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.

DeVos and Detroit

Can Betsy DeVos be blamed for the state of Detroit’s schools? What you need to know:

PHOTO: YouTube / American Federation for Children
Michigan Republican Betsy DeVos in President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for U.S. secretary of education.

Donald Trump’s nominee to be the nation’s next secretary of education doesn’t live in Detroit. She doesn’t routinely work in Detroit, either.

But Detroit is nonetheless sure to be on the agenda when billionaire philanthropist Betsy DeVos sits down Tuesday before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee for the start of her confirmation hearings.

That’s because DeVos, who lives in western Michigan, has been a leading architect of the free-market-style school choice policies in Michigan that many Detroit school supporters blame for the dire state of Detroit schools.

Critics assert that Michigan charter schools can open wherever they want, shut down without notice and operate with less oversight than charters in some other parts of the country.

DeVos defenders say she’s created educational opportunities for families that otherwise wouldn’t have had them, noting that Detroit charter school students on average do slightly better on state exams than their district school peers.

But this much is clear: When the DeVos hearing starts at 5 p.m. Eastern on Tuesday, viewers are bound to hear arguments from both detractors and defenders that are driven more by ideology than fact.

With that in mind, here are answers to some key questions that could come up about Detroit and DeVos:

Are Detroit schools really that bad?

Well, yes, at least if you believe the test scores. Detroit students scored far below kids in other struggling urban districts on a national exam. And though Detroit families have a lot of “school choice” options including district schools, charter schools and suburban schools that take kids from other districts, most schools in the city are low performing. Of more than 200 schools in the Detroit — roughly half of which are charter schools — the vast majority were near the bottom on the state’s last top-to-bottom school ranking based on test scores. Just ten schools — six selective district schools and four charters — were in the top half.

 

Has Betsy DeVos called for improvements for the Detroit Public Schools?

Not quite. Last winter, as the Michigan state legislature pondered a massive financial rescue plan designed to prevent the state’s largest school district from falling into bankruptcy, DeVos urged the state to abolish the district. “We must acknowledge the simple fact that DPS has failed academically and financially – for decades,” she wrote in an op/ed in the Detroit News.

Dissolving a school district is not unheard of in Michigan where several smaller districts including Highland Park, which is wholly surrounded by Detroit, have been essentially turned over to charter school operators.

Detroit schools were turned over to a series of state-appointed emergency managers starting in 2009 but DeVos asserted that district is too far gone to fix. Her political organization took to Twitter with the hashtag #EndDPS.

 

Are Detroit charter schools any better than district schools?

Some are. Some not so much. A major study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University found that Detroit charter school students do score better on average on state exams. The researchers matched charter school students with district school students who had the same demographic profiles, then looked to see who scored better. The study found that 8 percent of kids in charter schools did worse than their district peers while 60 percent of charter school kids bested the district kids.

That’s not saying much, given the rock-bottom scores in Detroit’s district schools, said James Woodworth, a senior research analyst for CREDO. But, he said, charters are providing a stronger option.

“People are very correct in saying that the academic performance of charter schools in Detroit is still lower than the national average but it’s better than the non-charter schools,” Woodworth said.

 

So what makes Michigan charter school policies so controversial?

Michigan has a charter school law that puts no restrictions on where or how many charter schools can open. The state does have the ability to close schools for poor performance, but it generally has not done so (though that is likely to change soon). The setup has created an environment in which Detroit has more schools than kids — an estimated 30,000 classroom seats sitting empty. That has forced district and charter schools to aggressively compete with each other for students, then slash programs or increase class sizes when too-few kids lead to tighter budgets.

“Detroit is the foremost example of the adverse consequences of a poorly regulated education market,” said Michigan State University professor David Arsen. “I say this as an advocate for school choice. Choice is good but  … in Detroit you have a system that is chaotic.”

 

Has Betsy DeVos supported this ‘chaotic’ environment?

DeVos supporters note that she’s a strong advocate for school accountability. She’s pushed for an A-F letter grade system and for strong consequences for schools that earn low marks, including both district and charter schools. But her critics say she has blocked serious attempts to bring order to the chaos.

Notably, last year, when a broad coalition of Detroit schools advocates pushed for a mayoral commission that would oversee the opening of new district and charter schools and would be able to coordinate things like enrollment and transportation, DeVos and her allies saw the effort as an attack on charter schools and moved to block it. Members of the DeVos family spent $1.45 million in June and July — $25,000 a day for seven weeks — supporting lawmakers who voted against the commission.

DeVos supporters, however, note that though the final bill passed along party lines without support from Detroit lawmakers, it did provide $617 million for the main Detroit school district and did include some measures to improve quality. Among them: a new requirement that the universities that authorize charter schools become accredited. And a requirement that all district and charter schools in Detroit be shuttered after repeated years of failing test scores.

 

Off to the races

Michael Johnston, leading education reformer, set to announce bid for governor Tuesday

PHOTO: Denver Post File
State Sen. Michael Johnston

Former state Sen. Michael Johnston, who spent his time at the statehouse crafting some of Colorado’s most ambitious education reform laws, is planning to announce his candidacy for governor Tuesday.

Johnston, 42, will be one of the first Democrats to officially announce a gubernatorial bid. The 2018 race to replace Gov. John Hickenlooper, who must leave office because of term limits, is expected to be a crowded field attracting high profile names from both major political parties.

Johnston’s announcement comes as little surprise. The Democrat has long been considered a contender for the governor’s mansion. And in December, he openly spoke about running.

The Denver Democrat is considered a rising star in his party. He’s been recognized by Time magazine and The New York Times. And he’s well-known in education circles in Colorado and beyond.

But Johnston’s landmark teacher evaluation law, which linked a teacher’s rating to student academic performance, and other efforts has caused friction with the state’s largest teachers union, a large player in Democratic politics.

Other Democrats thought to be considering a run include former U.S. Sen. and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Congressman Ed Perlmutter and former state treasurer Cary Kennedy.

Entrepreneur Noel Ginsburg, CEO of Intertech Plastics, also has declared his candidacy and filed paperwork necessary to start raising money. Ginsburg also heads a nonprofit organization that is set to launch a new youth apprenticeship system in Colorado this fall backed by money from Bloomberg Philanthropies and JPMorgan Chase.

Among the high-profile Republicans mulling a run: District Attorney George Brauchler and state Treasurer Walker Stapleton.

Johnston is a former high school principal who got his start in education by joining Teach For America, an organization that recruits college students to teach for at least two years in school districts that serve the nation’s poorest students.

Johnston’s announcement will be at 9 a.m. at the Holly Street Community Center, according to a media release.