a parent activist who is part of New Yorkers for Great Public Schools. “Each in their own way focused on supporting neighborhood schools which offers a clear difference from the divisive assault on communities of forced school closings.”

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.

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.”