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Queens Chronicle

Now it’s de Blasio’s turn at the lectern

Education experts have ideas for new mayor on school policy

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Posted: Thursday, December 26, 2013 10:30 am | Updated: 11:56 am, Thu Jan 2, 2014.

When Mayor-Elect Bill de Blasio takes the oath of office on Jan. 1, he will have inherited complete control of the nation’s largest school system.

That means when the new Panel for Educational Policy meets next year, eight of the 13 appointees will be his.

Though a critic of the Bloomberg administration’s education policy, de Blasio has not come out against the cornerstone of his predecessor’s legacy on schools — mayoral control.

During the campaign, de Blasio expressed support for mayoral control, the state-sanctioned system that gives the mayor of New York City an outright majority of appointees on the PEP, the city Department of Education’s policy-making body.

“Bill de Blasio believes in mayoral control, but he also knows we must do a better job of involving and listening to parents,” the mayor-elect’s campaign website explains. “His plan to revamp mayoral control will allow Community Education Councils an advisory vote on major school utilization changes in their communities, which will influence and provide insight to the Panel for Education Policy. The role of four Citywide Education Councils — high schools, special education, English language learners, District 75 — will be enhanced by ensuring they can provide written recommendations to the Panel for Education Policy on issues related to their respective councils.”

What that will entail is as unclear as his choice for Schools Chancellor was still unknown as of Dec. 24. Any changes in mayoral control would come from the state Legislature, which is not scheduled to revisit the issue until 2015.

Dmytro Fedkowskyj, who has served as Queens’ representative on the PEP since 2008, said he hopes there will be more engagement between the DOE and parents and school communities in the de Blasio administration.

“The past process of engagement has to change going forward,” he said. “Changing the makeup of the board will help, but without sufficient public engagement, support of school communities and CEC’s members, the policy changes will be met with continued opposition, which only sets up any new policy change for possible failure. I’m hopeful that the next administration and chancellor engage and utilize our school communities in a proactive manner. This will certainly lead to successful outcomes and better results for our kids.”

Though de Blasio has not yet chosen a schools chancellor, Councilman Danny Dromm (D-Jackson Heights) has filed a bill that would force future mayors to have that choice confirmed by the City Council. Though the prospects of such a bill remain unclear, Dromm said his bill would give the city’s legislature a check on the mayor.

“It provides much needed checks and balances,” he said.

Much of what happens with schools in the next four to eight years will rely on whom de Blasio appoints to the PEP. Some observers expect his appointees will agree with at least four of the five borough appointees, who will be chosen by the borough president and borough presidents-elect. Staten Island Borough President-Elect Jimmy Oddo, a Republican, would likely appoint a member who would not be totally supportive of the mayor-elect’s education policies, one DOE source suggested.

“We may see some unanimous votes on the PEP next year depending on where [Oddo] goes,” the source said.

De Blasio is only the second mayor, after Bloomberg, to govern under mayoral control and if his appointees see eye-to-eye with the four Democratic borough president appointees, much of the contentious debate that became a staple of PEP meetings during the Bloomberg years will disappear.

Topping de Blasio’s education wishes is the establishment of universal prekindergarten citywide. That is one of the very few issues that may be mostly out of his hands.

De Blasio has said he would fund pre-K with a tax hike on New York City residents making over $500,000 a year. That would require approval from the New York State Legislature and Gov. Cuono, who has been resistant to tax hikes on the wealthy before.

But the mayor-elect has public support on his side. Recent polls have shown more than 60 percent of New Yorkers statewide support his plan, including 68 percent in the five boroughs in a recent Quinnipiac poll.

Lucy Accardo, a parent and member of CEC District 24, is among those who think raising taxes on the rich is a good idea, but beyond that, she said she wanted de Blasio to completely change much of the current education policies, including communication between the DOE and parents.

“Parents are demoralized,” she said at the final Parental Advisory Board meeting with CEC heads, parents and Fedkowskyj at Borough Hall on Dec. 3. “There is less parent involvement.”

She is especially opposed to the new Common Core standards, which she said have created a negative vibe around teachers, students and parents.

“Educated adults can’t even answer some of those questions,” she said.

De Blasio has said he would seek to lower the stakes on testing. He said he will try to remove single-test criteria for all admissions and gifted and talented decisions, including selective schools, and he will expand the use of portfolio assessments in schools. In addition, de Blasio has proposed eliminating letter grades of schools.

The new mayor has also been critical of the number of schools that were closed under his predecessor. Though Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott said in an interview on Dec. 11 that the DOE does everything it can do to help struggling schools, de Blasio has suggested pouring more resources into failing schools earlier, before they make the Persistently Low Achieving list. His solution is to create an “Office of Strategic Support,” housed in the DOE, to intervene in schools at risk of making the list that often ultimately lead to closure.

De Blasio has not ruled out the controversial practice of co-locations, in which multiple schools are housed in the same building with different administrations, but shared facilities like cafeterias and gymnasiums. The mayor-elect has proposed offering more information on the way co-locations will impact programs for students with disabilities in the building, establishing additional venues for parents to relay their concerns, and creating a process in which the DOE responds to parents’ concerns.

On charter schools, de Blasio has suggested a moratorium on establishing new schools and charging existing ones rent to use school buildings — a move charters say would cause them to divert resources away from students.

But James Merriman, president and CEO of the New York City Charter School Center, said he believes de Blasio will come around rather quickly to charters.

“During a campaign lots of things get said. Governing fundamentally is a different proposition,” he said. “What I am happy about is that the incoming mayor, like the last one, has staked his mayorality on an economic climate good for everyone, public safety and education being the single most important equalizers.”

Merriman pointed out that as many as one in seven minority students will be served by charters by the time de Blasio faces voters again in 2017. The mayor-elect won more than 90 percent of black voters and over 70 percent of Hispanic voters in last month’s election.

“We are going to be serving his voters,” he said.

Dromm, a former teacher, had some simple advice for the new mayor.

“Anytime you have a problem, bring the parent into the classroom; parents can be your strongest ally,” he said. “And listen to the teachers. You have got to find out what works in the classroom and what doesn’t work.”

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