Politics & Policy

Pledging “real debate,” de Blasio appoints five PEP members

Mayor Bill de Blasio named five people today to the city’s school board, known as the Panel for Educational Policy, just minutes before the panel was set to convene for the first time under his leadership.

Among the appointees are three public school parents, including a longtime special education advocate, and the former board chair of a Success Academy school who has called charter schools “the civil rights struggle of my generation.”

The panel must approve all major policy changes and spending decisions at the Department of Education. Under state law, eight of its 13 members serve at the mayor’s will, and under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the panel signed off on every proposal that came before it. Those proposals included dozens for controversial school closures and co-locations.

“I know a lot of parents feel this panel hasn’t always been on our side. Today we change that,” de Blasio said in a statement today. “We want real debate. We want a panel that really listens.”

De Blasio had given no indication of his plans for the PEP until today. By appointing only five members, de Blasio will not control a majority of the board tonight, when there are no proposals up for vote. He said he would name additional appointees in the coming weeks.

De Blasio’s appointees are Lori Podvesker, the mother of a student with special needs; Elzora Cleveland, the former president of the parent council for Manhattan’s District 2; Norm Fruchter, an education researcher who served on a Brooklyn school board and produced the film “Parent Power”; Vanessa Leung, whose work led to the City Council’s Dignity in Schools Act; and Robert Reffkin. Reffkin, a former financial analyst who now heads a real estate technology company, is the former Success Academy board chair and previously served on the PEP under Bloomberg.

De Blasio was not the only elected official to make last-minute PEP appointments today. Gale Brewer, Manhattan’s new borough president, appointed Laura Zingmond, an Upper East Side parent and contributor to Insideschools, to the panel.

“Under the Bloomberg Administration, [the] PEP was rarely more than a rubber stamp for questionable policies such as co-locating charter schools within traditional public school buildings,” Brewer said in a statement. “I hope that with Laura Zingmond’s appointment, as well as the De Blasio administration’s new choices, [the] PEP can serve as a more thorough arbiter of education policy as we work to improve our school system.”

The full press release from City Hall is below.

MAYOR DE BLASIO APPOINTS NEW MEMBERS TO THE PANEL FOR EDUCATIONAL POLICY 

Parents, Advocates and Educators to Help Deepen Parental Involvement and Improve Schools in Every Community

NEW YORK—Mayor Bill de Blasio today appointed new members to the Panel for Educational Policy (PEP), pledging a fresh start with school communities and better engagement with the parents of New York City’s 1.1 million students.

The Mayor named Elzora Cleveland, Norm Fruchter, Vanessa Leung, Lori Podvesker and Robert Reffkin as his appointees to the PEP. A diverse group of members, the new appointees will assume their roles at the first PEP meeting of Mayor de Blasio’s administration, tonight at the High School of Fashion Industries in Manhattan. Collectively, the new members bring decades of experience in education advocacy, community organizing, and policy development, as well as a deep appreciation for the perspective of parents. Additional PEP appointees will be named in the weeks ahead.

“I know a lot of parents feel this panel hasn’t always been on our side. Today we change that. We want real debate. We want a panel that really listens. The people we’ve brought together believe in the power of school communities to improve outcomes for our children,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Mayor de Blasio emphasized his commitment to invest in universal pre-K and after-school programs for middle schoolers, improve district schools, and expand quality Career and Technical Education programs. Chancellor Fariña welcomed the new members and pledged to incorporate communities into decision making.

“I am thrilled to work with a panel of such a dynamic, diverse set of individuals who have dedicated themselves to improving education,” said SchoolsChancellor Fariña. “When leaders listen, policy improves and our students benefit. I plan on working closely with these new members to not only make sure our approach going forward is done right, but to ensure we are getting the feedback we need to get better. As I work to make our system a world-class model, I will be relying heavily on their guidance.”

The Panel for Educational Policy replaced the former Board of Education in 2002 and is part of the governance structure responsible for New York City public schools. The Panel is established pursuant to State Education Law, and it is responsible for approving standards, policies and objectives directly related to educational achievement and instruction, as well as the Chancellor’s Regulations, significant changes in school utilization, budgetary items and department contracts.

About the New Panel Members:

T. Elzora Cleveland serves as Senior Accountant at Ithaka Harbors Inc., a non-profit organization that advances teaching in scholarship through digital platforms. A graduate of the SUNY university system, her career in finance and accounting spans more than 20 years, all in New York City. Having served as president of Manhattan’s District 2 CEC, Elzora has worked on behalf of parents in her district and across the city to improve the performance of struggling schools and represent the District 2 community to the NYC Department of Education on school issues. She lives in Manhattan and has one daughter in a New York City public high school.

Norm Fruchter has more than 25 years’ experience working in educational policy and is currently Senior Policy Analyst at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, where he conducts policy research for the Institute’s Community Organizing and Engagement division. Prior to his work with the Institute, Fruchter founded and directed New York University’s Institute for Education and Social Policy and served as director for education organizations and schools, including an alternative high school for dropouts. He recently produced the film PARENT POWER, Education Organizing in New York City, 1995 – 2010, and is the author of numerous published works on the challenges of parent engagement and administration within urban school systems. He served 10 years as an elected school board member in Brooklyn, and holds a B.A. from Rutgers University and M.Ed. from Columbia University’s Teachers College. He resides in Brooklyn.

Vanessa Leung is a public school parent and has served the education community through her career advocating on behalf of Asian-Pacific American students and English Language Learners in New York City public schools. Her policy work led to the creation of Chancellor’s Regulation A-663, mandating comprehensive interpretation and translation services—as well as the Dignity in All Schools Act, which reduces bias-based harassment in schools. She is serving as interim Executive Director for the Coalition for Asian American Children and Families (CACF), but will soon begin as Director of Member Initiatives at the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, a prominent social services organization supporting human services agencies across New York City. In 2007, she was named a member of the City Council’s Middle School Task Force and is the author of CACF’s Hidden in Plain View, a report detailing Asian-Pacific American students’ needs. Leung holds a Bachelor’s degree from New York University and a Master’s degree from Columbia University’s Teachers College. She resides in Staten Island with her three sons.

Lori Podvesker is a New York City public school parent and former teacher who has been a vocal advocate for students with disabilities and their families. She currently is employed as a program manager for systemic advocacy and policy analysis at Resources for Children with Special Needs, a non-profit that helps families and children with disabilities access services and raise awareness of their needs. Podvesker holds a Master’s degree in education from Brooklyn College and is currently a member of the Manhattan Developmental Disabilities Council and Action to Reform and Improve Special Education Coalition. She lives in Brooklyn with her partner and 11-year-old son, who attends a city school.

Robert Reffkin is the Founder & CEO of Urban Compass, a real estate technology company that seeks to simplify the housing search for New Yorkers. He is also the Founder & Chair of New York Needs You, a non-profit which provides professional development and mentorship to low-income college students. Reffkin worked at several companies within the financial sector, including Goldman Sachs, Lazard Frères, and McKinsey & Company, where he was the youngest analyst ever hired. Reffkin received his Bachelor’s degree and Master’s in Business Administration from Columbia University in only four years, and was selected as a White House Fellow, where he served as Special Assistant to the Treasury Secretary. He currently sits on the board of directors for Get Out Stay Out and Citizens Committee for NYC. Currently residing in Manhattan, he has previously served briefly on the PEP.

promoting choice

Betsy DeVos defends vouchers and slams AFT in her speech to conservatives

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos rallied a conservative crowd in Denver on Thursday, criticizing teachers unions and local protesters and defending private-school vouchers as a way to help disadvantaged students.

“Our opponents, the defenders of the status quo, only protest those capable of implementing real change,” DeVos told members of the American Legislative Exchange Council, an influential conservative group that helps shape legislative policy across the country. “You represent real change.”

DeVos delivered the keynote speech at the ALEC meeting, where she reiterated her support for local control of schools and school choice. Citing the conservative former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, she said education should be about individual students and families, not school systems.

“Lady Thatcher regretted that too many seem to blame all their problems on society. But, ‘who is society?’” DeVos asked, quoting Thatcher. “‘There is no such thing!’”

The American Federation of Teachers, she said, has exactly the opposite idea.

“Parents have seen that defenders of the status quo don’t have their kids’ interests at heart,” she said.

AFT President Randi Weingarten threw punches of her own Thursday, calling private school vouchers “only slightly more polite cousins of segregation” in a Washington, D.C. speech.

DeVos highlighted states that have introduced vouchers or new school-choice programs including North Carolina, Kentucky and Arizona. Indiana — home to the nation’s largest voucher program — also won praise.

Data from existing voucher programs may have sparked the one critical question DeVos faced, during a brief sit-down after her speech. Legislators want to know how to respond to complaints that voucher programs only help wealthy families, the moderator, an Arizona lawmaker, told DeVos.

In Indiana, for instance, vouchers are increasingly popular in wealthy school districts and among families whose students had not previously attended public school.

“I just dismiss that as a patently false argument,” DeVos said. “Wealthy people already have choice. They’re making choices every day, every year, by moving somewhere where they determine the schools are right for their children or by paying tuition if they haven’t moved somewhere.”

Earlier this year, DeVos criticized Denver as not offering enough school choice because Colorado does not have private school vouchers. Still, presenters at the conference Thursday introduced Denver to ALEC members — conservative legislators, business leaders and lobbyists — as “living proof” that charter schools and competition work.

A local Denver school board candidate, Tay Anderson, and state union leaders held a protest Wednesday ahead of DeVos’s speech. Attendees said they were concerned that ALEC’s efforts, and DeVos’s focus on vouchers and school choice, would hurt public schools.

DeVos didn’t make mention of Denver or Colorado in her speech Thursday, but she briefly referenced the protest.

“I consider the excitement a badge of honor, and so should you,” she said.

out of the running

Denver school board candidate Jo Ann Fujioka withdrawing from at-large race

PHOTO: Daniel Brenner/Special to the Denver Post
Jo Ann Fujioka, center, holds signs and participates in a song during a Rally for Health Care earlier this month.

One of three candidates vying to unseat Denver school board vice president Barbara O’Brien has announced that she is dropping out of the race.

Jo Ann Fujioka said in an email message to supporters this week that she’s ending her candidacy because two other candidates backed out of running with her as a three-person slate. No other candidates have dropped out of the race.

Fujioka, a former Jeffco Public Schools nurse and administrator who lives in Denver, said consultants hired by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association “pressured the other two candidates to withdraw from the slate and then informed me, ‘You bring nothing to the table.’”

Fujioka declined to name the other two candidates or the consultants. Asked about Fujioka’s withdrawal, union president Henry Roman said, “We have strong candidates in every district.”

Four seats on the seven-member Denver Public Schools board are up for election in November. All seven seats are currently held by board members who support the superintendent’s vision, which includes embracing school choice and replacing low-performing schools.

Three incumbents are running for re-election. In the fourth race, the incumbent has endorsed a candidate. Every race is now contested, and every race includes at least one candidate who disagrees with the superintendent’s vision.

Fujioka was running for the at-large seat held by O’Brien on a platform of opposing school closures and new charter schools. Fujioka said her strategy from the beginning was to form a slate of four like-minded candidates. (Until recently, only three races were contested, which is why she said the proposed slate had three members.)

The idea, she said, was that the slate would stand together against the district’s reforms, which she and others have sought to tie to the policies championed by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

DeVos is best known for supporting private school vouchers, which DPS opposes.

“There’s a national anti-voucher, anti-DeVos, anti-Trump feeling,” Fujioka said. “…The fact that there are lots of activists against it, coupled with a ticket of four people saying, ‘This is what we’re railing against,’ that’s the advantage I see.”

Running individual campaigns against the incumbents would be more difficult, she said. When it became clear the slate wasn’t going to happen, Fujioka said she decided to withdraw from the race altogether — and explain her reasoning in a message to supporters, which she also posted on her website.

“It isn’t just that I quit,” she said. “That’s why I put that out there.”

O’Brien, who previously served as Colorado’s lieutenant governor for four years, responded to Fujioka’s statement with a press release saying she was disheartened to learn the reason that one of her opponents was dropping out of the race.

“Too often, women in politics find themselves facing unreasonable institutional barriers,” O’Brien said. “It’s discouraging, misguided and just plain wrong. … That a fellow progressive voice was forced to exit the race because consultants told her, ‘You bring nothing to the table,’ is more of the same that women in public service, and everywhere, have to tolerate.”

Fujioka called O’Brien’s statement “the sleaziest piece of campaign propaganda” she’d seen.

“I am appalled at Barbara hopping on this like a vulture to make it sound like she is so empathetic to my situation as a woman, when it really had nothing to do with being a woman,” Fujioka said. “Such a blatant appeal to women is shoddy at best.”

O’Brien said her statement was heartfelt.

Two other candidates confirmed that they’re still in the running against O’Brien: northwest Denver father Robert Speth, who narrowly lost an election to a school board incumbent in 2015, and former DPS teacher Julie Banuelos.

In the race for the board seat representing northeast Denver, two candidates — Tay Anderson and Jennifer Bacon — are challenging incumbent Rachele Espiritu.

In central east Denver, candidate Carrie A. Olson is challenging incumbent Mike Johnson.

And in southwest Denver, candidate Xochitl “Sochi” Gaytan is challenging candidate Angela Cobian, who has been endorsed by the board member who currently holds that seat.