who rules the schools

Election sets the stage for fresh debate over mayoral control

While school technology funding was the main education item on the ballot across the state on Tuesday, voters are also be setting up a debate over the control of New York City schools.

That’s because lawmakers have a looming task in the next legislative session: to revisit a 2002 law giving control of the city’s schools to its mayor. The law is set to expire at the end of June, meaning that lawmakers will have to agree on any changes by then or risk letting mayoral control lapse.

A drag-out fight over mayoral control doesn’t appear likely, given that most of its past opponents are now allies of City Hall. But the intensity of the debate will depend on which state lawmakers win at the ballot box on Tuesday.

“Who controls the Senate will be an important factor,” said Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch, who supports the renewal of mayoral control.

Current law gives the mayor the power to appoint a schools chancellor, oversee the system’s $20 billion operating budget, and make decisions about how the city will try to lift student achievement across 1,600 district schools. The landmark legislation passed in 2002 after Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s election and amid a bipartisan wave of support for dismantling the city’s 32 local school boards. The law also created a citywide board, now called the Panel for Educational Policy, which votes on policy decisions.

The last time the mayoral control legislation expired, in 2009, lawmakers were unable to settle on revisions before the “sunset” deadline. They ultimately revised the law to limit the mayor’s power in a few relatively minor ways, such as by creating a public review process for when the city decides to close or move a school.

“I think that the opposition to mayoral control had to do, to a large extent, with groups that were battling reforms introduced by Mayor Bloomberg and his chancellor,” said Kathryn Wylde, head of the Partnership for New York City, a coalition of business leaders that was an early advocate of mayoral control.

But that doesn’t mean tackling the school governance law will be a cakewalk for legislators.

The legislative session, which begins in January, will offer opportunities for advocates to air their grievances about how schools in New York City are managed. Last year, de Blasio clashed with Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state senators over education, which led to an erosion of the mayor’s power when it comes to finding space for new and expanding charter schools.

Charter school advocates have spent $4 million supporting Senate candidates who could tip the balance for Republicans, according to Capital New York, and their top legislative priority will be to increase their numbers. State law permits 256 charter schools to open in the city, but only 28 charters remain unclaimed. Advocates are hoping to raise or eliminate that cap next year.

Complicating matters is that support for mayoral control in New York City doesn’t split neatly along partisan lines. In 2009, charter school backers, now de Blasio’s critics, were mayoral control’s most vocal supporters. Senate Democrats, now de Blasio’s allies, for a time stood in the way of a deal to renew mayoral control.

On this issue, some the fiercest critics of de Blasio’s education policy are finding themselves on his side.

“Mayoral control gives the district a fighting chance by wresting governance away from special interests, but it’s up to the mayor in power to lead the way forward for kids,” said StudentsFirstNY’s Jenny Sedlis.

And in a sign of remaining tensions, a number of de Blasio allies want a school structure that would wrest some control from City Hall.

Even some of de Blasio’s own PEP members say they want to see changes. Norm Fruchter, an education policy analyst and mayoral appointee to the PEP, said parents should be given some authority to approve school co-locations or closures that the city is proposing in their district.

Though de Blasio has made efforts to involve parents, “I think where the law is wrong is it eclipses any form of democratic decision-making at the local and neighborhood level,” Fruchter said.

Diane Ravitch, another supporter of de Blasio’s, said she wants to see a model in which the PEP, not the mayor, is the chancellor’s boss and the mayor can only select panel members who have been recommended by another independent body.

“The key issue is who appoints the chancellor and who can fire him or her,” Ravitch said.

As the issue inches into the spotlight, a remaining question is how outspoken de Blasio will be in support of mayoral control. As a city councilman, de Blasio praised the role that community school boards played in elevating the voice of parents before mayoral control. But as a candidate for mayor, he made it clear he didn’t want to see the mayor’s powers diluted and said he would only support tweaks to the law.

De Blasio hasn’t spoken publicly about the issue since taking office, and his office didn’t respond to questions about the city’s legislative priorities for renewing mayoral control.

But when the issue comes to the fore, there are signs that the administration will be ready. A top lobbyist for renewing mayoral control five years ago, Peter Hatch, is now a senior policy advisor to Deputy Mayor Anthony Shorris.

De Blasio will have to grapple with Democratic colleagues in the legislature. Assemblyman David Weprin of Queens is sponsoring a bill to strip the mayor of his power to appoint the schools chancellor and take away its supermajority on the Panel for Educational Policy. (The mayor appoints eight of 13 of the PEP members under the current structure; Weprin’s legislation would cut that number in half and require more appointees to be public-school parents.)

“It’s an institutional thing,” explained Weprin. “I don’t think you can do legislation based on one particular mayor.”

father knows best

How a brush with death convinced one dad to get his diploma, with a boost from the Fatherhood Academy

PHOTO: Courtesy of Steven Robles
Steven Robles with his family

Steven Robles thought he might not live to see his daughter’s birth.

In May 2016, the 20-year-old was in the hospital after being shot during what he described as an argument in his neighborhood.

A year later, Robles just graduated from City University of New York’s Fatherhood Academy. He passed his high school equivalency exam and is happily celebrating his daughter Avare’s 8-month birthday.

“That conflict is what got me into the program, and what happened to me before she was born motivated me to stay in the program,” Robles said. “It motivated me to manage to pass my GED.”

Robles grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn and attended Franklin K. Lane High School. Though he liked his teachers, Robles said other students at the school were not “mature enough,” and the disorderly school environment made it hard for him to concentrate.

A quiet student, Robles said teachers would often overlook his presence in the classroom. Between that and friction with other classmates, Robles lost interest in school.

“My parents didn’t try to help me, either,” Robles said. “Nobody really tried to help me with that school, so I just stopped going.”

It was a whole different experience for him once he arrived at the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College, a program run by CUNY for unemployed and underemployed fathers ages 18 through 28. The Academy, now partnering with the New York City Housing Authority at its LaGuardia location, was launched in 2012 and also has programs at Hostos and Kingsborough Community Colleges.

“I have interviewed many of the men who come into the program and I often ask the question, ‘What brought you here?'” said Raheem Brooks, program manager of the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College. “Mostly every young man says, ‘I’m here because I want to create a better life for my child than I had.’ So, I think the main theme of the program is that we help promote intergenerational change.”

At the LaGuardia branch, 30 students attend classes three times a week over the course of 16 weeks. Subjects include mathematics, social studies, and writing for students seeking to get their high school equivalency diplomas. Students also attend workshops run by counselors who guide them in professional development and parenting.

Robles found out about the program after seeing a flier for it in his social worker’s office at Graham Windham, a family support services organization. Curious to see what the Academy offered, he called to find out more and officially enrolled after passing a test to prove he could read above seventh-grade level.

“Before the Academy, I was not really into school at all,” Robles said. “But when I got there, it just changed my life. In this program, I didn’t know anybody there, there were no distractions. It made me more focused, and I just really wanted to get my GED and education.”

What helped Robles the most was getting to learn from the other fathers in the class, who were going through similar experiences as him.

“Little things I didn’t know, I learned from them because they were also fathers,” Robles said. “I just liked the way they were teaching us.”

In fact, he liked the Academy so much, he doesn’t plan to leave. He is applying to study criminal justice at LaGuardia Community College and to become a mentor for the Academy next year.

Currently, Robles lives with his grandparents, his daughter and the mother of his child. Getting a place for his family is next on his to-do list, he said.

“Avare always has a smile on her face and always puts a smile on my face,” Robles said. “She motivates me to get up and do what I have to do. Anything I could do for her, I will.”

Though school did not play a huge role in his life growing up, that is not what Robles wants for his daughter. He said after participating in the Academy, he wants to make sure Avare stays motivated and in school.

“I hear a lot from people about how they think they can’t do it,” Robles said. “I almost lost my life before my daughter was born and that motivated me. If I could do it, you could do it.”

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community.