opinion

Chancellor Fariña on why losing mayoral control ‘would mean chaos, gridlock and corruption’

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As the leader charged with providing a high-quality education to 1.1 million New York City students, I have to be honest with you:

Our school system is headed for disaster. You may have heard something in the news about mayoral control. Let me explain what it is and why losing it would be devastating.

The state government must act to keep the mayor in charge of our schools by June 30. If they don’t, the entire system will slide back into the old, decentralized structure we had before. That would mean chaos, gridlock and corruption. I should know, I’ve been working in city schools since the 1960s. I saw what happened before 2002 when we put the mayor in charge.

First and foremost, today, the leadership of our schools makes sense. I am accountable for continued progress in our schools and the mayor is my boss. That means New Yorkers know exactly who to blame if things aren’t going well and exactly who to call when they need something done. It also means that the largest school system in the nation has an executive with real power to shake things up, innovate on behalf of students and families, and make wholesale changes that benefit all corners of the city.

If Albany lets mayoral control lapse, there will be no one accountable for progress. Our schools have never been stronger, and all that we have accomplished together will be at risk. Instead, power will be in the hands of 32 separate community school boards. That will mean a mountain of new red tape and surging costs due to inefficiency. According to the Independent Budget Office, costs dropped 22 percent after mayoral control was enacted in 2002.

But that’s not the worst of it. The most catastrophic thing is how our students will suffer.

With 32 separate entities in charge of the “system,” it will be nothing more than a constant struggle for resources. Some communities will win and some will lose. Some communities will get more than their share and some will be asked to do with much less. If parents think that’s unfair, who can they complain to?

Having 32 separate school boards is ripe for corruption. Isolated districts are small enough to be taken over by factions who aren’t putting the best interest of kids first. In the past, these boards too frequently ended up as personal property that could be bartered and traded, and used to reward cronies. Under the old system, entire districts did not have well-trained teachers or necessary materials. This isn’t just speculation – again, I was there.

Managers, appointed by the local school boards, inflated the price of contracts to generate lucrative kickbacks that took money directly away from students and siphoned money from taxpayers. One district alone stole $6 million from students, paying 81 employees for jobs they never showed up to. In another, school safety was entrusted to a high-level gang member.

Before mayoral control, graduation rates hovered around 50 percent and many schools simply were not safe. Students in the city consistently did worse than their peers across the state on standardized tests.

In the 15 years since mayors have controlled the school system, New Yorkers have seen a turnaround that has been nothing less than stunning.

Right now, New York City’s graduation rate is the highest in history. The drop-rate rate is the lowest it has ever been. For the first time ever, our students beat the rest of the state on English tests. Crime in schools has fallen 35 percent over the last five years. And we have the highest-ever college enrollment rate.

Mayor de Blasio has brought change to every district in the city. In two short years, we have added free, full-day, high-quality pre-K for every 4-year-old. Now, we are working to do the same with 3-K, instruction for 3-year-olds.

We have after-school programs for every middle schooler and we’ve made investments in school facilities—guaranteeing that every classroom is air conditioned and every school has a gym. All of these accomplishments, and many others, are a direct result of mayoral control.

I want to be clear: This isn’t about the mayor I work for. Mayoral control is vital for New Yorkers no matter who the mayor is.

There is only one proven way to run the New York City school system — that’s putting our schools in the hands of a duly elected, accountable leader, the mayor of New York. The future of our City is at stake unless Albany takes immediate action.

Carmen Fariña is chancellor of the New York City Department of Education.

integration conversation

Gentrification is changing Denver schools. These recommendations aim to address that.

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post
Kindergarten students line up on the first day of school in 2012 at Whittier K-8 School in Denver. (Photo by RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post)

To address declining enrollment and combat segregation, Denver Public Schools should consider a number of steps including creating a clear and community-driven process for consolidating under-enrolled schools, according to a committee of community leaders.

The high-powered group has been meeting for months and on Monday voted to forward that recommendation and more than dozen others to the school board for consideration.

Rising housing costs and redevelopment are remaking Denver, causing decreases in the number of school-aged children in some neighborhoods and deepening sharp economic divides between others.

The committee wrestled with a challenge: that integration can be elusive when honoring both the tradition of neighborhood schools and the district’s commitment to giving families a choice of schools.

The recommendations from the Strengthening Neighborhoods Committee are meant to be a starting point, so many of them are short on details.

Here is what the committee is urging the district do:

  • Provide help with marketing, planning and school design for a limited period of time to schools that are beginning to see enrollment declines with the aim of reversing that trend.
  • In areas of the city where such declines have impacted schools’ ability to provide a robust program, create a “transparent school consolidation process that allows impacted communities to reimagine their schools with the goal of strong and stable enrollment, higher quality and greater integration in all schools within the community.” DPS has not made clear how many students is too few students for a school to be sustainable, but the recommendations mention that schools with enrollment below 300 students “face particular challenges.”
  • Develop a rubric to evaluate all new school applicants on their “ability to appeal to a diverse student body and offer inclusive excellence in the classroom.” The rubric would measure things like the diversity of the staff and the cultural responsiveness of the curriculum.
  • Require school leaders to set annual goals “related to diversity and inclusive excellence,” and offer resources and financial rewards if they meet them.
  • Expand a pilot program that gives low-income students from other neighborhoods priority to “choice into” schools with more affluent student populations.
  • Create more enrollment zones, which are big school boundaries with several schools inside them, especially in areas “where housing changes are occurring.”
  • Explore holding a special election to ask Denver voters to raise more money for transportation. Prioritize spending any additional dollars on helping underserved students and those living in enrollment zones access “a greater diversity of school options.”
  • Set aside seats in all schools at all grades for students who may enroll mid-year to ensure students experiencing housing instability have equitable access to schools.
  • Create an “equity audit” for schools with restrictive enrollment policies — such as Denver School of the Arts, a magnet school that requires auditions — to figure out how those policies are impacting socioeconomic integration.
  • Develop ways to measure school culture and climate to assess whether schools are, for example, setting high expectations for all students. In addition, develop ways to measure “student learning and development over time” that take into account academic results such as test scores and non-academic results such as discipline statistics.
  • Invest money in initiatives aimed at increasing equity, such as recruiting and retaining diverse educators, and share employee demographic data for each school.
  • Develop better strategies for engaging with families and community members about issues affecting them. For example, instead of sending out a survey to collect feedback, consider compensating families and community members for providing information.
  • Set a district-wide goal for increasing the socioeconomically diversity of schools. The goal should encompass both the percentage of students attending integrated schools and “tangible measures of equity and inclusiveness for students once in attendance.”
  • Establish a set of resources “for schools to use in creating a more integrated and inclusive environment,” and encourage schools to learn from each other.
  • Work closely with city agencies, including the Office of Children’s Affairs, to address the impacts of gentrification: “There is an opportunity for DPS to increase its advocacy for students, families and teachers on important issues such as affordable housing.”
  • Launch a “meaningful public engagement and communications effort” about the benefits of socioeconomic integration and about the committee’s recommendations.

The district often cites research that shows all students benefit from integration. Due largely to housing patterns, many Denver schools are socioeconomically and racially segregated.

There are some schools, such as Fairview Elementary in west Denver, where 98 percent of students qualify for free or reduced price lunch, a proxy for poverty. On the other end of the spectrum are schools like Bromwell Elementary in east Denver, where only 5 percent of kids qualify. Both Fairview and Bromwell are “boundary schools,” which means they primarily serve the students who live in the neighborhood immediately surrounding them.

The district has tried in recent years to increase integration by employing a variety of strategies, some of which the committee is recommending be expanded. One of them is enrollment zones, which are the big school boundaries that contain several schools. The idea is that drawing bigger boundaries and asking students to choose from several schools within them increases the opportunity for kids from different neighborhoods to attend school together.

There are currently 11 zones — and even before the recommendations, the district was proposing to create three more. But they’ve had mixed results when it comes to integration.

Before voting on the recommendations Monday evening, several committee members expressed concerns that some of them were not specific enough. For instance, they said, what is the district’s definition of a high-quality, integrated school?

Committee co-chairman Antwan Jefferson emphasized that the recommendations were only the first phase of the committee’s work. A second-phase committee would tackle that question, he said, as well as the nitty-gritty of how to put the recommendations into place.

The committee is set to present its recommendations to the school board Dec. 18.

What's in a name?

Detroit has one of the nation’s only schools named for a Trump cabinet member. That name could change soon.

PHOTO: Detroit Public Schools Community District
Dr. Benjamin Carson, now U.S. secretary of housing and urban development, on a visit to the Detroit high school that was named for him.

A member of the Trump administration may have his name stripped from a school in Detroit — though not because of politics.

The Detroit school board will consider on Tuesday night a recommendation that would bar naming schools after living people. If approved, the measure would force the renaming of several schools in the city that are already named for living people. Among them is the Benjamin Carson High School of Science and Medicine.

The school, located in Detroit’s midtown neighborhood near the Detroit Medical Center, opened in 2011 to serve students from around the city who are interested in pursuing health professions.

It is named after Dr. Benjamin Carson, a native Detroiter who made a name for himself as a brain surgeon before entering politics, running for president, and eventually accepting a role in the Trump administration. He’s currently Trump’s secretary of housing and urban development.

The board plans to debate the policy on Tuesday night before a planned vote at the January meeting.

“When you name a school after a living person whose life is incomplete, sometimes they disappoint you,” said LeMar Lemmons, a school board member. “You may not want to have a school named after that person.”

Another school that would get a name change if the board moves the issue to a final vote is the Bates Academy, which is named after Alonzo Bates, a former school board member and city councilman. He was convicted of five felonies, including theft from a program receiving federal funds.

“Naming a school after someone is to really speak to and honor their legacy, and it’s really difficult to know a complete legacy of a person until after they’ve passed,” said Misha Stallworth, a board member. “We really want to make sure that the names of schools reflect the values of the district and the community.”

Lemmons said the board also plans to review names that were given to schools during the years when the district was controlled by state-appointed emergency managers. That includes Palmer Park Academy, which had been the Barbara Jordan Elementary School, and East English Village High School, which replaced Finney High School on the city’s east side.

Lemmons said he’d also like the board to discuss changing the names of schools that are named after “former holders of enslaved persons.”

Lemmons acknowledged that, in a city home primarily to Democrats, Carson’s status as a powerful Republican could come into play.

“Quite frankly, it is a political thing,” Lemmons said. “We named a school after an individual who is in the Trump administration.”

The principal of the school, Charles Todd, did not respond to request for comment, but has said in the past that Ben Carson has generously contributed to the school. It’s unclear what impact the change of the name will have on his relationship with the school.

A spokesman for Carson did not respond to a request for comment.