A protest hosted by StudentsFirst NY this week on the steps of Tweed Courthouse (StudentsFirst NY twitter)
Students and teachers are off for the summer, but the city Department of Education's legal office was kept on high alert this week.
First, lawyers received word that discrimination charges against the city's high school admissions process would be dismissed by a federal civil rights office. Then, StudentsFirstNY, an advocacy group with close ties to the Bloomberg administration, announced it would slap the city with a new complaint, alleging inequity in the way teachers are distributed teacher quality in the city.
So far, that complaint has yet to be filed, three days after the group organized dozens of people to protest the issue on the department's steps at Tweed Courthouse. A StudentsFirst NY spokeswoman said the group's lawyers were still reviewing the complaint, but she would not say if there are still plans to file it at all.
If so, it would be at least the fourth discrimination charge filed with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights in the last year. A complaint against the policies for admission into top-tier high schools and for closing schools were also submitted.
Democrats for Education Reform is reuniting with an old Albany friend as it prepares to resume a larger presence in the state.
The political action committee's New York chapter named former state Senator Craig Johnson as board chair, Executive Director Joe Williams said. Johnson's role on the board, which is unpaid, will primarily be to fundraise, an area that has lagged in recent years as the state's education advocacy field has grown more crowded, Williams said.
"We've got a lot of work to do to get the donor base engaged again," said Williams.
Johnson, who won his seat in 2007 in a Long Island district long dominated by Republicans, aligned with DFER on successful legislative efforts required to qualify for federal Race to the Top funding.
The most notable was a revision to the Charter Schools Act that more than doubled the number of charter schools allowed to operate in the state. Snubbing pressure from his Democratic colleagues, Johnson "single-handedly" blocked an early version of the bill that would have banned school building co-locations and slowed down the authorizing process.
Johnson was ousted from his seat just months later, but has stayed active in state politics. He raised nearly $500,000 in 2012 for Jeff Klein's Independent Democratic Committee, which formed a tenuous power-sharing coalition with Republicans after last fall's elections. Earlier this month, Johnson was hired by the law firm McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP to oversee national governmental affairs with a focus on education policy.
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.
Parents met last month with officials from StudentsFirstNY to listen to issues surrounding teacher evaluations.
In a packed room at the Marcy Library in Bedford-Stuyvesant on a Saturday morning last month, the message to a group of public school parents was abundantly clear: The way to improve their students' education begins with a better teacher evaluation system.
Standing in the way, organizers said, was drawn out negotiations between the the city and its teachers union, which has been battling over terms of the evaluations for nearly two years.
"We need to be telling teachers we're watching. UFT, we're watching," said Darlene Boston, a parent organizer for Families Taking Action, which hosted the event.
Families Taking Action is the parent-organizing arm of StudentsFirstNY, a well-funded education advocacy organization that launched in April to act as a counterweight to the influential teachers union during the upcoming mayoral campaign.
One area where the union's influence has been particularly strong is in rallying communities to oppose budget cuts, school closures and charter school co-locations. It has funded citywide and local organizations to educate parents about the issues and turn them into activists.
But the union has not rallied parents around teacher evaluations, a thorny issue that some teachers view skeptically because of its prescribed model and reliance on test scores.
No one else has either, and that's where StudentsFirstNY is stepping in.
It didn't take long for the complexities of New York State politics to make strange bedfellows out of two rival education advocacy groups.
This week, New York State United Teachers endorsed Jeff Klein, a Democratic state Senator from the Bronx with a reputation for rebuffing teachers union interests. Earlier this summer, Klein also took in money from StudentsFirstNY, a group that a union-backed coalition is attacking for its board members' Republican ties.
Over the past week, accepting money from StudentsFirstNY has received a lot of scrutiny from the coalition, called New Yorkers for Great Public Schools, which is made up of labor unions and community-based organizations. At protests, it has tacitly warned elected officials to reject StudentsFirstNY because some of its funding comes from people working in the private sector with ideologically different positions on education policy. And while most of their energy will be focused on the 2013 mayoral candidates, the coalition punctuated its point this week when it gleefully released a list of state and city politicians who agreed to reject contributions from StudentsFirstNY.
"Taking StudentsFirst money is bad for New York," Billy Easton, executive director of Alliance for Quality Education, one of the groups that gets funding from the state teachers union, said last week.
New Yorkers for Great Public Schools took aim at StudentsFirstNY's ties to Mitt Romney during a rally at Department of Education headquarters today.
Hours after the union-backed New Yorkers for Great Public Schools launched a campaign to tie the education advocacy group StudentsFirstNY to the political ideologies of Mitt Romney's presidential campaign, 2013 mayoral candidates began chiming in on whether they would accept StudentsFirstNY's support.
Of the three campaigns that responded to requests for comment from GothamSchools, one said no StudentsFirstNY money would come into its coffers. The other two said they would have no problem accepting support from the group, which seeks to advance many of the Bloomberg administration's education policies. A fourth candidate says he hasn't made up his mind yet.
Comptroller John Liu said he would reject any support, although a spokesman acknowledged that funds from StudentsFirstNY were unlikely to be directed toward Liu's campaign.
"I doubt the group would send us any contributions," said the spokesman, Chung Seto. Liu, who hasn't declared for mayor and whose campaign finances are the subject of a federal investigation, is considered a candidate likely to align with the teachers union.
Speaker Christine Quinn, an early favorite in the Democratic primary bid, would happily accept support from education groups, no matter their school reform ideologies, a campaign consultant said today.
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.
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.