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March 27, 2013
Cuomo, GOP were StudentsFirstNY's top recipients in 2012
In the year that former Bloomberg aide Micah Lasher led StudentsFirstNY, the education advocacy group publicly lobbed fiery Twitter messages, published agenda-driven reports, and organized parents. Lobbying and political spending records offer a different, behind-the-scenes view into the group's activities under Lasher, a seasoned legislative director who abruptly announced this week that he is leaving to become state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman's chief of staff. The records show that the group spent more than $100,000 in Albany, largely to bolster Republican legislators who frequently oppose policies that teachers unions support and who are seen as a bulwark against the erosion of mayoral control in New York City.
March 25, 2013
As Micah Lasher exits, next steps for StudentsFirstNY up in air
In a surprise move, Micah Lasher announced today that he's leaving StudentsFirstNY, an education advocacy organization he helped launch less than a year ago to sway mayoral candidates on education policies. The news broke first early this morning in the Daily News, and it apparently was such a surprise that even Lasher's staff at StudentsFirstNY didn't know about it, sources told GothamSchools. Staff put out a press release shortly after that, naming a temporary replacement and praising Lasher for his.achievements. But questions remain about the group's future. Lasher, a "wunderkind lobbyist" with expertise in education policy, spent four years advancing the Bloomberg administration's agenda before leaving city government last year. He's returning to public service as chief of staff for Attorney General Eric Schneiderman after a year in charge of New York's state branch of Michelle Rhee's national StudentsFirst organization.
January 17, 2013
Calling it a night, city and union say their eval talks are over
Michael Mulgrew has left UFT headquarters at 52 Broadway and a union official confirmed that any chance that a deal could be salvaged in the final hours tonight are "dead." And the other side also appears to have thrown in the towel. A spokeswoman for the Department of Education said they "called the UFT a couple of hours ago and tried one last time with a proposal and they rejected it." She did not say what the specifics of that proposal were. Micah Lasher, a former aide to Mayor Bloomberg who lobbied hard for the evaluations, was optimistic that a deal could happen earlier in the day, even after the city and the union exchanged blows. But his mood had soured in a statement released late tonight.
December 6, 2012
In evaluation talks, some not-quite-sticking points remain open
For months, city and union officials have been expressing optimism about reaching a deal on new teacher evaluations by a state deadline in January — with some road bumps, of course. But what is keeping the two sides from reaching an agreement has not been clear. That has started to change in the last week, as Department of Education officials have spoken publicly on multiple occasions about sticky issues that are still being worked out. The issues include how often observations should take place, what the observations should focus on, and when to schedule hearings of teachers who want to appeal low ratings. Union officials have declined to comment on open issues, saying that they did not want to discuss negotiations while they are ongoing. But a top official said that no issue would be considered fully closed until the entire evaluation system is set. David Weiner, the deputy chancellor in charge of teacher quality, stressed that the issues were "not sticking points" when he spoke with teachers at an event last week hosted by the advocacy group Educators 4 Excellence, which supports new evaluations. Department officials made the same assurance Wednesday morning after a panel discussion about teacher evaluations held at the Manhattan Institute, the politically conservative think thank. Instead, they said, the issues are simply very complicated to resolve.
November 19, 2012
Parents rally at City Hall, but their protest is directed elsewhere
Keoni Wright, an East New York parent, speaks on Saturday at a StudentsFirstNY backing new teacher evaluations. The scene was familiar, but the rallying cries and signs were a departure. More than 100 parents and organizers from StudentsFirstNY filled the steps of City Hall on Saturday to demand that the teachers union cooperate with the city on an evaluation deal before a deadline that could cost the city $300 million in state aid. "What do we want?" shouted Darlene Boston, who has been working to organize parents in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn to support StudentsFirstNY's policy agenda. "Great teachers!" they replied. "When do we want them?" Boston shouted back. "Now!" they said. When education advocates protest outside City Hall, it is usually with an ensemble of union leaders, City Council members, and other elected officials. And more often than not, they are criticizing policies favored by Mayor Bloomberg, the man who governs the city from the building behind them. But no elected officials showed up at Saturday's rally — and organizers said none was invited. Parents came mostly from neighborhoods in Central Brooklyn and Harlem, areas where StudentsFirstNY is trying to build a base. And while the mayor's name was not uttered, it was clear that he was not the target of their protest. The target was the continuing lack of new teacher evaluations in New York City, which StudentsFirstNY and Bloomberg have blamed on the United Federation of Teachers.
July 26, 2012
StudentsFirstNY adds an educator in time for Cuomo task force
Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky taught a class at Bronx Academy of Letters in May. The school's principal has joined an education advocacy group, StudentsFirstNY. When New York City faced a budget shortfall three years ago, Bronx Academy of Letters principal Anna Hall faced a crisis at her school. Because state law requires that layoffs start with the newest teachers, threatened cuts meant more than 50 percent of Hall's strongest teachers would be cut loose: They had logged relatively few years in the school system. "That was the most harrowing, horrible experience," Hall said. The layoffs never materialized. But the scare cemented Hall's belief that teachers shouldn't be protected from layoffs based solely on their experience. The experience was one of many that Hall said drew her to her new job: as director of education for StudentsFirstNY, the state's spinoff of Michelle Rhee's national education advocacy group. StudentsFirstNY has kept a low profile in the three months since its splashy entrance onto the education advocacy scene. It spent about $10,000 on a mailer to support Hakeem Jeffries in his successful Congressional primary campaign against Charles Barron last month, according to federal election filings. But the group has steered clear of some more heated education debates, including the city's now-failed effort to close two dozen schools through a federal turnaround model, and it has not yet fully articulated its policy agenda for the next year. That seems poised to change today. Hall is set to share her personal hopes for policy change at a public meeting in the Bronx of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's education reform commission.
July 19, 2012
DOE's public affairs director leaving to teach in Central America
Lenny Speiller, the education department's head of public affairs whose stint was checkered by a lobbying incident that got him into trouble with city investigators, is making an unusual career move. He's moving to Honduras to become a teacher. Speiller's exit is part of a restructuring within the Department of Education's communication and legislative offices meant to improve how the DOE communicates with members of the public, Chief Operating Officer Veronica Conforme told staff in an email this week. Speiller's role in charge of public affairs was to work with elected officials and community-based organizations on DOE initiatives and to curry support for the department's legislative goals. Under a four-office merger, public affairs will be folded into the External Affairs office. The other public-facing shops getting absorbed are: Communications, Digital Communications, and the Chancellor's Strategic Communications Group (a spokeswoman said the last one helps Dennis Walcott read and respond to emails from the public). Jessica Scaperotti, a former Cuomo and Bloomberg aide who joined the department in April, will over see the new streamlined office. Elizabeth Rose, a public affairs official, will temporarily fill in for Speiller while a permanent replacement is found. In announcing Speiller's departure to staff, Conforme didn't offer much of a reflection on his two-and-a-half year tenure, which was filled with a busy legislative agenda. During his time, Speiller worked on the successful push to raise the state's cap on charter schools and on the less-successful effort to reform teacher tenure laws. But it was his work on the issue of seniority-based layoff laws that got him into trouble.
June 5, 2012
NY branch of Rhee's group will focus on parents, school choice
This story has been corrected from its earlier version to clarify the positions expressed by Lasher yesterday. Two months ago StudentsFirstNY, the New York branch of Michelle Rhee's political action committee, announced itself with a splash. But it hasn't been clear where the group will direct its financial and political might. Micah Lasher, StudentsFirstNY's executive director, fleshed out the group's platform for the first time at a discussion hosted Monday by the DL21C, a group of young Democrats. GothamSchools' Elizabeth Green moderated the discussion. StudentsFirstNY will also focus on organizing parents to demand policy changes around improving teacher quality and school choice, Lasher said. He also said the group might well weigh in on next year's mayoral race, whose victor will determine the next phase of the city's education reforms. "If there comes a time where it becomes clear that there is a candidate that we think would be effective on these issues, and it makes sense according to our political judgements and the way we think we can best improve schools in the city, I would allow us to get involved in getting support of a candidate," Lasher said.
October 18, 2011
Investigation confirms that a DOE official urged illegal lobbying
The head of the Department of Education's public affairs office broke the law when he urged school employees to engage in political lobbying, according to a report today from Special Commissioner of Investigation Richard Condon. During "Lobby Week" in March, Lenny Speiller, executive director of the DOE's Office of Public Affairs, inserted language into an email to parent coordinators asking them to share a petition calling on lawmakers to do away with seniority layoff rules for teachers, investigators concluded. Mayor Bloomberg was pushing the policy change heavily at the time. But the state constitution prohibits public employees from engaging in private political lobbying. Parent coordinators told us that the lobbying had begun months earlier. We reported about the advocacy efforts, which the city immediately disavowed, on March 16. The next day, teachers union president Michael Mulgrew filed an official complaint against the lobbying, and SCI launched an investigation. The union opposes changes to seniority layoff rules. The petition asked lawmakers to “allow the City to keep it’s [sic] most effective teachers by ending the State’s ‘Last-In, First-Out’ policy, allowing teachers to be retained based on their performance, rather than just seniority.” Speiller told investigators that he suggested that language but didn't expect it to be included in the petition that parent coordinators were asked to distribute. But other DOE employees said he made clear that his revisions would be included.
June 7, 2010
How scared should SUNY's Charter School Institute really be?
Was the State University of New York's ability to approve and oversee charter schools truly at risk during last month's charter school cap debate? The lead vignette of today's Times profile of city lobbyist Micah Lasher suggests that it was: Just when Micah C. Lasher thought it was safe to finally sleep one recent morning, three words appeared in his in-box: "It's a sham." Mr. Lasher had stayed up all night helping write a bill to increase the number of charter schools in New York, a cornerstone of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's education agenda. But amid the frenzy, a highly contentious provision had slipped by him: the State University of New York would lose its power to approve charter schools. If SUNY's Charter School Institute really was only saved during a middle-of-the-night wrangling, that could be a bad sign for the organization's future: the Institute is currently facing budget cuts that might gut its operations. But all of our information suggests that lawmakers supported keeping SUNY's ability to oversee charters. The provision that could have revoked SUNY's chartering authority was the result of a manic bill drafting process and late-night fatigue, not an attack on the widely-praised charter school overseers.
September 23, 2009
City Council to DOE: Speed up compliance with governance law
Changes in the way public schools are run that were ordered by a law this summer could take until the end of the school year to implement, school officials said today. At a meeting of the City Council Education Committee this afternoon, council members, along with teachers union president Michael Mulgrew, accused the Department of Education of dragging its heels in putting key provisions of the new school governance law into place. At issue is how soon the DOE will make three key changes: returning superintendents to work exclusively in their districts, including parents of special education and English-language learner students on Community Education Councils and beginning work to open a new parent training center. Testifying before the Council, Micah Lasher, the education department's executive director of public affairs, said that he expected all of the new changes to be implemented fully by the end of this school year. But Council Education Committee Chair Robert Jackson complained that time frame is too long. "The law doesn't give you a year," he said. "We need this implemented now."
September 23, 2009
One man down, DOE reshuffles its bureacracy
The Department of Education is rearranging its ranks following the immigration of Chancellor Joel Klein's top deputy Chris Cerf to the mayor's reelection campaign. In a memo to colleagues, Klein lays out the DOE's new landscape, noting that it's on an "interim basis," though Cerf has not said he'll return to the department. John White, who is currently the Chief Executive Officer of the Office of Portfolio Planning, will serve as the Interim Acting Deputy Chancellor for Strategy and Innovation. White has overseen various space fights between charter schools and district schools throughout the city, prompting Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer to declare that he has (or had) "the worst job — ever." Debra Kurshan, who is currently the Senior Director of Portfolio Planning, will take on some of White's previous responsibilities.
March 23, 2009
Hearings leave lawmakers more turned off to mayoral control
Technology constraints prohibited me from live-blogging Friday's Assembly hearing on mayoral control of the city schools, which (for those not following along) is the policy that in 2002 handed near-total education authority over to the mayor — and which is up for renewal this June. The strong thrust of Friday's hearing, the last of five that have taken Assembly members on a tour through the boroughs, was that lawmakers are not happy with the system they created. Some have become even less happy during the hearings in every borough over the last few months. A few flubbed exchanges with lawmakers have not helped the Bloomberg administration's case. One such embarrassing moment happened one Friday, when officials failed to produce the graduation rate for black males. Here are some of the highlights from Friday: Thirteen Assembly members attended the hearing, one of the largest showings so far, and I didn't hear any of them speak positively about mayoral control. Two members made their dissatisfaction most clear. "I can assure you that my opinion has changed a lot in these hearings," Assemblyman Daniel O'Donnell of Manhattan declared, after angrily chastising Department of Education officials during a question-and-answer session. "Talking to my legislative colleagues over the last three months, the question in my mind is no longer if we're going to make any changes to the law. It's going to be what changes are we going to make," declared Mark Weprin of Queens.
February 25, 2009
After criticism, Klein embarks on a sit-down spree with lawmakers
Chancellor Joel Klein conducted at least one of his meetings with lawmakers in his office at Tweed Courthouse. After suffering a beating from legislators who accused him of being rudely unresponsive to their concerns since taking office in 2003, Schools Chancellor Joel Klein is taking the hint and reaching out. In the last few weeks, Klein has walked Mark Weprin, a Queens lawmaker who is one of his sharpest critics on the Assembly's education committee, through his Tweed Courthouse headquarters; sat down with a handful of other lawmakers; and made appointments with more, including the committee's chairwoman, Catherine Nolan. He has also begun, through his staff, to send out prompt replies to lawmakers' requests. "We’re getting letters answered, we’re getting information that we’ve asked for," a spokeswoman for Nolan, Kathleen Whynot, said. "We have a really good working relationship right now with some of the DOE staff, which has been a nice addition." Assembly members said the outreach began after they launched a series of five hearings on the subject of mayoral control — the governance structure that Klein strongly supports, but which several lawmakers have criticized as authoritarian. The state legislature handed the mayor control in 2002, but the law they wrote sunsets this year, and so many in Albany are rolling up their sleeves and hoping to revise it. The hearings were a chance for citizens to give their thoughts on how they'd like the law changed (or not). They also became opportunities for the lawmakers to air their concerns. Several of the complaints had to do specifically with Klein and his staff, who lawmakers said frequently failed to respond even to basic questions and concerns. The complaints accelerated at a hearing held in Manhattan where Klein himself testified, sitting before a row of lawmakers who took turns rebuking him.
January 26, 2009
Micah Lasher, a Stuy alum, takes over as DOE's chief lobbyist
Meet the Department of Education's new chief lobbyist, Micah Lasher. At the Post's Daily Politics blog, Liz Benjamin reports that Lasher, a 27-year-old political whiz kid fresh off a stint in Rep. Jerry Nadler's office, is now the DOE's executive director of public affairs. That's the position held by Terence Tolbert until his sudden death at the beginning of November while he was on leave working for the Obama campaign in Nevada. Lasher has already updated his Facebook profile (above) to reflect his new job. As the DOE's top lobbyist, Lasher is now responsible for pushing the DOE's agenda in Albany. At the top of that agenda, of course, is convincing lawmakers to preserve mayoral control before the 2002 law giving control of the city schools to the mayor expires at the end of June. Lasher will also have to work some magic if the city's schools are to escape relatively unscathed in this year's budget fight. (Fortunately, he has experience working magic; he published a book on the subject when he was just 14.)
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