big debut

Weiner steps out, and against competitors, at education debate

In his first debate as a mayoral candidate, former congressman Anthony Weiner distinguished himself from his Democratic rivals and made it clear he was not going to tell the event’s organizers what they wanted to hear.

The debate Tuesday afternoon was organized by New Yorkers for Great Public Schools, a group that formed to oppose the Bloomberg administration’s school policies, and questions were tilted heavily toward the group’s agenda. Weiner and all the other Democratic candidates, except City Council Speaker Christine Quinn who dropped out over the weekend, answered questions from moderator Zakiyah Ansari, a parent activist and spokeswoman for NY-GPS.

Most of the candidates spent the debate reiterating positions they’ve taken in the past that fall close to what the group says it wants from the next mayor. They promised to refrain from closing schools and curbing school space-sharing arrangements, for example.

But Weiner stood apart from his competitors, both by rising each time he answered a question and by staking out unpopular positions. He was the only candidate to say he would not shift control of school discipline from the New York Police Department to principals and would not earmark special funding for arts education in schools.

He stood firm even where his stances have already drawn fire from groups aligned with NY-GPS. The first question of the debate was from student Cheyenne Smith, who asked Weiner about his priority to make it easier for schools to remove “troublesome students” from classrooms, a policy that critics have said could increase suspensions.

Smith asked, “Why would you focus on making it easier to suspend students instead of using proven effective ways to improve school safety and keep students in school?”

“The last thing you need is a disruptive child making it difficult for someone else to learn,” Weiner said. “We have to realize there’s a constituency among the kids that are in that classroom that want to learn and we have to make sure we at least focus on that group, like a laser beam, so that they can have their rights as well.”

Weiner also stood out from his competitors when it came to co-locations, a hot-button issue for advocacy groups who argue that charter schools moving into district schools has a negative effect on the district schools. Weiner said he would allow communities to decide how they want extra space in school buildings to be used.

Communities might choose to expand a school library, create a gifted and talented program, or open a charter school, he said, adding, “I want the competition to be fair and let the best ideas win.”

At one point, Weiner did seem to get caught up in the anti-Bloomberg sentiment that swirled during the debate. Asked to say whether charter school operator Eva Moskowitz has gotten special treatment from the Bloomberg administration, the other candidates quickly said yes. But Weiner was confused.  “I have no bloody idea,” he said, to laughter. “Uh, sure. … It seems to be the answer of the day.”

Weiner fell in with the pack on several issues. All of the candidates said they would go to Albany to lobby Gov. Andrew Cuomo to give the city money it is supposed to have gotten because of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit, which found that the city receives inadequate state funding. And he and Comptroller John Liu both said they were open to the idea of recreating the Chancellor’s District, which former Board of Education President Bill Thompson, who is also a mayoral candidate, has said was crucial to improving low-performing schools instead of closing them.

“Instead of giving up on those schools, we need to turn those schools around. A chancellor’s district would allow us to do that,” Thompson said. “It would allow us to be able to focus on increasing services to those schools, capping those schools, intensive curriculum, focus on teacher development.”

Even though questions were heavily tilted toward GPS’s agenda, several questions did push candidates to explain — albeit in 30-second intervals — their constructive vision for the city’s public schools. “Everyone has criticized standardized testing but hasn’t provided an alternative,” a student from Bronx International High School asked. “What’s yours?” Later, Ansari asked, “How would you reform special education?”

Liu said that under Bloomberg, a quarter of students who need special education services do not get those services. His solution involves integrating more special needs students into “so-called mainstream classrooms,” something that the Department of Education has done in recent years.

“It’s a balance of mainstreaming the kids and it’s a balance of maintaining the special needs classrooms,” Liu said.

After the debate, Ansari said she wanted to hear more from Weiner on his education policies, especially when it comes to how to improve low-performing high schools, for which none of the candidates have provided clear solutions.

“Some issues he was a little vague on,” she said. “If you’re going to do this… then you’ve got to get on it and play catch up, so to speak.”

After the debate, Monique Lindsay, who serves on the UFT parent outreach committee and is a member of the Coalition for Educational Justice, said about Weiner, “I think that everything he said is what we want to hear,” but added, “I think that his downfall is going to be that incident, the things he did two years ago.”

Below is the full audio from the event:
 

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.”