mayoral (mind) control

New coalition aims to sway 2013 race using education research

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer spoke at a January press conference on school closures that drew four mayoral contenders, including him.

Not satisfied with simply railing against the Bloomberg administration’s education policies in the lead-up to the 2013 mayoral election, more than 20 community and advocacy groups have formed a coalition to urge a different path.

And if the coalition, called A+ NYC, is successful, that path will be lined with education research.

A+ NYC is the latest entrant into a crowded field of education advocates aiming to influence the mayoral election. It is driven by many of the same advocacy groups that just four months ago signed on to New Yorkers for Great Public Schools, which aims to oppose Mayor Bloomberg’s schools policies.

But organizers of both coalitions say they have very different strategies. Participants in A+ NYC say their coalition doesn’t share the blanket opposition to his education policies that New Yorkers for Great Public Schools proclaimed when it announced itself in May. Instead, they say, the new coalition is about policy, not politics.

“I think that this coalition is not focused on Bloomberg at all,” said Megan Hester, a coordinator for the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, which supports the Coalition for Educational Justice. “It’s focused on what we want from the next mayor.”

Hester said A+ NYC, which convened for the first time last week, would focus on compiling education research to share with candidates as they develop their platforms. Eventually, she said, A+ NYC would establish its own policy recommendations and push candidates to adopt similar positions.

Education platforms have been hard to come by from the candidates so far. Bill Thompson has called for an end to school closures; Bill de Blasio said he’d cede some mayoral control to the Panel for Educational Policy; and Christine Quinn has said she’s a supporter of Bloomberg’s rent-free charter school co-location policies.

But put together, the six Democratic mayoral candidates have offered little indication about how they will ultimately govern the public school system if they are elected.

That’s because it has been a politically safe bet for candidates to spend more time bashing Bloomberg, whose popularity on education has withered in recent years, than talking about what they support.

And that’s largely the approach that the union-backed New Yorkers for Great Public Schools adopted when it launched as a direct response to the formation of StudentsFirstNY, a group that supports many policies that the teachers union typically opposes. To make sure that those policies — which include tenure reform, school closures, and more charter schools — do not pick up momentum in the next administration, New Yorkers for Great Public Schools plans to focus on political operations, such as voter registration drives and advertisements.

“We’re going to make sure the StudentsFirst New York agenda won’t become the agenda of New York City,” said Jon Kest, executive director of New York Communities for Change and a head organizer for the coalition. “We’re not advocating a specific policy agenda other than that the last 10 years have been an abject failure.”

The attitude has isolated some education advocates who hoped for a more proactive, forward-looking approach.

“There was no substance,” said Noah Gotbaum, a parent leader and candidate for public advocate who was briefed on New Yorkers for Great Public Schools’ plans earlier this year. Gotbaum said he considered himself part of the coalition and  supported its goals, but declined to sign its pledge. “There wasn’t really a discussion about what people wanted the coalition to stand for.”

Indeed, New Yorkers for Great Public Schools hasn’t gained steam since its arrival on the scene. Its social media pages have been dormant for months, and its online pledge list has attracted only about 100 signatures, a far cry from the 100,000 that its website says is the group’s goal. Kest said he expected more pledges to come as a result of union organizing efforts.

And even education leaders on the other side of the aisle have agreed that the conversation is growing old. Last month, Success Academy Charter Schools CEO Eva Moskowitz derided some candidates for not speaking with conviction on education.

Mark Winston Griffith, of the Brooklyn Movement Center, said he shared Gotbaum’s and Moskowitz’s concerns.

“I don’t want to be defined by what we’re against,” said Winston-Griffith, who is a member of the A+ coalition. “I want to be defined about what we’re for.”

That’s where organizers for A+ NYC believe they fit in.

Many of the coalition’s members are traditional opponents of Bloomberg and his education policies. The Alliance for Quality Education, New York Communities for Change, and New York’s chapter of the NAACP have received financial support from the teachers union and been a regular presence at school closure and charter school co-location protests in recent years.

But Hester said the policy recommendations that ultimately come out of the A+ NYC coalition won’t necessarily reflect an anti-Bloomberg line or a pro-union line.

“We’re really just trying to focus the conversation on research on what actually works,” she said.

But a hint of ideology can be found in early recruiting fliers that were sent out by A+ NYC to advocacy groups this summer. A one-page fact sheet describing the coalition uses much of the same language employed by New Yorkers for Great Public Schools to denounce StudentsFirstNY.

“Already a handful of wealthy individuals have joined together to pledge $50 million to stay the current course, dominate the public debate, and define the politics of education in our city,” reads the sheet, which Hester said was sent out in error.

The A+ coalition has laid out an ambitious agenda for the next six months. Reporters weren’t invited to attend last week’s meeting, but organizers and meeting attendees shared planning documents with GothamSchools that provided more insight about their activities.

The group plans to create a “policy clearinghouse” website where it will publish research summaries on more than 20 education topics. Hester said mayoral control would not be among the topics.

Eventually the coalition will begin meeting with candidates’ staff, host dozens of town halls across the city, and train parents to spread the word about its policy recommendations in local communities.

And even if its means are different from that of New Yorkers for Great Public Schools, the end goal for A+ NYC is still the same, according to its fact sheet, which was sent to advocacy groups recruiting them to join: “By election season, A+NYC will have the power to influence the education agenda of all major mayoral candidates.”


Newark schools would get $37.5 million boost under Gov. Murphy’s budget plan

PHOTO: OIT/Governor's Office
Gov. Phil Murphy gave his first budget address on Tuesday.

Newark just got some good news: Gov. Phil Murphy wants to give its schools their biggest budget increase since 2011.

State funding for the district would grow by 5 percent — or $37.5 million — next school year under Murphy’s budget plan, according to state figures released Thursday. Overall, state aid for K-12 education in Newark would rise to $787.6 million for the 2018-19 school year.

The funding boost could ease financial strain on the district, which has faced large deficits in recent years as more students enroll in charter schools — taking a growing chunk of district money with them. At the same time, the district faced years of flat funding from the state, which provides Newark with most of its education money.

“This increase begins to restore the deep cuts made to teaching and support staff and essential programs for students in district schools over the last seven years,” said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, who noted that a portion of the increase would go to Newark charter schools.

Newark’s boost is part of a nearly $284 million increase that Murphy is proposing for the state’s school-aid formula, which has not been properly funded since 2009. In the budget outline he released Tuesday, Murphy said the increase was the first installment in a four-year plan to fully fund the formula, which calls for about $1 billion more than the state currently spends on education.

Even with Murphy’s proposed boost, Newark’s state aid would still be about 14 percent less than what it’s entitled to under the formula, according to state projections.

Murphy, a Democrat, is counting on a series of tax hikes and other revenue sources — including legalized marijuana — to pay for his budget, which increases state spending by 4.2 percent over this fiscal year. He’ll need the support of his fellow Democrats who control the state legislature to pass those measures, but some have expressed concerns about parts of Murphy’s plan — in particular, his proposal to raise taxes on millionaires. They have until June 30 to agree on a budget.

In the meantime, Newark and other school districts will use the figures from Murphy’s plan to create preliminary budgets by the end of this month. They can revise their budgets later if the state’s final budget differs from Murphy’s outline.

At a school board meeting Tuesday before districts received their state-aid estimates, Interim Superintendent Robert Gregory said he had traveled to Trenton in December to tell members of Murphy’s team that the district was “running out of things to do” to close its budget gap. He said the district wasn’t expecting to immediately receive the full $140 million that it’s owed under the state formula. But Murphy’s plan suggested the governor would eventually send Newark the full amount.

“The governor’s address offers a promising sign,” Gregory said.

Civics lesson

With district’s blessing, Newark students join national school walkout against gun violence

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Thousands of Newark students walked out of their schools Wednesday morning in a district-sanctioned protest that was part of a nationwide action calling for an end to gun violence.

At Barringer Academy of the Arts and Humanities in the North Ward, students gathered in the schoolyard alongside Mayor Ras Baraka and interim schools chief Robert Gregory, who offered support to the protesters and even distributed a “student protest week” curriculum to schools.

Just after 10 a.m., hundreds of students watched in silence as a group of their classmates stood in a row and released one orange balloon every minute for 17 minutes — a tribute to the 17 people fatally shot inside a high school in Parkland, Florida last month.

While the Barringer students and faculty mourned those victims they had never met, they also decried gun violence much closer to home: siblings and relatives who had been shot, times they were threatened with guns on the street. Principal Kimberly Honnick asked the crowd to remember Malik Bullock, who was a 16-year-old junior at Barringer when he was shot to death in the South Ward last April.

“Too many lives have been lost way too soon,” she said. “It is time for us to end the violence in our schools.”

School districts across the country have grappled with how to respond to walkouts, which were scheduled to occur at 10 a.m. in hundreds of schools. The student-led action, which was planned in the wake of the Florida mass shooting, is intended to pressure Congress to enact stricter gun laws.

Officials in some districts — including some in New Jersey — reportedly threatened to punish students who joined in the protest. But in Newark, officials embraced the event as a civics lesson for students and a necessary reminder to lawmakers that gun violence is not limited to headline-grabbing tragedies like the one in Parkland — for young people in many cities, it’s a fact of life.

“If there’s any group of people that should be opposed to the amount of guns that reach into our communities, it’s us,” Baraka said, adding that Newark police take over 500 guns off the street each year. “People in cities like Newark, New Jersey — cities that are predominantly filled with black and brown individuals who become victims of gun violence.”

On Friday, Gregory sent families a letter saying that the district was committed to keeping students safe in the wake of the Florida shooting. All school staff will receive training in the coming weeks on topics including “active shooter drills” and evacuation procedures, the letter said.

But the note also said the district wanted to support “students’ right to make their voices heard on this important issue.” Schools were sent a curriculum for this week with suggested lessons on youth activism and the gun-control debate. While students were free to opt out of Wednesday’s protests, high schools were expected to allow students to walk out of their buildings at the designated time while middle schools were encouraged to organize indoor events.

In an interview, Gregory said gun violence in Newark is not confined to mass shootings: At least one student here is killed in a shooting each year, he said — though there have not been any so far this year. Rather than accept such violence as inevitable, Gregory said schools should teach students that they have the power to collectively push for changes — even if that means letting them walk out of class.

“Instead of trying of trying to resist it, we wanted to encourage it,” he said. “That’s what makes America what it is.”

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Students released one balloon for each of the 17 people killed at a high school in Parkland, Florida last month.

After Barringer’s protest, where people waved signs saying “Love,” “Enough,” and “No to gun violence, several ninth-graders described what it’s like to live in communities where guns are prevalent — despite New Jersey’s tight gun restrictions.

Jason Inoa said he was held up by someone claiming to have a gun as he walked home. Destiny Muñoz said her older brother was shot by a police officer while a cousin was recently gunned down in Florida. The Parkland massacre only compounded her fear that nowhere is safe.

“With school shootings, you feel terrified,” she said. “You feel the same way you do about being outside in the streets.”

Even as the students called for tougher gun laws, they were ambivalent about bringing more police into their schools and neighborhoods. They noted that the Black Lives Matter movement, which they said they recently read about in their freshmen social studies class, called attention to black and Hispanic people who were treated harshly or even killed by police officers.

Ninth-grader Malik Bolding said it’s important to honor the victims of school shootings like the one in Parkland, Florida. But the country should also mourn the people who are killed in everyday gun violence and heed the protesters who are calling for it to end, he added.

“Gun violence is gun violence — it doesn’t matter who got shot,” he said. “Everybody should be heard.”