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Opinion

New Yorkers Decided They Want More Democracy, But What Does That Mean?


community meeting

(photo: John McCarten/City Council)


On Election Day, New Yorkers passed three ballot measures intended to strengthen local democracy. One of the approved plans is for the city to create a Civic Engagement Commission that will have several key responsibilities, including a new citywide participatory budgeting (PB) program, assistance to city agencies and nonprofits for their engagement efforts, and support to community boards to make them more participatory and representative of the communities they serve.

The passage of these ballot measures -- which also include lowering campaign contribution limits and instituting term limits on community board members -- is in line with a larger trend taking place across the country and the world. Citizens want more responsive governments. People want more choices, more information, and more of a say. While the new commission gives some local definition to this broader impulse and will be tasked with implementing the aforementioned changes, among other tasks, New Yorkers should also be aware of key issues and questions facing the commission.

First, citywide PB could take several forms. Up until now, it has been a district-based process, where City Council members engage their constituents in deciding how to spend roughly $1 million to improve their community. However, under the ballot measure, PB would be implemented citywide, making New York the first major United States city to do so. While the undertaking is a notable one, several questions arise.

Should this process allow citizens to provide input on the entire city budget, generate ideas for a special central fund, or both? Should it follow the example of the Paris PB process, which relies on digital crowdsourcing and voting, or also include the face-to-face meetings that have been part of PB in Brazilian cities (and New York City Council districts)? Research has shown that in many places, PB has had positive impacts in reducing poverty, improving public health, and raising trust in government – but which PB strategies would best help achieve those impacts here?

Second, helping agencies and nonprofits collaborate in their engagement efforts is both a laudable task and a complicated one. Various organizations and city departments define engagement very differently: for some it means encouraging volunteerism, for others it means advocacy and community organizing, and for still others it simply means disseminating information. Partly because there is no common definition of engagement, there are no commonly used metrics or tools for measuring, tracking, or benchmarking it.

New Yorkers are often not clear on what they’re being asked to engage in and why it is important. The new commission could create a coherent, comprehensive system for engagement in the city – one that has citizen needs and goals at the center, and a full range of organizations supporting people to achieve the impacts they want.

Finally, the commission should help community boards, and the New Yorkers they serve, decide how to honor the contributions being made by existing board members while also revitalizing boards for a new era. Many U.S. cities have struggled with community boards; for example, Seattle recently scrapped its board system because the board members weren’t representative of their communities and weren’t able to engage residents effectively. There are many new tools and practices boards can use, going beyond traditional meetings to bring a wider array of people to the table.

There is already a great deal of civic engagement happening in New York City, thanks to lots of committed people inside and outside local government. The new Civic Engagement Commission can map and build on these assets, and also identify the critical gaps and opportunities. Armed with this information, the commission – and citizens themselves – can start to think through what kinds of democracy we want in New York City.

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Matt Leighninger is Director of Public Engagement at Public Agenda. On Twitter @mattleighninger & @PublicAgenda.

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Fix New York’s Broken Balloting and Election Laws


voting booths polling place

(photo: Gotham Gazette)


On Tuesday millions of New Yorkers attempted to exercise their constitutional right to vote. However, far too many in New York City were met with broken ballot scanners and hours-long lines that stretched for blocks in the pouring rain. It is encouraging to see so many citizens making the time and effort to vote, but incredibly disheartening to see our broken election system failing them.

With the impending arrival of the long-awaited trifecta of Democratic leadership in New York State (Democratic Governor, Senate and Assembly) alongside reform-minded allies in New York City government, fixing our archaic and ineffective electoral process should be the first order of business once the new Legislature is seated in January.

At polling sites across New York City there were reports of at least one – and sometimes all – ballot scanners malfunctioning. Thousands of voters braved hours of waiting and confusion just to fill out unscanned emergency ballots. Even in places where some of the scanners did work (such as the paltry two at my polling place in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn), poll sites and workers seemed overwhelmed by the dramatic turnout -- which still wasn’t even at 40% in the city or anywhere near presidential election levels.

We will never know how many voters gave up on the long lines and didn’t vote, or what the chilling effect may be on future turnout. The initial response from the Board of Elections on the scanner malfunctions is that soggy or imperfectly torn ballots jammed the machines. Aren’t these issues we could -- and should -- have prepared for? Regardless of the merit of these questionable excuses, the bigger issue is clear: our current election systems are incapable of meeting the needs of our electorate.

It’s not just machines and preparation.

New York trails other states across the board in voting laws and procedures. One of the main reasons for the problems this past Tuesday is that poll sites were simply overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of voters attempting to vote on a single day – there weren’t enough poll workers or scanners. This is why 37 other states have enacted some form of early voting, which expands the eligible voting period. This both lessens the logjam on a single day and has the added benefit of giving voters more flexibility. It also can help flag issues like machine jams due to two-page ballots.

Early voting in other states over the past few weeks saw a surge in young and first-time voters, the same voters who may have given up on voting Tuesday or have already become jaded by the experience.

Relatedly, New York is the only state in the entire nation which holds its state and federal primaries on separate days, which is incredibly confusing for the average voter and fiscally wasteful. With the additional $25 million or so spent on having a second primary day, New York could make great strides towards enacting early voting. New York also holds “closed” (party-based) primaries with the earliest party registration deadlines in the nation, which caused an uproar in the last presidential election. Where other states have enacted additional pro-voter participation features such as same-day registration and pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds, New York continues to fall further and further behind. These policy shortcomings are compounded by additional confusion such as the Brooklyn “voter purge” in 2016 and the more recent 400,000 person “inactive voter” misfire just last month. Our elected leaders at the city and state levels must take a close look at both our laws and the Board of Elections.

With all of these issues, it is truly amazing how many voters turned up on Tuesday in a state with such a dismal record. New York State has the fourth most registered voters of any state in the nation, but had the eighth worst turnout in the 2016 presidential election. Imagine how many people might vote if they had an extra day (or several) to do so, if the lines were shorter, and if they could count on ballot scanners working.

It is time for New York City and State to finally make strides on voting access and ease and catch up with the rest of the nation. Our democracy depends on it.

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Jamie Ansorge is an Attorney at Cozen O’Conner, Executive Board Member of the New Leaders Council NYC Chapter, and Co-Chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) Young Professional Leadership Council. On Twitter @AnsorgeNYC.

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Vote Yes Three Times to Improve New York City Democracy


three voting booths

(photo: Mayor's Office)


A political awakening is sweeping New York City. Voter turnout during the last election spiked nearly 300 percent. More New Yorkers are speaking out and looking to engage in the civic life and democracy of their city.

Earlier this year, hundreds of New Yorkers, many of them everyday people who gave up their personal time to attend a public hearing, voiced their concerns to a New York City Charter Revision Commission appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio traveling the five boroughs. The Charter Commission boiled down hundreds of hours of public testimony into three proposals that will be on the back of Election Day ballots, each in the form of a yes/no question.

Voting "yes" on all three proposals will give New Yorkers new opportunities to channel their rising political energy and hopes for a more diverse and representative government. 

A "yes" vote on Question 1 will empower everyday New Yorkers by amplifying their voices in political campaigns for local office. New Yorkers making contributions to candidates will have their small donations matched with $8 in public funds for every $1 donated. A $10 contribution will grow to $90; a $100 donation multiplied to $900. And, the influence of big money will be further slashed by reducing the maximum individual contribution by a third. This proposal will also enable more New Yorkers to run for office themselves by raising small donations from their friends and neighbors. A "yes" vote on Question 1 is backed by Reinvent Albany and the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), among others.

On Question 2, a "yes" vote will enable all New Yorkers to vote directly on a slice of the city’s budget to beautify a local park, make a pedestrian crossing safer, or any number of other ideas that come from local communities. A Commission would be created to organize and connect New Yorkers to volunteer opportunities in government and the private sector, among other responsibilities to foster civic engagement and make the city better. This proposal is strongly supported by leaders in the worldwide Participatory Budgeting movement, which this proposal will expand.

A "yes" vote on Question 3 will open up opportunities for more New Yorkers to serve on community boards. Community boards provide advice on local land use, neighborhood quality of life issues, and the city budget, and serve as the level of government closest to the people. Yet, according to community board and census data, many boards consist of members who have served for decades, and do not reflect the diverse makeup and viewpoints of their neighborhoods.

By requiring community board members step down from their positions for two years after serving eight years, everybody in the community will have an opportunity to participate and have their voices heard. This proposal is strongly supported by citywide, grassroots groups like Transportation Alternatives that have decades of experience working with community boards.

A yes, yes, yes vote on the three ballot proposals will collectively harness the heightened activism of New Yorkers as robust participants in their democracy and their city. Find the questions on the back of your ballot and approve them for a stronger New York City.

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Alex Camarda is Senior Policy Advisor for Reinvent Albany. On Twitter @alex_camarda & @ReinventAlbany.

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Flip Your Ballot, Vote Yes on 2 for Democracy


participatory budgeting

(photo: @pb_nyc)


On Election Day -- Tuesday, November 6 -- New Yorkers have a unique opportunity to vote for democracy. By voting “yes” on three ballot proposals, we can turn New York City into a beacon for democracy.

The ballot proposals will make it easier for ordinary New Yorkers to run for office, vote in elections, have a say in city decisions, and serve on community boards. They will make our government better and our voices stronger.

Proposal 2 is especially powerful. It will create a Civic Engagement Commission, dedicated to building a more participatory democracy, one that extends beyond any election day. By investing in civic engagement, we can create space for millions of residents to get more involved, step up as leaders, and help make decisions.

The Commission would create a citywide participatory budgeting (PB) program, giving New Yorkers a greater say in how our how tax dollars are spent. Through PB, residents brainstorm spending ideas, turn these ideas into proposals for a ballot, and then vote to decide which proposals get funded.

In New York City Council’s PB program, 100,000 people have decided how to spend around $40 million per year. Residents - including non-citizens and people as young as 11 years old - have developed and approved hundreds of improvements to public schools, parks, streets, libraries, hospitals, and housing. Voters have been more representative of the city than in local elections, with low-income people, women, and people of color participating at higher rates.

This engagement has broad and long-lasting impacts on our democracy. Years of PB proposals for school air conditioning and bathroom repairs sparked city-wide campaigns, which won $180 million to install air conditioning and fix bathrooms at schools across the city. PB has turned hundreds of residents into community leaders, boosting their civic skills and knowledge. It even increases electoral turnout, making people 7% more likely to vote in other elections.

The charter revision would build on this success, allowing more people to make bigger decisions. Other global leaders in democracy, such as Paris and Madrid, have successfully launched similar programs. In Paris, Mayor Anne Hidalgo has committed 500 million Euros for residents to allocate - for school, district, and citywide projects. In Madrid, the city launched citywide PB and an office of participation, and 400,000 people have gotten involved (in a city not much bigger than Brooklyn).

In New York, PB voters consistently tell us that they want to make bigger decisions. City Council members and their staff tell us that they need more resources and support to engage their communities. Proposal 2 will do both.

The Civic Engagement Commission will be an opportunity for us all to shape the city’s future. While city agencies typically only report to the Mayor, in this case the Mayor, City Council Speaker, and Borough Presidents will each appoint Commission members. The ballot proposal also requires the Commission to partner with community organizations. The Commission will not be perfect (what institution is?), but it will make our city better, by inviting neighbors to decide how their tax dollars are spent and providing more staff support and resources for civic engagement.

If we want to fix our democracy, we need to expand how people can participate. Vote yes on November 6 to show your support for our democracy.

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Josh Lerner is Co-Executive Director of the Participatory Budgeting Project, a national nonprofit that empowers people to decide together how to spend public money. Carlos Menchaca is a New York City Council member representing District 38 in Brooklyn. On Twitter @joshalerner & @cmenchaca. (For more information, visit yesyesyesnyc.com and participatorybudgeting.org)

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Keep the Party Dedicated to Women’s Equality Alive in New York


Cuomo women's equality

Gov. Cuomo signs legislation (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)


Never has the time to stand up against the attacks on women and people of all races and religions been more important. Since the election of Donald Trump, it has been critically important to protect women’s rights against the barrage of attacks including assaults on reproductive rights, attempts to restrict access to healthcare, verbal abuse towards women, and the fight for representation on the Supreme Court.

The President of the United States publicly mocks victims of sexual assault. The Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate calls survivors of sexual assault and rape “clowns!”

Did you know one in five women will be raped and one in three women will experience some form of sexual violence in their lifetime? Annually, rape costs the U.S. $127 billion, more than any other crime. Nearly three women are murdered every day in the U.S. by current or former romantic partners. More than half of female homicide victims were killed in connection to violence by an intimate partner. During their lifetimes, 81% of women will experience some form of sexual harassment, with more than three out of four women experiencing verbal harassment.

During his first week in office, President Trump began issuing executive orders that reinstated the ‘Global Gag Rule.’ This Reagan-era policy bans international organizations that receive U.S. funding from providing abortion services or offering information about the procedure.

Last week, the Trump administration announced that it was expanding protections for doctors, nurses and other health care workers who have a moral or religious objection to performing abortion services. President Trump has appointed prominent anti-choice activists to high-level positions within the administration, and, of course, the appointments of anti-choice judges to the Supreme Court is the greatest threat to women’s right to choose.

But this is not just an anti-choice attack. The repercussions are serious and wide-ranging: rollbacks on no-copay contraception and maternity care are already taking place, and accessible health care for low-income children is at risk. Planned Parenthood is sometimes the only women’s health care provider in rural counties, offering maternal care, cancer screenings, and more. Those life-saving services are now being threatened.

Never before has the Women’s Equality Party of New York State been more critical. New York State Election Law provides that a party will exist if it receives at least 50,000 votes for its gubernatorial candidate on its party line. Four years ago, Governor Cuomo created the Women’s Equality Party (WEP) and received 53,000 votes on its line. The most important thing New Yorkers can do to ensure the continued existence of the Women’s Equality Party, the only women’s party in the nation, is to vote for Governor Cuomo on the WEP line this year, and help toward more than 50,000 votes on Election Day.

The Cuomo administration’s Women’s Equality Agenda advanced critical policies to protect domestic violence victims and prevent sexual assault on college campuses, legislation to remove guns from domestic abusers and to close a loophole in state law that will ensure domestic abusers are required to surrender all firearms, not just handguns.

The passage of the SAFE Act helps our children be safer in school during a time of mass school shootings.

The passage of an increased minimum wage and paid family leave is critical in lifting up the millions of women and children living in poverty, among many other New Yorkers.

These issues, along with others of importance to women and children, are detailed on the Women’s Equality Party newly launched website, which I encourage you to review ahead of casting your ballot on Tuesday.

The WEP aims to fight the policies designed to take back hard-fought rights gained over years of organizing and legislative battles. We need your help to keep our voice strong and in the fight. All of the WEP-endorsed federal, state, and local candidates will fight to protect women and children.

The 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote is in 2020. Women fought long and hard at great personal sacrifice to win this right. Now, in New York, women finally have a ballot line dedicated to their issues. We need to preserve this ballot status and grow our voice. We will march, speak up, and win political office. We will break glass ceilings everywhere. Most importantly – we will never go back!

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Susan Zimet is Chair of the Women’s Equality Party of New York State.

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Supercharging the Gentrification of Sunset Park


industry city bldgs

Industry City (via Industry City)


In anticipation of the Department of City Planning’s certification of Industry City’s rezoning proposal, Community Board 7 has been hosting a series of town halls to inform and engage the public in discussions about Sunset Park’s waterfront. Four town halls have already taken place and on Monday, CEO Andrew Kimball will present Industry City’s rezoning proposal.   

Undoubtedly, we will hear how Industry City’s proposed Special Sunset Park Innovation District, which entails the development of two hotels, academic space, and expanded retail, will create opportunity for neighborhood residents and small business owners. We will hear that Industry City tenants have already created thousands of jobs and that the Innovation Lab is connecting hundreds of Sunset Park residents to these jobs. Despite a community advocate and blogger’s repeated requests for evidence to substantiate these claims, Industry City has not yet shared any supporting data.

Kimball will likely elaborate how Industry City’s rezoning advances Community Board 7’s 197-a plan, “New Connections, New Opportunities,” adopted by the New York City Council in 2011.  He will most likely bring out Industry City tenants, perhaps the same ones who attended my presentation at the October 1 town hall, to testify about Industry City’s positive community impact in cleaning up the waterfront and assisting local small business owners.  

He may also discuss Industry City’s recent tri-lingual mailer publicizing its website. The mailer includes a pre-paid, addressed form [to Atlas Direct Mail] for recipients to simply check boxes and return stating their support for Industry City’s proposed plan. Since the mailer lacks any detail on the rezoning proposal, its emphasis on opportunity feels like a cheap gimmick to win the support of a community in need of meaningful employment with livable wages.  

While substantive, long-term benefits to Sunset Park’s working class and working poor communities are questionable, the scale of real estate speculation and private investment unleashed by Industry City’s reactivation and related public relations hype is not. Kimball notes the rezoning will facilitate a $1 billion investment and add 1.3 million square feet of new development to Industry City by 2026.  

In a July 2017 Progressive City article, I documented Kimball’s affinity for transnational capital in his public and private roles as a steward of Brooklyn’s industrial properties. I detailed Industry City’s recapitalization of its mortgage with a massive loan from the Bank of China [one of China’s “Big Four” state-owned banks] with more capital to be distributed over time as Industry City is renovated and leasing goals are met.

At a September NYC EDC development finance conference, I learned Sunset Park is targeted for more infusion of private capital. A panel titled, “Beyond Bonds: New Investment Tools Catalyzing Growth,” introduced Opportunity Zones – a federal census tract designation created by Trump’s 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. Trump’s tax cut act provides a historic reduction in the corporate tax rate as well as lowered taxes for high net worth individuals. Through Opportunity Zones, the wealthy can defer capital gains taxes by investing in businesses or property development in “economically distressed” communities defined as census tracts with a 20 percent or higher poverty rate and a median family income no greater than 80 percent of the area median.

Sixty percent of New York State’s 514 designated Opportunity Zone census tracts are located in New York City. The highest concentration of the city’s Opportunity Zones is in Brooklyn [with 125 designated census tracts] and many are clustered in the “key areas” of Sunset Park and the Brooklyn Navy Yard.  

opp zone

Eleven Sunset Park census tracts are designated Opportunity Zones. While the bulk of Industry City’s massive 16-building complex is located in census tract 18 which is not an Opportunity Zone, surrounding waterfront census tracts that include two Industry City block lots - Block 695, Lots 20 and 43 – are designated Opportunity Zones.  

1

Source: NYC Empire State Development, Brooklyn Federal Opportunity Zones

Most notably, census tract 2 is an Opportunity Zone and includes Block 695, Lots 20 and 43, as well as six properties that Industry City intends to acquire and demolish for its proposed 12-story Gateway Building with ground floor retail and 11 stories of hotel space. These six properties – 950, 952, 954, 956, 958 and 960 Third Avenue – are located between 36th and 37th Streets and, according to the city’s building classifications, they are primarily two-family buildings with ground-level retail.

Census tract 2 exemplifies the defining criteria of an Opportunity Zone with a poverty rate of 31% and a median family income of $46,964. Moreover, the census tract’s 1,600 residents are majority Latino (90%), renters (82%), and lack a high school diploma (59%). Opportunity Zone designation, however, will mean opportunity for private investors to benefit from tax breaks by underwriting Industry City’s hotel and retail Gateway development. Sunset Park’s Opportunity Zones will supercharge the gentrification already taking hold in and around Industry City.

In addition to the waterfront, Sunset Park’s census tract 118 includes two proposed mega-developments on 8th Avenue and is also a designated Opportunity Zone. One of the proposed projects is the Eighth Avenue Center adjacent to the N subway station. Community Board 10 and Sunset Park stakeholders have already expressed opposition to this “ginormous” development. Directly across 8th Avenue is another huge development site that involves the sale of MTA air rights. Developers will surely benefit from the Opportunity Zone designations and the potential infusion of financing for their luxury housing, hotels, and commercial real estate projects.

Industry City and Eighth Avenue Center’s rezonings will undoubtedly catalyze transformative neighborhood change. Augmented by Opportunity Zones, Sunset Park is facing a potential financial superstorm that will supercharge gentrification and displace the multi-racial, multi-ethnic working class populations and small businesses including industrial businesses that have long defined this neighborhood.

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Tarry Hum is a professor at The City University of New York (CUNY) and author of Making a Global Immigrant Neighborhood. On Twitter @TarryHum.

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Solving Problems by Bridging Community and Higher Education


Pratt Institute

Frances Bronet, one co-author, during an event of Pratt’s "Blue Week" (photo: Pratt)


Across the country, the shortage of affordable housing and rising homelessness threaten the vitality of our cities as areas of opportunity and centers for commerce, creativity, learning, and a foundation for our sense of identity. Educational institutions should be active partners addressing these issues in their cities and communities.

When Chhaya CDC, Cypress Hills LDC, and other community groups in Queens and Brooklyn identified informal basement apartments as both a challenge to the health and safety of their residents and also a chance to create safe affordable housing, we saw an opportunity to serve, by leveraging the expertise of Pratt Institute faculty and students through our Pratt Center for Community Development to examine and help the community groups realize their vision.

A new pilot project announced earlier this year with the support of City Council Members Inez Barron, Rafael Espinal, and Brad Lander in partnership with Mayor Bill de Blasio will make East New York the first neighborhood in New York City to test specific new measures designed to ensure the safety of tenants and legalize many basement apartments.

By legalizing apartments, residents will be empowered to finally demand leases and can be confident that their unit is safe for themselves and their families.

For lower- and moderate-income homeowners who rent out part of their homes to bring in extra money to help cover their bills, the city will provide assistance to enable them to properly outfit their basement units to meet new fire and safety code standards.

This was a major achievement for the community and an important step toward addressing their housing needs as well as protecting the residents of as many as 110,000 basement units in New York City.

As a 130-year-old New York institution, we constantly ask ourselves what can we do to ensure more New Yorkers have a safe place to sleep at night, and how can we support our city’s continued vitality and provide better models for other cities?

Over the past 50 years, Pratt Center, which grew out of the School of Architecture, has worked with dozens of community groups providing research and planning expertise to support their efforts to rebuild thousands of units of affordable housing, retrofit homes for energy efficiency, improve mass transit, and build sustainable communities.

There’s no shortage of urban issues that require new ways of thinking and much greater collaboration. With New York City’s population nearing nine million residents, failing to address current challenges on critical issues like transit, homelessness, and environmental justice today will cause even greater inequities over the long term if left unchecked.

Another critical piece to creating thriving communities is, of course, jobs. As educators, one of our most essential responsibilities is to prepare our students for the future workforce, including those positions and trajectories that we can’t even yet imagine.

Beyond empowering our students to be outspoken advocates against injustice and to be true thinkers, we want them to feel confident in their ability to succeed when they leave campus—in whichever direction life takes them.

One of the best ways of teaching and instilling confidence is by real world problem-solving. Through the Made in NYC initiative, we’re pairing Pratt students in photography, videography, and design with local manufacturers to create “communications assets” to help these businesses tell their stories, expand their markets, and create jobs.

This initiative has been so successful that the City Council stepped in with additional funding to grow the program, which is now serving 1,250 local businesses. We must continue to expand efforts like these, which are being piloted and led by private institutions citywide.

Educational institutions have a unique opportunity to drive partnership because of the expertise of their faculty and students, and their mission to employ critical research and fact-based decision-making.  

With a new administration here at Pratt, we renew this commitment. We look forward to building on our past successes and collaboratively solving today’s challenges (and those that don’t yet exist). To our neighbors across New York, from Midtown Manhattan to the outermost parts of the boroughs, we are here for you—and want to collectively create a better New York.

Stay tuned as we step up for New York in big ways. It is how we teach, how we learn, and how we drive positive change together.

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Frances Bronet is the 12th President of Pratt Institute. Adam Friedman is the Director of the Pratt Center for Community Development. On Twitter @PrattInstitute.

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Bridging the Achievement Gap Through Real Renewal


nycmayorsoffice 1st dayschool

(Photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


When the New York State Board of Regents met last month, the mood was despondent. “The needle hasn’t moved for minority children in decades,” said Regent Kathy Cashin, decrying the racial achievement gap on the newly-released 2018 state exam scores for students in grades 3-8. The reaction of the Regents ran the usual gamut of hand-wringing, blaming the tests, and calling for more dilatory “analysis.”

And then came the damning report in The New York Times on the failure of New York City’s Renewal schools program. After investing $755 million—nearly the entire annual budget of the San Francisco Unified School District—in the academic improvement of the 94 lowest performing schools, the needle has barely moved there either.

Why the hand-wringing, and why the wasteful investment in programs doomed to fail, when the achievement gap can be closed—for this generation, and with current resources?

Charter schools are dramatically outperforming traditional district schools in the city. In school year 2017-18, New York City public charter schools, enrolling 91% percent children of color, vastly outperformed the rest of the state in both English Language Arts (ELA) and math proficiency, 57 percent to 45 percent and 60 percent to 45 percent, respectively.

Our practices vary, and we don’t always agree on policies. But collectively we are offering a brighter future to 100,000 city students.

Students who attend Ascend Public Charter Schools—a network of 12 schools in central Brooklyn’s most challenged communities—are proving what’s possible.

Brownsville, where we operate five schools, is a community of tremendous potential, but blighted by failed schools. The incarceration rate is the second-highest in the city and a mere 26% of students were found proficient in English. Yet our 5,000 students, 96 percent of whom are black or Latino and 83 percent of whom are from low-income families, not only closed but reversed the achievement gap. Ascend’s African-American students outperformed white students statewide by 7 percentage points in ELA and 2 points in math.

Eschewing the harsh disciplinary practices of “no excuses” schools, Ascend schools offer a rich liberal arts education in a supportive and joyful environment. As our results have climbed, suspension rates have plummeted, down 40% in our lower schools in four years and 28% percent in middle schools.

We commit to making every child feel welcome and cherished. We don’t select students on the way in, nor on the way out. Some, including those affected by homelessness and other traumas, are afforded individual attention for years, and then blossom.

Our schools accomplish all this while holding true to our deepest commitment: to operate truly public schools that enroll all students and operate at district funding levels. All students are enrolled strictly by lottery, we charge no tuition or fees, and most important, we fill every vacant seat through grade 9.

We are but one example of successful charter education. Other networks are posting results as exciting. We are not stuck in the transformational “ice age” that Regent Luis Reyes bemoaned at the recent Regents meeting. Our students—New Yorkers’ students—are not consigned to lives where promise is crushed.

Our education officials are staring a solution in the face.

Yet charter growth may soon stall because of an artificial statutory cap on the number of new charters; only a handful now remain to be awarded statewide. Why not lift the cap? Why not have charters run even half of the Renewal schools to test our methods? Why limit our children’s potential?

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Steven Wilson is founder and chief executive officer of Ascend Charter Schools.

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Protect New Yorkers from Washington’s Cruel Actions, Oppose ‘Public Charge’ Change


jvbramer leads sep

(photo via the New York City Council)


When we look from our community in Brooklyn to the New York Harbor, we see the Statue of Liberty, a tangible symbol of America’s great tradition of welcoming immigrants seeking to make a better life. Every day in Sunset Park, Red Hook, Bay Ridge, and elsewhere in Brooklyn we see the contributions new Americans are making to the economic and cultural vitality of our neighborhoods, just as generations of immigrants before them contributed.

But America’s great tradition of diversity and inclusion is under attack by the Trump Administration. From separating parents and children at the border, to travel bans and demonizing immigrants as “others,” this administration is on a campaign to sow division and disunity. The latest salvo in this war against new Americans is a radical proposal to expand the definition of “public charge” and undermine pathways to U.S. citizenship for new Americans.

If the government determines that a person is likely to depend on the government as their main source of support (in other words, to be a “public charge”), it can deny that person admission to the United States or lawful permanent residence. Under the Trump Administration’s new “public charge” proposal, immigrants’ participation in some of the most fundamental programs essential for families’ and children’s health and well-being would count against their chances to enter or remain in the United States. These basic public benefit programs include, among others, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Medicaid, Medicare Part D, and housing assistance.

The Trump Administration’s “public charge” policy plan represents an unwarranted cost shift from the federal government to state and local governments, to non-profit charities, and to needy families themselves. Denying federal assistance to people when they are in need in no way eliminates hunger, homelessness or deprivation. Our communities will face new burdens in addressing gaps in services.

It is clear that the Trump Administration’s overly broad definition of “public charge” would have far-reaching effects. One in four American children have at least one immigrant parent. In addition to the categories of individuals directly affected by the policy, fear and confusion would cause most immigrants to forgo benefits for all means-tested federal, state, and local programs.  The dis-enrollment from public benefits would cause disruption in the lives of millions of needy people, harm individuals’ well-being, and undermine local economies here in New York and across the United States.

We all need to raise our voices against this proposal. And we have an opportunity to do just that. The Trump Administration cannot implement this radical change until after it has considered comments submitted by members of the public.  In our democracy, this is an important check on unfettered rulemaking by the executive branch. Help make that check a real one by submitting your comments through regulations.gov by December 10.

Get your neighbors, families and friends to comment as well. Our nation is at its best when people join arms and stand together for the values that have built America.

Join the thousands of people in the Protecting Immigrant Families coalition in speaking out to stop this mean-spirited and harmful potential rules change.

***
Assistant Assembly Speaker Felix W. Ortiz represents parts of Brooklyn. On Twitter @Felixwortiz.

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Queens needs a democratic Democratic Party


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Queens Democratic Chair Joe Crowley (photo: @repjoecrowley)


I canvassed in my neighborhood for the first time this past summer by approaching people on the street asking if they were registered Democrats. One elderly gentleman took a minute to understand what I was saying, but when he heard the word “Democrat” he smiled and said, “I became a citizen of this country. I am proud to be a Democrat,” and excitedly signed my petition. Voters like this man are truly what make our country and party great.

Our party must reflect the community we live in, and the values we share, otherwise there is no reason to be involved in politics. While I live in a welcoming community, like many in Queens and around the city, our politics can be far from inviting.

I first moved to New York City to attend law school at Fordham after spending seven years in Washington, D.C. I was nervous at first about being in a larger city that sometimes felt very impersonal and overwhelming when I had visited in the past, and worried about feeling like an outsider in my new neighborhood. Luckily, my fears were completely unfounded as I became close with several new friends and neighbors in Astoria, Queens. Before long this neighborhood began to truly feel like home.

I’ve always been interested in politics, and this past January decided to join my local Democratic club to meet more like-minded people and volunteer for progressive candidates. After my first few meetings, however, I soon noticed how opaque the processes of the Queens County Democratic Party could be. We are frequently told at these meetings which candidate the Queens Party endorsed for each office, and are recruited to volunteer for that person even if we’ve never heard of them.

Despite a lot of hard work, many of us are in the dark as to how the endorsement and nomination processes work. As a result I began working with another group of local Democratic activists, the New Queens Democrats, which recruited its members to run for the party’s county committee in our neighborhoods, to open up this process.

The county committee, the utmost local form of party representation, ordinarily has thousands of vacant seats, the perfect opening to build change from the ground up in Queens. The platform of New Queens Democrats is straightforward – we call for more transparency and community participation in the party's decision-making so that the party leaders are more accountable to the people they purport to represent.

After collecting signatures throughout our election districts, the New Queens Democrats gathered our petitions and turned them in to the Board of Elections. Surprisingly, our petitions were deemed defective due to minor technical errors, and we went to court. We figured that the Board of Elections, seeing how dedicated we were, would decide to help us correct our petitions so that we could get to work representing our communities on the party committee.

That’s not what happened.

The Board of Elections is made up of ten commissioners who are chosen by the same party officials we were trying to convince to open their doors to us. The Board fought tooth and nail to keep members of the New Queens Democrats off the ballot, using taxpayer money to successfully appeal a court order that had gone in our favor.

Next, an article in the New York Times informed us that the Queens Democratic Party had nominated its own people for positions on county committee, often without the candidates' consent. These “candidates” included a homebound woman in her eighties and a former Queens resident who moved to Florida two years ago – both of whom had no idea they were on the ballot or what the county committee even is.

The final slap in the face came on Election Day. I woke up at 6 a.m. to go to my polling place, where I discovered that I was, in fact, on the ballot (although my name was horrendously misspelled). The momentary excitement of being able to represent this community ended when our attorney reported to us later that day that even though we were technically on the ballot, the Board of Elections would not be counting any of our votes. The Board used the Appellate Division’s order allowing them to keep us off the ballot as justification for not counting the votes, preventing us from joining the committee.

Change is desperately needed, even in one of the most supposedly progressive cities in the United States. Despite all this, I’m very optimistic about the future of our local party. The primary victories of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jessica Ramos, Catalina Cruz, and John Liu earlier this year have shown that Queens voters will no longer stand for politics dictated by secret handshakes and backroom deals.

Our party must open its doors to all members of our community, with political leadership worthy of the everyday voters who make our neighborhoods strong. The next county committee elections will be in 2020, and we will be ready.

***
Ryan A. Partelow is a member of the New Queens Democrats and a student at Fordham Law School. He lives in Astoria, Queens. On Twitter @RyanPartelow.

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The Ups and Downs of Excelsior Scholarship’s Freshman Year and What Comes Next


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Gov. Cuomo celebrates Excelsior (photo via the Governor's Office)


The Excelsior Scholarship is a little over a year old, which makes it a good time to take stock. In October 2017 as the program launched, Governor Andrew Cuomo proclaimed, “Our first-in-the-nation Excelsior Scholarship is designed so more New Yorkers go to college tuition-free and receive the education they deserve to reach their full potential." Now that the program is in its third semester, we can explore the program’s freshman year experience to assess its impact, successes, and struggles. Who has benefited the most? Who hasn’t? And what elements need fixing?     

The Inaugural Class
In Fall 2017, 20,086 students were awarded Excelsior scholarships and attended SUNY and CUNY colleges tuition-free.

Excelsior is a “last dollar” program, which means that awards are made only after accounting for other grant aid received, namely federal Pell grants and grants from the New York State Tuition Assistance Program (TAP).

Low-income SUNY and CUNY students typically receive enough aid from Pell and TAP to cover all or most of their tuition costs, so Excelsior funds have primarily gone to middle-class students, as designed by Gov. Cuomo. For the 2017-2018 academic year, the maximum family income threshold was $100,000, which increased to $110,000 for 2018-2019, and will rise to $125,000 for 2019-2020.

The creation of the Excelsior program brought much-needed relief to students and families caught in the middle-class college affordability squeeze, neither eligible for much financial aid nor easily able to pay the rising tuition and fee amounts at CUNY and SUNY.

Ghennah Forde, a junior at Brooklyn College, was one of Excelsior’s inaugural beneficiaries. During her freshman year, Ghennah and her parents, who identify as middle-class, struggled to pay Ghennah’s college expenses. Her mom’s salary from working in a hospital’s pathology lab and her father’s from working in a rehabilitation facility’s kitchen were too high for Ghennah to quality for Pell aid. After accounting for a TAP award of $500 per year, Ghennah had a tuition balance of approximately $6,000. “Financial aid was not on my side,” she says. When the Excelsior Scholarship award came through, she says, it was “such a blessing.”

Another Excelsior beneficiary, Ryan Walsh, received small amounts of Pell and TAP during his first two years as a commuter student at the State University of New York at Albany. When he began his freshman year, he had $16,000 in family savings for college-related expenses, but that money was mostly gone by the end of his sophomore year.  Looking ahead to his junior year, Ryan saw looming a big tuition bill and car insurance and mobile phone charges. “Money was stressing me out a lot,” he says.

When Ryan’s dad heard about Cuomo’s proposal for the Excelsior Scholarship, it was a lifeline and a much-needed financial bailout. “Right when I ran out of money,” Ryan says, “the Excelsior Scholarship was announced.” Once Ryan got confirmation that Excelsior would cover his junior year tuition, he says, “I was so happy.” Receiving Excelsior eased his financial stresses. Now instead of panicking about money, Ryan worries about his upcoming graduation and breaking into the entertainment journalism industry.  

Low-income students have gained little financially from Excelsior, yet the governor and others have made the argument that low-income students benefit from the program’s simple message that anyone, regardless of family income, can go to college for free. Excelsior may be motivating more students, including low-income students, to prepare for and enroll in college, though it’s impossible to know. For Fall 2018, CUNY’s freshman enrollment increased to 39,938 students from 38,162 in Fall 2017, a gain of 4.0%. CUNY officials attribute the increase to two factors, including Excelsior and also an initiative waiving CUNY’s $65 freshman application fee for public school students. The increase may be the result of these and/or any number of factors, including that some students may now be choosing CUNY who otherwise would have chosen private institutions. SUNY has not yet released Fall 2018 freshman enrollment numbers.  

CUNY vs. SUNY
The 20,086 students who received Excelsior in Fall 2017 are a sizable group, yet they only represent 3.2% of the state’s total population of SUNY and CUNY students, which exceeds 630,000. Excelsior is barely a presence on some campuses. In Fall 2017, just 34 students received the grant at the 7,200-student CUNY Hostos Community College. Indeed, according to a report released in August 2018 by the Center for an Urban Future (CUF), a New York City-based policy think tank, only 0.8% of CUNY community college students received Excelsior.  

The CUF report indicates that students who attend SUNY bachelor’s-granting institutions benefit at much higher rates. At these institutions, approximately 6.8% of all undergraduates received Excelsior in Fall 2017. At SUNY Albany, where Ryan attends, more than 8% of the in-state resident students received Excelsior.

The uneven distribution of Excelsior funds does not sit well with CUNY advocates. State Senator Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat, says, “From the very beginning, I suspected that Excelsior wouldn’t prove as valuable for your average CUNY student as for SUNY full-time students.” At an August rally protesting Excelsior’s limitations, New York City Council Member and CUNY Hunter College alumnae Inez Barron declared, “Governor Cuomo is playing a shell game.”  

The Heavy Credit Accumulation Requirement
Excelsior includes a controversial provision: students must earn 30 credits each year to receive and maintain the scholarship. This stipulation has effectively disqualified part-time students and students who are not on track to graduate within two years from associate degree programs and within four years from bachelor’s degrees programs. In a statement provided to Politico, Don Kaplan, a spokesperson for Governor Cuomo, defended the requirement as “incentivizing on-time graduation.”

The credit requirement has had stimulating effects on both Ghennah and Ryan. Ryan says, “I definitely have been more motivated. I want to make sure that I don’t lose the scholarship.”

Ghennah was well-aware of the 30-credit mandate when she applied for and accepted her Excelsior award. Feeling the pressure of Excelsior, she enrolled in and successfully completed 32 credits during her sophomore year. Now that she is a junior, she is on track to have 90-plus credits by the end of the current academic year and has planned out her courses on a color-coded spreadsheet so that she will graduate at the end of her fourth year, something only achieved by 27% of Brooklyn College students.  

Yet Ghennah and Ryan are just two data points in a crowd of some 20,086 Excelsior recipients. To better understand whether Excelsior is bolstering credit accumulation and on-time completion at CUNY and SUNY colleges, the State’s Higher Education Services Corporation (HESC) should release detailed Excelsior data to the public and to researchers. Thus far, HESC has released only basic Excelsior data, and belatedly so. Information on the Fall 2017 beneficiaries was released in July 2018, and information on the Spring 2018 beneficiaries has not yet been released as of mid-October.       

Implementation Woes
New public sector programs often encounter implementation road-bumps, yet Excelsior's first year was particularly rough.

HESC admittedly had especially tight time constraints. The Legislature voted in support of Excelsior in April 2017, just months before the start of the academic year. Only after the HESC Board met in May and approved of the program’s regulations could the agency issue the online application, which it did in early June, requiring submissions by late July. This meant that the official eligibility criteria and application procedures only had two months to filter down to CUNY and SUNY students, most of whom were off campus, and prospective students.

With a lack of clarity as to who was eligible, many students applied for Excelsior who neither needed nor were eligible for it. Of the 91,961 Excelsior applicants for Fall 2017, up to 28,362 did not need to complete the application, as they were already eligible for other grant aid to fully cover their tuition costs. Another 43,513 applicants were denied for failing to meet the eligibility criteria, with most of them—36,095—rejected because they did not meet the requirement of having earned 30 credits per year for each year of prior collegiate study.  

Assembly Member Deborah Glick, a Manhattan Democrat and chair of the Assembly education committee, asked a Cuomo representative during a December 2017 hearing, "Did we do so much when it came to letting people know that the program existed but not enough in letting people know what the criteria was and raised false hopes?" Cuomo’s representative replied, “I don't think we did.”  

One Excelsior requirement that has yet to be well-communicated requires recipients who complete less than 30 credits during a full academic year to pay back the second semester of their Excelsior aid. The main HESC Excelsior website buries this requirement in a long list of FAQs. Given that the “payback” requirement is non-intuitive and unprecedented in financial aid program design, one would expect that it would be featured more prominently on the website and in HESC communications.  

In August 2018, at a HESC Board Meeting, Sarah Buell, a SUNY financial aid officer speaking as a member of the SUNY Financial Aid Professionals group, expressed the frustrations of the group when she said, “We have gone months without formal written guidance.” According to Buell, SUNY financial aid officers were struggling with how to answer basic questions from students and parents about Excelsior’s regulations and about HESC’s processing of applications.  

The following day, SUNY Chancellor Kristina M. Johnson’s office sent a memo to campuses directing their financial aid officers not to speak with the media.

Denied Excelsior
Razieh Arabi is one of the students who applied for Excelsior aid and was denied. A 37-year-old single mother, Razieh applied for Excelsior as she was transferring to CUNY Baruch College after having completed an associate degree at CUNY Queensborough Community College (QCC) with a GPA of 3.93.

What happened? Because Razieh had taken three years to complete her Queensborough degree, having begun as a part-time student, and also because she had attended a proprietary college before Queensborough, she was deemed off-track and ineligible for Excelsior. When she received the denial letter, she says, “Despite all the hope the program provided, it felt like everything was falling apart for me.”  

HESC’s regulations were explicit that the 30 credits per year requirement was retroactive, and the application asks detailed college history questions, yet Razieh says that she was not aware that her past enrollment history would disqualify her. When she applied, she thought that an accomplished student like herself was naturally eligible for the program. “If I’m not qualified, then who is qualified?” she asks. (Graduating in three years from Queensborough after beginning as a part-time student was a remarkable feat by Razieh given that QCC has a 22.6% three-year graduation rate for students who begin full-time.)

Since being denied Excelsior, Razieh has become an activist for reforms to the program. At the rally held in late August, at which Council Member Barron spoke, Razieh addressed the crowd. “Governor Cuomo should make critical reforms to the Excelsior Scholarship program,” she said. “If you are making a promise, then rise up to the challenge and don’t deliver just an empty promise.”  

Razieh tells the story of her Excelsior denial with elements of tragedy, comedy, and anger. She had already felt wronged by the proprietary college sector that had wasted her time and money and by the federal financial aid formula that limited her aid while at Queensborough. Now she considered herself wronged by the retroactivity of a standard that she could have never known about, lacking the ability to see into the future, before Excelsior existed.

Excelsior’s Future
As more and more students get caught up in Excelsior’s complex rules, the program is being exposed as a complicated financial aid initiative, just like Pell and TAP, and it may come to be seen as punitive, too, due to the payback requirement. Though HESC has said that the payback stipulation will be waived for students who miss the 30-credit cutoff because of documented hardships, the guidance is limited on which hardship appeals will be accepted and which won’t. A death of a parent clearly qualifies for a successful appeal, but will a stressful relationship breakup combined with family problems and a terrible summer session chemistry class be enough for a student with 27 credits due to an F in that chemistry class to maintain the scholarship via an appeal? The guidance is not definitive.  

Another requirement of Excelsior is that beneficiaries must stay in-state following graduation for the same number of years as they received the scholarship, lest their awards convert into loans. The requirement has been equated with indentured servitude. While both Ghennah and Ryan plan to stay in-state following graduation, other students will likely feel trapped.      

Despite all its failures and flaws, few are calling for Excelsior to be rolled back. Instead, Excelsior has become established policy. Senator Krueger says, “It’s very rare that you create a program that can be taken advantage of by people who are above the poverty level. Those programs don’t get taken away.”  

Advocates of expanding financial aid in New York State, like Tom Hilliard, who wrote the CUF report, say that Excelsior is the base from which incremental reforms can be made, reforms that make the promise of “free college” more real to more students. Hilliard has called for reducing the onerous 30-credit burden, eliminating its retroactivity provisions, and getting rid of the requirement that graduates remain in-state.

Senator Krueger says, “We need to amend and improve Excelsior. Full-time is an unrealistic ask, and we need to offer flexibility to students who can’t go full-time.”

Echoing Krueger, State Senator Luis Sepulveda, Bronx Democrat, adds, “Excelsior has to be tweaked so that it can help a larger body of students, especially those who also need to work.”  

This fall, Sepulveda plans to introduce, with other Democratic colleagues, a bill to modify the 30-credit requirement. The bill may adopt TAP’s satisfactory academic progress standards, or, at a minimum, according to Sepulveda, it will authorize HESC to count developmental education course credits, which are typically non-credited, towards the 30-credit threshold.  

Krueger and Sepulveda both consider the conversation about Excelsior to be part of a larger one about how to provide quality public higher education to state residents. Among other initiatives, Sepulveda calls for extending state financial aid to summer sessions, initiating a micro-grant program for emergency expenses, instituting a guided pathways system across CUNY and SUNY, and increasing base aid to colleges so that more sections of required courses can be offered. As Krueger says, “If we’re not putting more money into our universities, we’re actually risking the quality of the education that [Excelsior awardees] are getting.”

Both Krueger and Sepulveda say that after the November election—in which Democrats are poised to gain control of the State Senate—there will likely be enough votes to pass changes to Excelsior, and Sepulveda projects that the governor will support some reforms. “If this is something that the governor deems reasonable,” he said, “I believe that he will give it a hard look.” If Sepulveda is right, Excelsior’s junior year may well look different from its freshman and sophomore years.  

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Eric Neutuch is a freelance journalist.

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