With the Bloomberg administration's proposed capital-spending budget for schools up for the City Council's consideration, lawmakers are taking a novel approach: Rather than vote yes or no, they are asking for a change in state law that would give them more power to revise it. The change could not actually be marshaled through Albany in time for this year's capital budget, but it does send a signal that city lawmakers are interested in conducting more oversight over the public schools. Council Speaker Christine Quinn said that the council aims to have the same kind of input into the city's school capital budget as it has in the Department of Education's operating budget. Each spring, the council negotiates changes in that budget. Sometimes, those changes are substantial, such as last year, when the council won the restoration of $129 million in school funds. But on school construction, the council must vote simply yes or no on a plan that contains hundreds of individual projects. The plan has been a popular target for advocates who have said it doesn't come close to meeting the city's need for more school buildings. It has also made an attractive target for elected officials, especially in Manhattan, where parents have been strenuously protesting school crowding.
The state Senate ground to a standstill on the question of who should control the city's public schools this week, but a consensus among members of the Assembly looks like it will be easier to come by — and it could come soon. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver told New York City members this week that he will hold the Assembly Democrats' first conference on the issue next week, according to a member who was there, Mark Weprin of Queens. The conference will kick off formal talks within the Democratic conference about whether to reauthorize, revise, or scrap the 2002 law that granted control of the city's public schools to the mayor. Several Assembly members are already putting together legislation on the subject, much of it influenced by the constellation of advocacy groups that are bombarding Albany this week. A slew of Assembly members are standing behind recommendations put out by the Campaign for Better Schools, while bills in line with the recommendations of Betsy Gotbaum's commission on school governance and the Parent Commission on School Governance are said to be on the way. Assemblyman Alan Maisel of Brooklyn today introduced a bill, backed by the city principals' union, that would beef up the power of superintendents. But the conference would be the first chance for Democrats to try to work out a consensus on the issue. The bills currently in circulation clash with each other on several points. More importantly, they also clash with the position of the powerful speaker, Silver, who supports giving the mayor a majority of appointees on the citywide school board.
I've been skeptical of New York City's Teacher Data Initiative for some time. As I've commented previously here and here, I see few ways in which the Teacher Data Reports produced via a value-added assessment of student performance on state math and ELA tests could actually lead to better teaching. What the Teacher Data Reports do is rank teachers, and they're not even very good at that, given the unreliability of student performance. Lurking in the background is the fear that the Teacher Data Reports will be used to evaluate teachers. "Absolutely not," is the steady refrain from Chancellor Joel Klein. "The Teacher Data Reports are not to be used for evaluation purposes. That is, they won't be used in tenure determinations or the annual rating process," wrote Chancellor Klein and UFT President Randi Weingarten, in a joint letter last October. I think that this is the primary purpose of the Teacher Data Reports, but they are being cloaked in rhetoric that describes them as a professional development tool. It turns out that there's a smoking gun. Today's New York Times feature story on Chancellor Joel Klein makes mention of a recently-published book by Terry Moe and John Chubb for which he wrote a book-jacket blurb, entitled "Liberating Learning: Technology, Politics and the Future of Education." The book has a brief section on New York City, drawn, a footnote tells us, from the public record and an interview with Deputy Chancellor Chris Cerf. Here's what Moe and Chubb write:
This screenshot from the Campaign for Fiscal Equity's overcrowding Web site shows the distribution of city schools that are over 150% capacity. A long-awaited report about the extent of overcrowding in the city schools was released today, showing that more than half a million city children attend school in buildings that crowded beyond capacity. The group that put together the report, The Campaign for Fiscal Equity, also launched an interactive Web site aimed at spurring action to reduce the overcrowding. The Web site, OvercrowdedNYCschools.org, includes a searchable map of overcrowded school buildings, instructions for how to urge the city to improve its school building plan, and links to the report, titled "Maxed Out," and the data used to compile it. I used the site's map tool to plot school buildings that are at 150 percent capacity or higher and found 117 schools that fell into that category. As the picture to the right shows, the most overcrowded school buildings are located on Staten Island and in Queens.
An effort to move state tests later in the year is gaining momentum, following a state Education Department survey that shows wide support among teachers for the change. More than 80 percent of nearly 23,000 parents, teachers, and school administrators the department surveyed this spring said they favor at least some rescheduling of the tests, and the state Board of Regents could implement a change as soon as the 2010-2011 school year, a member said. Right now, students take English tests in January and math tests in March, but critics have said the timing doesn't give teachers enough time to bring students up to grade level. The early testing also makes it difficult to use test scores to evaluate teachers' effectiveness. The Board of Regents, the state board that sets education policy, requested the survey. Betty Rosa, a Regents member from the Bronx, said that the Regents are likely to propose a change in the timing of tests for the 2010-2011 school year. "All the members have been very, very united on this front," Rosa said. Merryl Tisch, the new Regents chancellor, did not return several requests for comment.
While lawmakers in Albany battle over how much to limit the mayor's control of the public schools, a City Council member from Brooklyn is zeroing in on another part of the city school system he wants revised: the parents' "bill of rights" — which apparently exists! Bill De Blasio, who is running for public advocate this year, is using the bill of rights to illustrate his argument for a "bottom-up" rather than "top-down" approach to improving public schools. The current version of the list, created by the Department of Education and published on the department's Web site, includes five rights that parents have (the right to file a complaint, the right to "be actively involved") plus seven responsibilities (they must send their children to school "ready to learn," they must keep track of their children's performance, they must treat educators with respect). The version drafted this week by Bill de Blasio, a City Council member from Brooklyn, outlines 10 rights that would give parents much wider latitude to participate in policy-making (plus the crowd-pleaser right to a "reasonable approach to cellular phones.") De Blasio has been telling supporters that he would improve the city schools by using the public advocate's office as a kind of organizing arm of government that would empower parents to get more involved in improving their schools — and to supply them with the information required to do that. De Blasio explained his position at a recent fundraiser in Harlem tied to education issues that I attended, where supporters brought toys to donate along with cash for the campaign and De Blasio's two children, both public school students, made an appearance. Here's the full bill of rights, below the jump: