Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein are moving ahead with the
initiative, their ambitious and still unfolding plan to restructure, streamline,
and improve instruction in the city schools. Meanwhile, their scheme faces a
court challenge contending that the plan pushes changes beyond what the law
allows. Launched by the principals union, New York State Assembly Education
Committee Chair Steven Sanders, and other elected and school officials, the
suit claims that Children First's de facto elimination of the community school
districts is not in the best interest of city families and requires approval
from the state legislature.
Though district lines remain intact officially under Children First, each of
ten new instructional divisions subsumes up to four of the existing community
school districts, as well as the high schools located within the geographic
boundaries of the divisions. These ten divisions that will now administer the
city's elementary, intermediate, and high schools have started to take shape.
In contrast with the community school district bureaucracies they are replacing,
all instructional divisions are to have a standard set of job titles and the
same chain of command. The Department of Education has been busy reshuffling
district personnel to fill new administrative and school-level positions.
The recently appointed regional superintendents, veteran city educators who
will oversee the new divisions, have made their choices for the next tier of
school system administrators. Each of these "local instructional supervisors"
will supervise the principals of up to 12 schools. Under the new plan, school
principals are set to receive leadership training and greater control over their
In the restructured system, there is very little left of community school districts.
Community school district superintendents', and high school superintendents',
jobs no longer exist. District offices are getting ready to close by the end
of the school year. The Department of Education recently announced that it would,
however, retain an administrative presence in each of the old community school
districts. In an agreement reached with State Senator Frank Padavan of Queens,
another vocal critic of the restructuring, one local instructional supervisor
will serve as district administrator to handle parent concerns and problems,
monitor the performance of schools, and work with the new district councils,
the parent and community bodies that are likely to replace the outgoing community
Steve Sanders says this is not enough. "State law requires a superintendent
for each school district, a superintendent whose jurisdiction is solely that
one school district," he says. "If the mayor wants school districts
abolished, or their lines changed, then he must ask the legislature for such
Assuming the suit doesn't force them back to the drawing board, Klein and company
will soon turn their attention to hiring and training new school-level personnel.
Under Children First, each school is to have both a math and a reading "coach"
to work with teachers to improve instruction. Each school will also employ a
parent coordinator to promote involvement by parents in the children's education.
In addition, Klein and his colleagues have the daunting job of preparing teachers
and administrators in 80 percent of the city's schools to work with the new
required math and reading curricula before students return to school in September.
To this end, they have added several staff development days to the beginning
of next year's calendar, pushing the first day of school for students from September
4 to September 8.
Additional details of the restructuring plan emerge each week. Perhaps because
the new system is being invented and implemented simultaneously, many specifics
vital to public-school families are still undecided or under wraps. As a result,
parents and students are in the dark and anxious about the future of policies
that were previously set at the district level. They wonder, for example, how
to register for pre-kindergarten, which gifted and talented and other programs
students will be eligible for and how to apply, by what process students will
now move from elementary to middle school, and whether successful district-level
programs and practices will be preserved in the midst so much change.
State's Highest Court Hears Oral Arguments in School-Funding Case
On May 8, ten years since their school-funding lawsuit began, attorneys for
the Campaign for Fiscal Equity
(where I work) presented their final arguments in their case in Albany before
the New York Court of Appeals, the state's highest court. The lawsuit, Campaign
for Fiscal Equity (CFE) v. the State of New York, seeks reforms in the way the
state funds public education. It charges that the state's education finance
system has, for years, shortchanged the New York City schools, and, as a result,
has denied students in New York City their constitutional right to the opportunity
for a "sound basic education."
City Council Member Robert Jackson, a founder of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity
and lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, arrived in time to hear the arguments, having
walked the entire 150 miles between the Appellate Division courthouse in Manhattan
and the Court of Appeals in Albany. Jackson's "Walk a Mile for Your Child"
march started on May 1, with a rousing send-off in Manhattan from Chancellor
Joel Klein and a number of elected officials, along with scores of parents,
teachers, advocates, and schoolchildren. Numerous supporters joined Jackson
along the route, including Maria Behncke, a Rochester parent and Alliance for
Quality Education regional director, who also walked the entire way. Jackson
told the cheering crowd that greeted him as he reached the courthouse that he
had "walked the walk" and now it was time for the lawyers to "talk
In their arguments before the six sitting judges, attorneys for the Campaign
for Fiscal Equity called for the court to overturn the last year's ruling by
an intermediate appellate court. The Appellate Division ruling held that providing
only an eighth grade level of skills fulfills the state's obligation to its
students. The campaign attorneys argued instead that the state constitution's
guarantee of the opportunity for a sound basic education should ensure students
access to a meaningful high school education, a 12th grade level of skills.
The justices spent a nearly unprecedented 2 Â˝ hours listening to oral arguments
from attorneys for both sides. They asked numerous questions of both sides,
many of which centered on how to craft a remedy that would produce real reform
and avoid the lengthy legal entanglements that have plagued some other states.
A decision in the case is expected this summer.
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.
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