With only six weeks to go in what is likely to be the borough’s most competitive campaign this year, state Senate candidate John Liu outlined his proposals for education if voters in the 11th Senate District opt to send him to Albany.
The former Flushing councilman and city comptroller, who is running in the Democratic primary against state Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside) next month, focused on three different points regarding school policy at a press conference last Friday outside Bayside High School: Common Core, class sizes and mayoral control. But he also offered his opinion on proposals to reform the admission process to specialized city high schools.
“Education is a fundamental responsibility of the state government,” Liu said.
On Common Core, Liu said he would not scrap the controversial curriculum altogether, but would reduce the emphasis on high-stakes testing, allow parents a process to appeal a bad test score, develop better accommodations for English language learners and better train teachers in the use of Common Core. He called its implementation “a disaster.”
His proposed reforms to Common Core would include requiring the state Education commissioner to issue annual reports on the effectiveness of the testing system, correlations between test scores and grade point average of students and any race, gender, ethnic or regional disparity in scores. He would also call for test questions and answers to be given to parents and teachers so questions can be reviewed and the players can get a better understanding of how grading works.
Liu’s criticism of high-stakes testing carried over to the controversy over specialized high schools in the city. He expressed support in changing the test-only admissions criterion for schools such as Stuyvesant and Townsend Harris high schools, which some have criticized as being unfair because of the emphasis of testing in Asian-American societies. A plurality of students in specialized high schools in the city are Asian.
“I think change is in order,” Liu said.
He noted that testing is a greater component in Asian societies than in the United States.
“We have to understand this is not Asia, it’s America,” he said. “We need to work within the realities of the American system. There are a lot of colleges in America worth going to that do not rely solely on the SATs.”
To reduce class sizes, Liu would prioritize capital planning based on population analysis so that areas with the greatest growth would be first to get new schools. He would also sponsor legislation to establish a three-year sunset period on all trailers, which continue to be used at several schools across the city. Liu also favors more community input into school construction and using different a methodology to determine the need for more space, including birth-rate data and population projections.
On mayoral control, Liu’s plan wouldn’t eliminate it completely. He supports adding three more members to the 13-member Panel for Educational Policy. Currently the mayor names eight members of the body, giving him an outright majority. Liu would change the makeup so besides the eight mayoral and five borough president appointees, three more would be added, appointed by the City Council. One would be a retired educator nominated by the teachers and principals unions, the second would be a parent from a Community Education Council and the third would be a representative from the City University of New York.
Liu said having a 16-member body would not create gridlock despite the possibility of an 8-8 tie.
“There is no rule that there needs to be an even number or an odd number,” he said, adding that the PEP has “left parents out of the equation.”
It was later noted that under current law, the chancellor or his or her representative can break a tie, similar to how the vice president of the United States is charged with breaking a 50-50 tie in the U.S. Senate. Since the chancellor works for the mayor, Liu’s plan would effectively continue to give the mayor a majority of votes on the PEP.
Liu also supports making it more difficult to remove a PEP member. He would require a formal written statement of dismissal, along with a public hearing. Liu also would seek to change the law so that a dismissal could be reversed by a two-thirds vote of the PEP.
The primary on Sept. 9 will likely decide who will represent the 11th Senate District in Albany for the next two years. Liu, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor last year — thwarted in part due to a campaign finance scandal stemming from his 2009 run for comptroller that led to the convictions of an aide and a contributor — has the support of the Queens Democratic Party and a number of unions and progressive groups. He is challenging Avella largely due to the incumbent’s decision to join the Independent Democratic Conference, which controls the Senate in a coalition with Republicans despite Democrats having won a majority of seats in 2012.
The primary is widely considered to be among the most competitive legislative elections in the state this year.