When Mayor Michael Bloomberg exercised his hard-won right to appoint the city schools chancellor and selected Joel I. Klein, a former Justice Department antitrust attorney, Klein took over the school system with unprecedented powers and protection from public scrutiny. He reports only to the mayor. The seven-member Board of Education, which formerly had the power to remove the chancellor and oversaw many aspects of the school system, was sent home, and an advisory group, the Panel for Educational Policy, installed in its place.
This panel, chaired by the chancellor, is made up of five public-school parents appointed by the borough presidents, and seven other members appointed by the mayor. The borough presidents' appointees range from seasoned parent activists to a former city superintendent. The mayor's appointees include a number of educators, a museum director, and representatives of the private sector.
When announcing his appointees, the mayor spoke plainly about his expectations for the group, "In terms of the panel members, their job is to give advice to the chancellor, not advice to the press. I do not expect to see their names ever in the press answering a question either on the record or off the record.... I would not tolerate it for 30 seconds."
The policy panel convened for the first time on September 23rd and adopted its own by-laws. The 4:30 p.m. meeting at a high school in the Bronx scheduled no time for public comment and seemed, to some parents, to be designed to minimize public participation. The lack of discussion among panel members also left parents worrying about whether the parent representatives would voice parents' needs and concerns.
Chancellor Klein was also granted exclusive authority to hire and fire the city's district superintendents. He made quick use of this power to make permanent three interim acting superintendents, in Districts 1, 6, and 24, whose appointments had been opposed by those districts' community school boards-a problem that had vexed former chancellor Harold O. Levy.
Other major announcements from the chancellor's office recently include:
- a program to use privately raised monies to award large bonuses to superintendents who increase student performance as shown by test scores;
- the appointment of Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg to raise private monies for the city's schools;
- an agreement with the teachers union to use the extra work time teachers exchanged for raises to increase the length of the school day for students, rather than to provide professional development to teachers.
The chancellor has not yet tackled the problem of how to provide students in the city's failing schools with the educational alternatives they are entitled to under the new federal "No Child Left Behind" Act. Some 331 of the city's schools were last month identified as failing to meet state performance standards. The new law gives parents of students in these schools the right to transfer their children into successful schools or get them free tutoring. With nearly a third of the city's schools identified as failing, however, many parents have been unable to secure a place for their child in a better school. Mayor Bloomberg has asked parents to be patient while he and Chancellor Klein fix the schools.
Klein has announced a thoroughgoing study of the school system, which will be conducted by paid consultants with nearly $4 million of private funding from two foundations. To build support for needed changes, he plans to seek input from a wide range of stakeholders in the public schools, including parents, educators, community groups, and business. He expects to announce some major changes within 100 days.
Help for Parents: Insideschools.org
Advocates for Children of New York has launched a new website, Insideschools.org, that should be useful to parents and others seeking to be well informed about public school issues-especially if the new educational regime turns out to be as tight-lipped as many now suspect. Spearheaded by Clara Hemphill, author of a series of books on the best public schools in the city, the site offers parents important advice and resources for choosing schools; getting children the services they need (including the free tutoring to which they may be entitled), understanding students' and parents' rights, and pursuing complaints effectively. The site is free, easy to navigate, and also offers parents the opportunity to sign up for twice-monthly email alerts on timely or critical school topics like testing dates, school-related events, recent research studies, and advocacy opportunities. The site is also accessible, school by school, under individual City Council districts in Gotham Gazette's Searchlight.
Jessica Wolff is a public school parent and Director of Policy Development at the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, a not-for-profit coalition working to reform New York State's education finance system to ensure adequate resources and the opportunity for a sound basic education for all students in New York City. The views expressed are her own.