of the parents by the parents

District parent council invites charter parents to their ranks

In a move that could shake up the debate over school space, a mix of charter and district parents is pushing to bring charter school parents into local school districts’ parents councils.

Such a change would mark a significant departure from charter schools’ separation from the traditional school district. It could also change the dynamics of the thorny debate over school space. Last year, a group of community education councils sued the Department of Education for trying to convert a district school into a charter school.

Members of District 1’s Community Education Council said at their meeting last night that they would welcome a charter parent representative onto the board, even though there is no formal mechanism for doing so.

“We consider ourselves representatives of all of the parents in the schools,” council president Lisa Donlan said in an interview today. “It’s really all about building bridges and finding common ground and finding ways to work together.”

The current school governance law does not have a mechanism by which charter school parents may become voting members of the councils. Donlan said that, depending on the preferences of the charter parent who expresses interest in a position, the council would either bring them on as a non-voting member or join them in a fight for a voting position on the committee.

“I do believe they should have a seat at the table in a real way,” she said.

Department of Education spokeswoman Melody Meyer pointed out that this would go against both state law and Chancellor’s Regulations, which do not have a mechanism for including charter parents in district parent committees.

“What makes a charter school a charter school is that they operate outside the jurisdiction of the district,” Meyer said.

Nine members of each council are parents selected by the district schools’ parent associations. The councils also each have two members appointed by the borough president and one student member selected by the district’s superintendent.

The idea of including charter school parents on CECs is not new. During the summer’s debate over school governance, Donlan and other members of a parent group critical of mayoral control proposed that the CECs reserve seats specially for parents of English Language Learners, special education students and charter school students.

The final version of the school governance law did reserve spots on the councils for parents of English Language Learners and special education students but did not mention parents of charter school students.

The CEC also invited the heads of the parent associations of two neighborhood charter schools who attended the meeting, Girls Prep Charter School and Ross Global Academy Charter School, to join the district’s Presidents Council. The Presidents Council consists of the presidents of the parent associations of all of the district schools.

If the charter parents associations heads join, they will be the first charter parents to sit on the District 1 Presidents Council, said Kellie Preyor, who assists District 1’s community superintendent and district family advocate.

Donlan argued that the district councils should have jurisdiction to represent families attending charter schools located within the district, especially since charter schools are now required to give admissions preference to students living within the district.

“These really are our parents,” she said. “If you’re going to have a body that claims to represent everyone, it must have a place for all stakeholders.”

Donlan said that she hoped the inclusion would help smooth conversations among parents about the use of school space by charter schools in the district. “It’s very easy to place the blame on each other, but we really are aligned in our needs in many ways,” she said.

At least one other district, in Queens, has a charter school parent member on the CEC appointed by Queens Borough President Helen Marshall. Donlan said that she had lobbied unsuccessfully for Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer to appoint a charter school parent to the council, and both borough president appointee positions on the council were now taken.

Charter school parent activist Mona Davids was at the District 1 meeting and praised the council for inviting a charter parent into its ranks. The New York City Charter Parents Association, which Davids founded this spring, has made CEC representation for charter school parents one of its primary issues.

“I think it says a lot for parents here in the city — district and charter parents — who’ve been so divided and had such a negative relationship,” Davids said. “I think this is a good first step in bridging that gap.”

But Davids emphasized that she also wants the law governing the CECs to be changed to allow charter school parents to have full voting privileges on the councils. “That would really go a long way to show that we are really part of the community,” she said. “We’re not a stepchild. We’re part of the family.”

after douglas

Betsy DeVos avoids questions on discrimination as school safety debates reach Congress

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos prepares to testify at a House Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing in Rayburn Building on the department's FY2019 budget on March 20, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos fielded some hostile questions on school safety and racial discrimination as she defended the Trump administration’s budget proposal in a House committee hearing on Tuesday.

The tone for the hearing was set early by ranking Democrat Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who called aspects DeVos’s prepared remarks “misleading and cynical” before the secretary had spoken. Even the Republican subcommittee chair, Rep. Tom Cole, expressed some skepticism, saying he was “concerned about the administration continuing to request cuts that Congress has rejected.”

During nearly two hours of questioning, DeVos stuck to familiar talking points and largely side-stepped the tougher queries from Democrats, even as many interrupted her.

For instance, when Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from Texas, complained about proposed spending cuts and asked, “Isn’t it your job to ensure that schools aren’t executing harsher punishments for the same behavior because [students] are black or brown?” DeVos responded by saying that students of color would benefit from expanded school choice programs.

Lee responded: “You still haven’t talked about the issue in public schools as it relates to black and brown students and the high disparity rates as it relates to suspensions and expulsions. Is race a factor? Do you believe that or not?” (Recent research in Louisiana found that black students receive longer suspensions than white students involved in the same fights, though the difference was very small.)

Again, DeVos did not reply directly.

“There is no place for discrimination and there is no tolerance for discrimination, and we will continue to uphold that,” she said. “I’m very proud of the record of the Office of Civil Rights in continuing to address issues that arise to that level.”

Lee responded that the administration has proposed cuts to that office; DeVos said the reduction was modest — less than 1 percent — and that “they are able to do more with less.”

The specific policy decision that DeVos faces is the future of a directive issued in 2014 by the Obama administration designed to push school districts to reduce racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions. Conservatives and some teachers have pushed DeVos to rescind this guidance, while civil rights groups have said it is crucial for ensuring black and Hispanic students are not discriminated against.

That was a focus of another hearing in the House on Tuesday precipitated by the shooting last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, falsely claimed in his opening statement that Broward County Public Schools rewrote its discipline policy based on the federal guidance — an idea that has percolated through conservative media for weeks and been promoted by other lawmakers, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Utah Sen. Mike Lee. In fact, the Broward County rules were put into place in 2013, before the Obama administration guidance was issued.

The Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden, a leading critic of Obama administration’s guidance, acknowledged in his own testimony that the Broward policy predated these rules. But he suggested that policies like Broward’s and the Obama administration’s guidance have made schools less safe.

“Faced with pressure to get the numbers down, the easiest path is to simply not address, or to not record, troubling, even violent, behavior,” he said.

Kristen Harper, a director with research group Child Trends and a former Obama administration official, disagreed. “To put it simply, neither the purpose nor the letter of the federal school discipline guidance restrict the authority of school personnel to remove a child who is threatening student safety,” she said.

There is little, if any, specific evidence linking Broward County’s policies to how Stoneman Douglas shooter Nicholas Cruz was dealt with. There’s also limited evidence about whether reducing suspensions makes schools less safe.

Eden pointed to a study in Philadelphia showing that the city’s ban on suspensions coincided with a drop in test scores and attendance in some schools. But those results are difficult to interpret because the prohibition was not fully implemented in many schools. He also cited surveys of teachers expressing concerns about safety in the classroom including in Oklahoma CityFresno, California; and Buffalo, New York.

On the other hand, a recent study found that after Chicago modestly reduced suspensions for the most severe behaviors, student test scores and attendance jumped without any decline in how safe students felt.

DeVos is now set to consider the repeal of those policies on the Trump administration’s school safety committee, which she will chair.

On Tuesday, DeVos said the committee’s first meeting would take place “within the next few weeks.” Its members will be four Cabinet secretaries: DeVos herself, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.

on the run

‘Sex and the City’ star and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon launches bid for N.Y. governor

Cynthia Nixon on Monday announced her long-anticipated run for New York governor.

Actress and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon announced Monday that she’s running for governor of New York, ending months of speculation and launching a campaign that will likely spotlight education.

Nixon, who starred as Miranda in the TV series “Sex and the City,” will face New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in September’s Democratic primary.

Nixon has been active in New York education circles for more than a decade. She served as a  longtime spokeswoman for the Alliance for Quality Education, a union-backed advocacy organization. Though Nixon will step down from that role, according to a campaign spokeswoman, education promises to be a centerpiece of her campaign.

In a campaign kickoff video posted to Twitter, Nixon calls herself “a proud public school graduate, and a prouder public school parent.” Nixon has three children.

“I was given chances I just don’t see for most of New York’s kids today,” she says.

Nixon’s advocacy began when her oldest child started school, which was around the same time the recession wreaked havoc on education budgets. She has slammed Gov. Cuomo for his spending on education during his two terms in office, and she has campaigned for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

In 2008, she stepped into an emotional fight on the Upper West Side over a plan to deal with overcrowding and segregation that would have impacted her daughter’s school. In a video of brief remarks during a public meeting where the plan was discussed, Nixon is shouted down as she claims the proposal would lead to a “de facto segregated” school building.

Nixon faces steep competition in her first run for office. She is up against an incumbent governor who has amassed a $30 million war chest, according to the New York Times. If elected, she would be the first woman and the first openly gay governor in the state.