Despite frustrations and setbacks, the community education councils that replaced the 32 community school boards last fall were more effective in their first year than many observers expected, and parents say the councils may become more powerful as they learn to flex their political muscles.
The first year was difficult for the councils, which are made up mostly of public school parents and elected largely by officials of school parents association. Some council members complain about what they consider a dismissive attitude by the Department of Education. They are dismayed that Chancellor Joel Klein removed the one clear power the councils had -- to determine school choice and magnet programs. In poor neighborhoods in particular, the councils have had difficulty attracting enough members, and many don't have the full complement of nine parents.
The experiences of one council member, David Bloomfield, chair of the Graduate Program in Educational Leadership at Brooklyn College and first vice president of the Citywide Council on High Schools, reflect those of many council members. "My chief frustration was the perception that the Department of Education had created the council as window dressing," Bloomfield writes in an article for Inside Schools. "Rarely was there a sense of welcomed collaboration between the parents on the board and Department of Education officials."
Despite this, he says, there were successes. When the council publicized complaints it had received from parents, an article appeared in the Daily News. This, Bloomfield writes, prompted the Department pf Education to appoint an executive director for secondary schools and to revamp its policies on admission to high school.
Other councils point to success too.
On Manhattan's West Side, parents who thought admissions procedures discriminated against poor and working class Latino families were able to get a hearing. On the East Side, parents upset by the progressive math curriculum aired their concerns. And a community council member from Queens says he is impressed by the clout the council gives parents.
"I've been empowered to a degree I wouldn't have thought possible," Jeffrey Guyton, a council member from District 30 in Long Island City, said in a letter to the New York Times this spring. "I've helped to get a leaking roof repaired and am organizing a seminar on asthma at PS 2, among other things."
When the legislature gave the mayor control of the city schools, it dissolved the 32 community school boards and replaced them with 32 "community education councils" each with nine parents elected by parents associations, two ember appointed by the borough president and one high school senior, who does not get a vote. These councils are supposed to approve boundaries between schools, review educational programs, evaluate supervisors, and make recommendations on building use. The legislature also created the council on high schools and a council for special education. The first councils were selected for one-year terms, but the next set will serve two, starting in the fall.
There have been difficulties. Resignations, dismissals and unfilled vacancies meant that almost half of the 32 councils did not have their full complement of nine parent members on January 3, 2005, according to a report prepared by Carolyn Prager of Advocates for Public Representation in Public Education. Because a great many of those who did finish their terms did not run for re-election or were defeated, there will be a huge turnover in the councils in the fall. Almost as worrisome, the turnout in the election limited to three parent association officers in each school was dismal.
Indeed, in some poor neighborhoods parents feel as frustrated as ever. "We have no power at all," Glenn Simmons of the council for District 32 in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn told the Daily News. "Our members resigned because they were unhappy. If you want to make a difference in schools, community education councils are not the place to do it." Christian Rodriguez, a member of District 22 in Flatbush told the Daily News that many parents were chased away by frustration. "If you come into the situation cold, like a lot of parents did this year, it really is a shock to your system," he said.
The bureaucracy seemed to conspire against the councils. Members learned that they did not have the free access to schools that their predecessors on the community school boards enjoyed; rather, they could visit only if the principal agreed. They were upset when, without consultation, the chancellor revised a regulation -- A-185 -- on zoning to remove their ability to designate magnet schools and school choice programs in their districts.
By spring, members were grappling with onerous conflict of interest regulations that required them to disclose their personal finances - and perhaps be removed from the council - if they had even a remote connection to a group or company that does business with the Department of Education. A council member in District 13 in Brooklyn faced disqualification because she worked for Verizon, the telephone company, which does business with the school system. "You've got to be kidding," Carmen Colon, president of the District 13 council, told the New York Times. "She has nothing to do with contracts. She's a clerk." Colon said excessive paperwork discouraged civic-minded parents from running for office.
Despite these problems, some councils took on important issues. Darlene Vanasco, a parent, attended a District 15 meeting in Brooklyn on a middle school initiative and small class size. "The dedication of the people on the council has been incredible," she said. "They are tenacious, smart and informed and I do believe they can really make a difference over time."
District 3's council was instrumental in airing the Center for Immigrant Families' report on what it called de facto segregation in the gifted programs on Manhattan's West Side. District 2, also in Manhattan, held three forums on the math curriculum. Serena Brown, newly elected to the panel, said the middle school admissions process was greatly improved with the help of the council. According to Catherine Skopec, a parent who has attended nearly all District 2 council meetings, the panel really listened and there was some movement on some issues."
In December many of the councils banded together in an Association of New York City Education Councils to help solve their problems. They engaged civil rights attorney Norman Siegel as counsel. Besides public representation, the group provides members with technical assistance on such matters as how to read budgets, placing emphasis on the capital budget that councils are supposed to approve.
"I think the councils had a lot of great ideas," said Vanasco. "I also think they feel quite hobbled in instituting the ideas. The issue is not whether they could be effective. The issue is how. Some feel a lot of work was put in with not enough hard results to show for it. However, I do think we need to be patient. Change happens over time."