City education council elections bring polarizing national issues to local school districts

Students and parents hold signs on the steps at the Department of Education’s Lower Manhattan headquarters to expand the Gifted & Talented program. Oct. 14, 2021.
Students and parents rally at the Department of Education’s Lower Manhattan headquarters to expand the Gifted & Talented program. Oct. 14, 2021. (Ryan Rahman/Shutterstock)

This story was originally published on April 28 by THE CITY.

Starting last Friday and running through May 9, the city’s Community Education Council elections now underway give public school parents a chance to vote on district panels that will represent their interests to their local superintendent. 

Parents, local residents, and business owners, and even high school seniors are eligible to run for positions on the 11-member CECs, which can weigh in on topics ranging from academics and budgets to accessibility and diversity.

This is only the second time that public school parents will be able to choose who will represent district interests to the superintendent — prior to 2021, only Parent Teacher Associations nominated CEC members. But only 2% of eligible voters participated in the last election for the volunteer positions two years ago, according to the Department of Education — and in the absence of individual involvement, well-organized networks of parents have increasingly exerted influence.

One such group, Parent Leaders for Accelerated Curriculum and Education (PLACE), has become particularly powerful — and polarizing.

The group formed in 2019 in opposition to former Mayor Bill de Blasio’s efforts to widen access to honors programs and selective middle and high schools. Now some rival parent groups say PLACE is skewing rightward, with members using their platform to compare critical race theory to Nazi ideology and accusing the administration of being “woke” oppressors.

On April 21, the first day of voting, PLACE recommended 175 candidates across the city in an emailed newsletter the organization says reaches nearly 10,000 parents.

But reached by THE CITY, several of those candidates distanced themselves from PLACE’s agenda as it ventures into issues beyond testing. Some endorsed candidates said they had never even heard of the organization.

CECs are composed of 11 members: nine are parents elected by other parents, and two are appointed by the borough president. Decisions are entirely advisory, with the exception of binding decisions issued about school zoning. 

“For most parents, this is an obscure election. They look at those names and they don’t really recognize them,” said Reyhan Mehran, a parent and member of a group in Brooklyn’s District 15 that opposes PLACE. “It makes those of us who are paying attention nervous that this very vocal, right-wing small group of people have had an undue influence on public school policy.”

PLACE is trying to replicate its success from the last elections — where 60% of the 86 candidates that they recommended are still district CEC members. In Manhattan’s largest public school districts, 2 and 3, PLACE candidates represent a majority or all of the members sitting on the councils, according to THE CITY’s review of district rosters.

The group regularly reaches approximately 15,000 parents citywide through a combination of Facebook, Twitter, a newsletter and group chats on the messaging app WeChat, according to both its leadership and public follower tallies.

“It’s very difficult to motivate your average parent to take part in [CEC elections],” said Yiatin Chu, a public school parent in District 1 and co-vice-president and co-founder of PLACE. “The most active parents are the ones who have been burned by the [school] lottery system. The ones that aren’t really engaging with us may know someone who is — it’s like what marketing people call influencers.”

As parents cast their ballots over the next two weeks, members of rival coalitions are expressing concerns about PLACE’s influence.

Mehran is a member of District 15 Parents for Middle School Equity, which was formed in 2014 to advocate for and implement the district’s diversity plans — including removing admissions screens and prioritizing low-income students and English-learners for admissions in middle schools. For the first time ever on Tuesday, the group released a list of endorsed candidates citywide — an explicit effort to counter PLACE’s sway, Mehran said.

“By just recommending these candidates, PLACE has had a lot of influence,” said Mehran. “And we just felt like maybe we should put something out there that gives people other names to consider.”

Organized outreach

In only four years, PLACE has emerged as the foremost group pushing local district superintendents to preserve and expand gifted and talented programs and to reinstate admissions testing in certain high schools and middle schools. 

They’re fighting officials and other parents who have blamed those programs for contributing to racial and economic inequality across the city — which has some of the most segregated public schools across the country, according to a study conducted by UCLA.

But PLACE insists that dismantling testing and accelerated programs would worsen academic standards and unfairly punish Asian students, who tend to be “overrepresented” in selective schools, compared to the city’s general demographic mix. Instead, the group suggests that the DOE correct the factors that might be causing Black and Hispanic students to fall behind in the first place.

PLACE’s most notable success in the last election was in Manhattan’s four largest districts, where every candidate it recommended in Districts 1, 2 and 3 won a seat. In District 2, representing 60,000 students and 121 schools, all but one of the seats was held by a PLACE candidate. Similarly, PLACE won a majority on the Citywide Council on High Schools — a board that represents 300,000 students citywide. 

And PLACE’s 15,000-member following dwarfs that of other groups that offered endorsements — who aren’t as active outside of CEC elections, and told THE CITY that their listservs and online followings reach around 1,000 people a piece.

Unlike former Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration, which said it wanted to scrap the specialized high school tests open to students citywide, Mayor Eric Adams and Department of Education Chancellor David Banks have stressed that most admissions policies should be decided on by local superintendents — giving CECs a path to potentially influence these decisions.

CECs, for instance, made themselves heard on middle school admissions last year, after a two-year pause in academic-based screening for middle schools, related to both the pandemic and the de Blasio administration’s push to move away from grade- and test-based admissions.

In at least two districts, CECs recommended a return to screened middle school admissions. The results were mixed: over 100 schools have decided not to, according to an announcement made by Banks last October. But 60 middle schools have reinstated screened admissions based on course averages from the fourth grade.

Not ‘woke’ but awakened?

In addition to a robust parent network citywide, PLACE Co-president and co-founder Maud Maron attributed the organization’s success to a widespread “parent awakening” in the first year of the pandemic, at a time when the city’s school enrollment was rapidly declining, protests over racial injustice were spreading across the country, and parents debated about virtual schooling and mask mandates. 

She suggested a correlation between declining reading and math scores and an increased focus on “social emotional learning” and an “ideological agenda” in schools — but acknowledged that the relationship wasn’t necessarily causal. 

“Land acknowledgements don’t teach anybody more math,” Maron, a Manhattan mother of four, told THE CITY — referencing the practice of paying respect to the indigenous people who inhabited the land before European colonialism. “It’s just that this endless fixation on left-wing ideological indoctrination doesn’t do much to improve our nation’s report card.”

PLACE’s prominence in education politics has drawn local and national recognition, especially as a number of its members have aspired to higher office. That includes Maron, a former CEC member herself who ran in the crowded Democratic primary for a rare open seat in U.S. Congress District 10. That’s the area that covers much of school District 15 in Brooklyn, which led the way in removing middle school screenings in the de Blasio years. Maron won just under 1,000 votes, less than 1%.

Members of the Adams administration, including Banks himself, have consulted with PLACE directly, according to Chalkbeat and testimony from the Department of Education’s chief enrollment officer at a City Council hearing in January. Separately, a spokesperson for the DOE told THE CITY that the administration engages PLACE in the same way that it does with other groups representing parents, and continues to prioritize diversity in schools.

In District 2, the largest in Manhattan, PLACE candidates fill all but one elected CEC seat. Conversations about culturally sensitive curriculum and school diversity have caught the attention of national media outlets, while one CEC member there launched her own bid for state Senate.

And PLACE’s work has earned commendation from groups like Parents Defending Education, and leadership positions at the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism (FAIR), national organizations that largely advocate against what they describe as threats to free speech from the left. Chu and Maron made national news for founding FAIR’s New York City chapter.

PLACE leadership has leaned into national discourse online, comparing “critical race theory” (CRT) and “anti-Asian discrimination” in admissions to Nazi ideology, and warning parents of “poisonous” curriculum. In a tweet from March, Maron called city schools an “oppressor woke environment where DOE employees make them pledge allegiance to their LGBTQI+ religion.”

PLACE leadership echoes this in private discussion forums, according to screenshots from private discussion forums obtained by THE CITY, members have promoted local chapters of Mom’s for Liberty, a national group that decries “woke” education as an assault on parental control.

Guadalupe Hernandez, a mother of two who was appointed to District 2’s CEC by the Manhattan borough president and is running for re-election, was one of the candidates endorsed by D15 Parents for Middle School Equity. She said messaging from PLACE officials reminds her of red states. 

“It’s so mind boggling,” Hernandez told THE CITY. “Sometimes even when I speak to residents that live in my building or just any New York City parents, and tell them what I’m going through, they’re just like, ‘We’re where? We’re not Alabama, we’re not Florida.’ They don’t believe me.”

Endorsement shuffle

PLACE’s leadership insists their official platform is solely about preserving selective admissions and gifted-and-talented programs. 

“I tend to like to be vocal personally on all sorts of things,” Chu said. “But that’s not who I am when I’m advocating for PLACE.”

By and large, national hot-button topics didn’t feature in the 36 candidate forums hosted by the DOE. The vast majority of candidates spoke about supporting the district’s families, fighting school bullying, and promoting learning recovery after the pandemic. 

But that hasn’t stopped endorsed candidates from putting distance between themselves and PLACE’s conservative affiliations. 

Sarah Sharma, a CEC hopeful in Brooklyn’s District 14, is one of the 175 candidates that PLACE endorsed this year. Yet she says she had never heard of the group. After doing some research, Sharma asked to be removed from their list.

“When I found out about their endorsement, I poked around their website and realized I didn’t really want to be associated with them,” said Sharma, a former teacher and administrator in the district, which spans Williamsburg and Greenpoint. “Because I don’t feel like their views on education represent mine and who they’ve endorsed in the past for general elections.”

Sharma went on to specify that she was uncomfortable with PLACE’s endorsement of conservative candidates like Reps. George Santos (R-Queens/L.I.) and Nicole Maliotakis (R-Staten Island/Brooklyn), and gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin, who were among a bi-partisan slate of 18 statewide candidates PLACE endorsed last year.

Noah Harlan, a current CEC representative for District 1, was also endorsed by PLACE but emphasized that his agreement with organization’s leadership begins and ends with supporting selective admissions, rigorous testing, and gifted and talented programs. 

“I think that I have more of a willingness than others to think about the systemic and structural issues that work against student achievement in various neighborhoods in New York, other PLACE candidates might be more dispassionate.” said Harlan, who added that he considers changes to admissions policies to be discriminatory against the Asian community. 

Several other parents and CEC candidates who spoke with THE CITY and who favor preserving selective admissions said that they were not interested in national debates about race and gender — even those who have been endorsed by PLACE.

No magic bullet for parent engagement

Even with two years to drum up awareness, a high level of participation is far from guaranteed in this, the second round of parent-involved CEC elections.

Immediately after the 2021 elections, only five seats were unfilled across all CECs, after a 70% increase in the number of candidates from 2019. Today, however, 25% of seats are unfilled, as parents leave their elected positions. 

Some districts in Brooklyn have gone months without the minimum six members required to reach quorum, and others have gone years without a designated English Language Learner representative, Bklyner reported. 

In the past few months, the DOE has upped its outreach: sending postcards in the mail, making phone calls, emailing parents, hosting information sessions and virtual candidate forums for every district across the city. 

But the engaged parents on the ground are still concerned.

“There isn’t a magic bullet,” said Stephen Stowe, president of the District 20 CEC and PLACE endorsed-candidate. “At the end of the day, you’re not gonna see the same kind of interest you do for City Council elections or state Assembly or state Senate because it doesn’t have a lot of power.”

Former CEC 20 president and PLACE co-founder Vito LaBella believes the issues that parents are concerned about don’t have anything to do with larger political discourse. 

“Unfortunately is everybody inserting a political perspective in what should be a very simple market perspective: What is the demand for accelerated programs and what is the capacity?” said LaBella, who ran for State Senate in 2021 on a platform that prioritized protecting selective admissions and combatting critical race theory. 

“And if we want to stop the bleeding of families leaving New York City, we need to increase capacity to meet demand, not get rid of it altogether.”

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