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The Mayoral Candidates on Education

by Gotham Gazette Staff, Apr 25, 2005
 

The mayoral candidates discussed education at an April 14 forum at St. Francis College in Brooklyn sponsored by the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, the union that represents principals and other administrators. Participating were Democratic candidates Fernando Ferrer, the former Bronx borough president; Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields; City Council Speaker Gifford Miller and U.S. Representative Anthony Weiner, who arrived late because of a vote in Congress. Republican candidates Thomas Ognibene, the former City Council Republican leader, and Steve Shaw, an investment banker, also participated.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg was invited but, according to the forum's organizers, could not attend and asked to send a representative. The organizers rejected this idea.

Dominic Carter of NY1 and Brian Lehrer of WNYC moderated the discussion.

This is an edited transcript.

GRADING THE MAYOR

Question: Mayoral control of the school system is something that many mayors sought and Mayor Bloomberg finally won from the state legislature. He says that voters should hold him accountable for education above all else. So, what grade would you give him on education from A to F? And if you think you can do better, please be specific as to how.

Gifford Miller: Education is the most important issue we're facing as a city. It's not just critical to our city for preserving our tax base; it's our moral responsibility to make sure that our children have a chance at a better life. I think we have a unique opportunity right now because of mayoral control, which is the best thing this mayor has done, but unfortunately he squandered that control.

If we were to use that control to focus on the fundamentals, on the things that we know work in education, we have an opportunity to move our schools forward. It's not as confusing or as difficult as this mayor suggests. We know what works: smaller class sizes, more quality teachers and principals, safer schools and stronger after-school programs. I'm afraid this mayor has chosen to focus on almost everything but those fundamentals and the results aren't good. Test scores are off, attendance is down, teachers are leaving the system in droves, violence is an increasing problem in our schools, and parents feel more disconnected than ever.

So I have to say that he's failed in his responsibility and a failure in responsibility is an F.

Thomas Ognibene: I would give the mayor an A for attempting to change education, but probably a D for implementation. I think he was well intentioned when he took control of the school system because it needed political control. But the problem was that instead of using his greatest assets -- the administrators, the principals, and the teachers -- to make sure there was quality education in the schools, he decided to centralize the school system again and run the school system from the Tweed building. Instead of allowing teachers, administrators, and principals to use their discretion and creativity to teach the children in the classrooms, they've mandated that education must take place at a certain pace and according to a certain schedule. That schedule isn't necessarily what the children need in order to learn.

If you're telling an administrator or a teacher that they have to teach a certain subject from 10:00 to 10:15 and they have to stop, even though the children are showing an interest in the subject matter and they want to learn more, you're going to lose the interest of the child. Eventually they're going to be turned off of education.

There are many things that [[Bloomberg]] could have done to make education better. One is that he could have evaluated the children, made sure that they were all tested so that they could learn at a pace that was suitable to them to acquire the educational skills that they need. He started a social promotion program. I think that was well intentioned, but the problem is that you may have children that can't acquire those skills by the third grade; they may need to go to the fourth grade or the fifth grade before they can acquire those skills. That's why you have to test them, you have to be much more flexible.

I want to stress: an A for trying, a C for implementation.

C. Virginia Fields: I would approach it similarly in that I would give the mayor an A for gaining control for of the school system because I do support mayoral control, but I would give a D for implementation. I think the mayor has missed opportunities in terms of doing the real work where it is needed.

Instead of focusing one of his major first initiatives on elimination of social promotion, I believe the mayor should have invested in the early childhood area, making sure that we are doing early assessment, making sure that we are making the interventions at the early level and monitoring those children, making sure they are receiving eye exams, ear exams so that, if they have problems with seeing or hearing, we don't have to wait until they reach the third grade to fail them. So he had a real opportunity to make some real investments in the interests of helping children move forward and he literally failed to do that.

I also think that he has been very dismissive of principals and other administrators in terms of involving principals and those who have the responsibility and should have the responsibilities of running our school. And that has affected morale, it has affected relationships, and it has a direct impact on the learning that takes place in the schools. So there have been real opportunities here to make some changes other than just reorganization after accepting mayoral control. We have a long ways to go and that's why I'm running because I would govern very differently in all of those areas.

Fernando Ferrer: It's one thing to gain control of our New York City school system, it's quite another to take responsibility for the 1.1 million children who parents send to our schools. The mayor gets high grades for taking control, the lowest possible grade for taking responsibility.

We essentially have two different visions about where our school system should be and where it should go. The mayor believes that it's sufficient to move around boxes on a table of organization, to build up the bureaucracy of the Tweed courthouse, to regulate the amount of minutes that educators may educate, and to bury educational leaders in mountains of reports and emails.

I view life differently. I believe that the magic either happens or doesn't happen in the classroom and that's the base upon which we must build. Creating excellent classroom environments with consistent, not uniform, curricula, with great teaching and learning in safe and secure and uncrowded environments, with after-school programs and giving troubled kids another alternative to their school buildings and giving struggling kids more time on tests.

I believe this mayor has succeeded brilliantly in gaining control, for that I give him an A. For vision and performance, for delivering on the promise of improving education, he's been an abysmal failure.

Steve Shaw: In terms of how I would grade Mayor Bloomberg, I would give him a C. He has made a strong effort, but in terms of what he's actually done, that's how we get down to the C.

But rather than focus on his failures, I want to focus specifically on what I would do differently and there are three specific areas. The first is governance, the next is curriculum, and the third is parental involvement.

With regard to governance, if you look at what happened, Mayor Bloomberg has put into place a rubber stamp type of advisory panel, which really doesn't engage the true stakeholders, the principals, the teachers, the parents. What I would do is have a panel, which would include the mayor, the chancellor, someone from the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, someone from the United Federation of Teachers and five parental representatives from all five boroughs.

The next is with regard to curriculum. Rather than focus on what Mayor Bloomberg has, which are reading programs which have lost federal funding for reading, what I would focus on is strong dose of phonics. What I would seek to do is to end bilingual education because I believe English immersion is what works. And I would seek to actively engage teachers, parents, and principals in any reforms that were made. Reforms don't get made from the top-down; they get made from the bottom-up.

And with parental involvement, I don't think the solution was to create another layer of bureaucracy I believe the way that you increase parental involvement is by doing things like eliminating school busing, which makes it very difficult for parents who want their kids to be in a neighborhood school to actually get involved in those schools. Those three areas are three specific things that I would do much differently than Mayor Bloomberg.

INVOLVING PARENTS

Question: Recently some parents groups expressed their disinterest in taking positions on the community district education councils because of the perception that these councils have been given no real power by the current mayor. In addition, the Panel for Educational Policy, which replaced the Board of Education, appears to many to be a rubber stamp of the mayor without the raucous, public involvement of times past. So, as mayor, how would you address the concerns of the public and specifically the interests of parents as stakeholders?

Virginia Fields: One of the key elements in terms of making our schools work is parental involvement. Over the years, I have been very actively involved in sponsoring parental conferences. Every year in those conferences, in terms of attendance it's grown so I know the value of that.

I would reach out in terms of strengthening the roles of the parent councils at the local level, making sure that they have the appropriate resources, the training and access to the decision-making as part of the work that they are asked to do. I would also ensure that the [Panel on Educational Policy] is able to function. They are indeed a rubber stamp, and it is regrettable because the level of people we have on that council include some parents but also educators. They simply are not asked or included in decision-making.

So, I would strengthen the role of each one of these entities to ensure that their voices are heard, that I listen to them and make sure that they too interact with parents. Setting the right climate, setting the right tone, so that parents know that they are not excluded and that their voices are also going to be listened to.

So it is a process of governance for me. Making sure that the appropriate voices are heard, with respect to parents, strengthening the structure that is in existence to create those kinds of engagements and as the mayor indicating and making it known that this is what I want to see happen.

Fernando Ferrer: It should surprise no one that parents are voting with their feet against this model of school governance. In droves not showing up for parents councils because they know what everybody else knows: The belief from City Hall and the Tweed Courthouse is they have no role in the education of their kids, no role in the governing of their schools. That's fundamentally wrong.

But the problem is magnified by the fact that we have the Panel for Educational Policy that is not only toothless, it barely has gums. When you see them walk down the center aisle of any school auditorium getting ready for their meeting, you see them walk in single file. The agenda has already been predetermined, confirming my worst fear of a board that does not legitimately decide out in the open important matters of public policy and budget making, where parents, community and city leaders can and should have an opportunity to get at it, to effect decision making and to effect a choice.

That's the biggest failure of this school governance plan. It has excluded parents. It's made decision in back rooms. and it really has forgotten what it's there for, making magic in the classrooms, bringing parents into the process and creating viable and sustainable communities of learners in every one of our schools.

Gifford Miller: First of all, parental involvement in a child's education is the most important variable in that child's educational success. And so we have to build a school system in which parents are welcomed, parents are embraced, and parents are given positive opportunities to affect their child's education.

My colleague here have talked a bunch about the Panel for Educational Policy, the education councils and the failure of this administration to embrace any kind of involvement of not just parents but anybody's opinion is not welcome at Tweed. Certainly as mayor I would strengthen both of those entities but more importantly I would focus on making sure that parents are involved in their child's classrooms, in their child's day-to-day learning.

One tremendously successful program that I've supported in the City Council is the HIP program. This is an Internet based program to allow teachers to communicate directly with parents. By just typing in a few keys they can reach all the parents in their class. What's interesting about this program is that it reaches not just parents who have Internet access but also gives parents who don't have Internet access an 800 number so that they can call in from any phone and receive a message from the teacher. This gives teachers a real opportunity to say, "Why was it that this child wasn't in class today? Here's the homework assignment. Here's something that we should be working on."

It meaningfully involves parents in the day-to-day education of their kids, and that where our focus should be. That's where any mayor's focus should be because that's where we make real change in the classroom that makes a difference to children.

Thomas Ognibene: Parents aren't involved because they've been deliberately excluded. But it's not just parents that have been deliberately excluded. Administrators, principals, and teachers have virtually been excluded from education because this mayor and his Department of Education choose to direct education from the Tweed building. If you want involved parents, you have to return education to where it belongs -- to each individual school. The principal is the lead educator, and the principal should decide policy in that school with the advice and understanding and consent of the teachers in that school.

When you return education to the school level, parents will become involved because the parents and their input are important to principals, administrators and teachers. And that's how you get the parents involved. Children will not learn if their sole point of education is in the school system. Children have to do homework. Their parents have to be involved.

Learning is a 24-hour event. I know this from my own family where my mother was a principal. If you stress education at home, the children will learn to love education, be proud of it and will hold the schools in reverence, and their teachers in reverence, and learn. If you exclude parents from the school system, the children are not going to learn.

We have to change the form of governance that we have and go back to a system where the Department of Education is minimized and the responsibility for education is with those who understand education: principals, administrators, and teachers. They deal with the children every day. They know what the children need. They can deal with the parents on a one-to-one level and really enhance the quality of education for children.

Steve Shaw: I think one of the first things we have to realize when we're talking about parental involvement is that there are a wide variety of parents out there. Many of the parents have the capability of getting involved in their kid's education, but many do not. And that's why I think adult education is a very important part of getting parents involved -- to make sure that parents know English, to make sure they know how to write and they know how to read. Under Mayor Bloomberg you would practically need a bloodhound to find an adult ed program. That would be different under my administration.

As I mentioned before, I would greatly restructure the educational advisory panel where five parental representatives would be on that panel. They would be elected by the general public. The elections would take place every two years. One person would represent every borough. I think that would be another way to engage the parents.

And the next thing is with regard to zoning. Now kids are zoned to go to a particular school. But what will happen is that all the kids with the really involved parents will try to go to one school. I used to live in Park Slope in Brooklyn, and everybody had to go to PS 321 because that was the very well-known school. And so what happens is that you have all the involved parents in one school and then you have a dearth of involved parents at the other schools.

What I think we need to have is strict enforcement of the zoning so that we have a wide variety of schools that have strong parental involvement from a wide variety of parents. Adult education, changing the panel and how it's constructed and changing the zoning, I think those are three things that will get the parents engaged in our schools.

CHANCELLOR KLEIN'S PERFORMANCE

Question: [[NORMNAL]]Now that the chancellor is selected directly by the mayor, what is your view of the proper relationship between the mayor and the chancellor? What criteria would you use to choose your chancellor? Would you remove Joel Klein?

Thomas Ognibene: I don't know if I have enough information to make a value judgment about Mr. Klein, but from what I can tell so far is he isn't running education the way I think education should be run.

My idea of the chancellor is someone who is steeped in the education process of the City of New York, someone who would come out of the New York City schools system, the kind of person who has taught in our schools, the kind of person who has been an administrator in our schools, the kind of person who's been a principal in our schools. They're the only ones who understand what is going on in our schools, what the teachers need, what the principals and administrators need to run the schools. You can't bring in a lawyer from Washington D.C. and give him a mandate.

[Klein] doesn't understand what our children need in order to be educated. He doesn't understand what teachers need and principals need to make a creative environment for the kids in their school. So if you bring in somebody without that educational history in New York, it simply isn't going to work.

We have to look for somebody who is an educator who is steeped in the traditions of New York City to be our next chancellor. So, yes, if I had the opportunity and I were mayor, Mr. Klein would be replaced by somebody who would be picked by a panel of educators, principals, administrators and teachers who would then interview and pick somebody who was a principal or administrator in our school system.

Question: But Mr. Klein did attend the New York City public school system.

Thomas Ognibene: He moved on to become a lawyer. He's distanced himself for many years from the needs of our schools and our system of education. It has to be someone who currently understands.

Steve Shaw: Yes, I would remove Joe Klein as schools chancellor. I believe one of the things he did which was absolutely inappropriate was ,when he fired the 45 principals, he released those names to the public. There needs to be a huge amount of respect between the administration and the principals and the teachers. If someone has to get fired, that's an unfortunate event and it can't be done as some sort of publicity stunt. The way he treats principals and teachers has been unacceptable and as a result I would not select him for my administration.

In terms of other reasons, I believe the type of top-down command of control system that he's put in place is inappropriate.

In terms of the type of person that I would look for I think it would be much like what Tom said. I don't think it's necessarily correct to say that just because someone is a lawyer doesn't mean he can't do a good job, but I think it's imperative that someone has a significant involvement in education in one form or another.

Virginia Fields: I certainly would not continue with Chancellor Klein. I do believe it is important to have an educator leading the largest urban public school system in the country - one who is steeped in terms of reform, making a difference, having come up through the system. And I know here in New York City we have so many who can fit that bill and I'm looking at a few of them now

I was very opposed to having to do a waiver [of professional education experience] for this chancellor at a time when we are looking to make the most major reforms. And when we look at others who have been brought into the system, they are of similar background. That has led to the disconnect, the disrespect, the lack of support, the lack of engagement, the lack of inclusion, the lack of following a system that would allow all of us, including elected officials, to be involved.

It has slowed down reforms that could have taken place for the past three years and it is unacceptable for the mayor of the chancellor to simply say it takes so much time. We know things take time, but they have been dismissive of educators and that is unacceptable.

So I would not continue with him and I would put in place, as I said, an educator and would look within the system because I think people who have been a part of the system start at a position much different than bringing in others from the outside.

Fernando Ferrer: This is April, and I hope you'll excuse me if I believe that, before one vote has even been cast in the primary or the general election, we shouldn't start hiring and firing high-ranking city officials at any debate.

But let me tell you what kind of chancellor of schools Mayor Ferrer would appoint. One who is, first and foremost, an educator. One who understands not merely what an organization is but what has to go on in the classroom and how to make that happen. Who has an appreciation for the fact that one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter curriculum approaches don't work in a city as diverse and complex as New York City. Who values the input and the contribution of every educator and every parent. Who honors the voices of children but who, above all, shares my vision that magic should happen in every classroom in this city. And to make that magic happen, the chancellor has to be not a flunkie of any elected official. A chancellor has to be a champion for children, a champion of their parents and a champion of education in this city.

Question: Are you describing Mr. Klein as a quote "flunkie of the mayor?"

Fernando Ferrer: I know you need a story for 6 o'clock tonight, but that's not it.

Gifford Miller: Let me just say this, I am a huge fan of mayoral control, and I think the best thing that this mayor did was to get control of our school system because it creates the opportunity for real change, for really moving our schools forward. It puts, finally, the days of finger pointing and blame shifting behind us.

We now have not only the right, but also the responsibility, to hold the mayor and this chancellor accountable for the results of the last three and a half years. And, as I said earlier, the results of the last three and a half years have been very poor for our city's kids. Test scores are off. Attendance is down. Teachers are leaving the system in droves. Violence is an increasing problem. Parents feel more disconnected than ever.

So absolutely, I would replace this chancellor because he's the person who's been putting into place the wrong kinds of programs and the wrong sort of focus that is leading to these bad results. And I would choose a chancellor, certainly one with tremendous educational experience, an educator, someone with management experience. Someone who along with his or her top leadership represents the diversity of this entire city and somebody who's going to focus on the fundamentals that we know work in education, and that is the best possible teachers and principals in every school and classroom in the city. Instead of running them down, we have to build them up. Smaller classes sizes. Safer schools. And stronger after-school programs.

Question: Do you care that the current chancellor is a lawyer and had to get a waiver?

Gifford Miller: Just because the chancellor is a lawyer doesn't mean he wasn't going to succeed. In my opinion, he hasn't succeeded. Unfortunately it was a big gamble, and it hasn't played out.

THE ROLE OF PRINCIPALS

Question: This forum is being sponsored by the Council of Supervisors and Administrators, which represent principals, assistant principals and other supervisors. This question deals with their roles and their issues. The union believes that the new system has given principals more responsibilities for managing the budget and instruction in their schools and holds them more accountable for the success or failure of their schools, but that it provides them with less support to do this harder job. Do you believe the current system provides too little support to principals and if so what would you specifically change in their behalf?

Steve Shaw: I believe there are a couple of issues surrounding that question. One of the things, which I was speaking to a woman in the audience about, was the decision to remove the supervisors of special education and to put that straight in the lap of the principal. Oftentimes, the principal doesn't have a huge amount of experience in the area of special education and that's on top of all the other things that a principal needs to do. Special education is too important, too difficult, and too complex to treat in such a cavalier type of way. .

When you look at things such as the budget, currently from reading [[CSA President]] Jill Levy's testimony to the City Council, about 90 percent of the principals' budget is fixed, yet this administration keeps saying there's more autonomy -- even though they had to create special autonomy zones in order to give people the autonomy. I would seek to make the budget as discretionary as possible - I understand that. Obviously. a huge part of the expense is fixed with teacher salaries and staff salaries. but I would seek to move the number down from 90 percent to 70 percent.

In terms of accountability, it's very difficult when you are the CEO of a school and you don't have hiring and firing authority. And that's one thing that I would seek to address. I would put that into the hands of principals. They are the ones who are responsible. That's where the decision needs to be made. It can't be made through all sorts of appeals processes and the like. It can't be made from the Department of Education. It needs to be in the principals' hands, and that what I'll do as mayor.

Virginia Fields: I would certainly look to create support systems within the school starting with assistant principals. I would also work with the principals in terms of making decisions around staff development and the time at which that occurs. I've talked with a number of principals and they have informed me that staff development occurs twice a month at three o'clock after school and they are expected to be there to be a part of it. Yet they're not being compensated, and it's additional responsibility being given to them.

We need to look at what other additional responsibilities are being given to the principal, provide the needed support systems starting with assistant principals; provide the relevant staffing that is needed, including qualified teachers who are able to teach in the areas in which the needs exist; and to make sure that the other support systems are there.

Fernando Ferrer: There is much made in the past few years about the recent fad in treating our school systems and other government institutions like somebody's wholly owned subsidiary on a corporate model. And that might be fine for anything else, but not for public education. Not in New York City.

I don't view our school system as General Electric. Our principals, assistant principals, and teachers don't make refrigerators, stoves, and dishwashers. They educate. Elementary and high school principals are not CEOs in any remote sense. Let's get off that right away. They're principal teachers. Their job is to nurture, create, and sustain a viable community of learners that includes not only students but teachers and parents as well. That's their job.

They can't do their job because they have no support from district offices or regional offices. They're spending too much of their time leaving voice mails that are never answered, answering emails that are unnecessary -- and you all know what I mean. That is an enormous waste of enormous talent in our system, an enormous diversion of resources. It's an enormous perversion of what we should be doing to educate every child in every community in every borough of this city.

Gifford Miller: Let me first say that one of the most critical things that we can do in this school system to move it forward is to make sure that we support top quality principals and assistant principals in every single school in this city. Leadership really flows from the top, and parents know what difference a great principal can make in the life of their child.

I think it is absolutely true that this chancellor and the Department of Education have given a great deal more accountability in words and terms to principals but none of the actual responsibility, the ability to get things done. I'll give you an example of what I mean: School violence. It's a huge problem. This mayor and this chancellor have announced two separate zero tolerance policies since taking office. And we still don't have zero tolerance.

The simple reason is that the same time that they're telling principals, "You've got to have zero tolerance." They're also telling them that, if you suspend too many children, we'll fire you. And then they don't even give the principals the responsibility to crease safe environments. The school safety agents work for the local police supervisor instead of the principal of that school. So the principal says, "I need you on the second floor during third period because there's a disturbance between Class A and Class B." The safety agent says, "My supervisor told me to stare at this door and I can't move."

We have to change that. That is a problem of management and we have to change that by making sure that if we're going to give principals and assistant principals the accountability, as we should, to give them the responsibility and the ability to get the job done.

Thomas Ognibene: I come from both a public school background as a student and as someone whose wife is a school teacher and mother was a principal, and so from a private and parochial school background where I serve as a trustee of a large Catholic high school in New York. What I see is that there are certain benefits in the way that we run the [private] school that I think would be very beneficial to the people in the public school system.

First of all, we turn over control of the school to the principal and we provide the assistance so the principal can get the job done. The non-educational aspects of the school, there are personnel in the school who can handle that but they answer to the principal. The principal controls the safety and security personnel, and the principal is the integral component of negotiating a contract with the teachers in that school.

The principals in the schools have to have control of the budget. Most of all they have to have a contract that makes it conducive for them to administer and direct the person in the school so that they can get the best results. We don't have that. We want the principal to be responsible for the education of the children in the school, but we don't give them the options or the authority to administer the school fully.

FUROR AT P.S. 34

Question: Do you think the New York City Department of Education has been quick enough to act in the case of P.S. 34 in Queens [where an administrator allegedly insulted Haitian students, and forced them to sit on the floor and eat with their hands]? How would you balance the concerns of parents against the rights of principals?

Virginia Fields: As I read about the incident and have been hearing over the past couple of days it certainly is something that I find very disturbing, as I know all of you do. I think that everyone expects their child to be able to go to school, be treated with respect, with dignity and not be subjected to the kinds of allegations the reports as we heard them.

Having said that, I think it is incumbent upon the chancellor and the school to immediately get involved in terms of an investigation. You do not allow this to continue and allow it to be played out in the papers. As a mayor, I would have instructed the chancellor to immediately get involved with the situation and based on the reports, if necessary, to remove the principal and/or teacher if the facts warrant it while the review took place. I think the emotions behind this as it is continuing to escalate is causing tremendous difficulties in that community. If the report is not substantiated, bring the community together so that the issue can be dealt with out front.

I would expect that over the next couple of days more specific steps will have to be taken, and I think that the chancellor and the mayor should be at the forefront of making sure that actions are taken.

Fernando Ferrer: The events in that school were troubling and rise to a level of seriousness that demands the chancellor and the office of the special schools investigator be on site. Be on site to investigate, be on site to make a report, not only to the parents, but to the school community as well. And that's something that should have been going on right now. In fact, with the passage of a few days, why isn't that report already made to the community? Why isn't that report already made to school officials? Why isn't that report already made to the mayor and the schools chancellor?

Gifford Miller: First of all, the chancellor is responsible for the conduct of everything that goes o in the schools. And so the authority there stops at the top. He in this case needs to take responsibility for what's occurred and make sure the children in that school and their rights are being adequately protected.

To answer your question directly, I would balance the concerns by placing the highest priority on the children of that school, which is not to say that the principal or any of the other associated school personnel don't have due process rights. They do, but we need to have a system where the chancellor and the mayor can intervene to protect children and to protect the school community. Clearly, a very swift investigation needs to be concluded so that everybody's rights can be protected and so that the children in that school can go back to learning, the teachers back to teaching, and the principal back to directing the school.

HOW MUCH MAYORAL CONTROL?

Question: Let me follow up briefly on a pattern that I think I've heard here tonight. You all are for mayoral control of schools but you all seem to want to give some of that control away, including to the education advisory panel, which replaced the old Board of Education. So I'd like to know from each of you just how much power to you would you give to the education advisory council.

Steve Shaw: I think it should still be an advisory panel in nature. The buck needs to stop with the mayor. However, it can't be a rubber stamp as it currently is. New York City schools are too important to give to just one person's opinion -- or two people's opinion, which is really what the case is now. There needs to be significant engagement among a variety of constituencies, not only our administrators but parents and students as well. What I mentioned before was reforming the panel -- keeping it advisory in nature but what we would do is to make sure that we have meetings every month, which everyone would have to attend…

Question: Could they overrule you on anything if you were mayor? Mr. Ognibene, could they overrule you?

Thomas Ognibene: If I were mayor, nobody would overrule me. That's the whole point of being mayor, isn't it? I don't want to give any control back to the education panel. My control flows down directly to the principals and the schools. I may be the CEO, but I know that the people that are operating out in the field are the ones that are going to get the job done and get education done. I want to empower them, and they could answer to me through the chancellor.

Question: Borough President Fields, you specifically said the education panel is a rubber stamp. Do you want something more checking your power as mayor?

Virginia Fields: It was not about giving control to them but being inclusive, making sure that they were able to function in the roles in which they have been appointed, making sure that they are a part of making decisions. It also means communicating with them prior to meetings so you don't go to a meeting not knowing the outcome of votes, because you have engaged them and you have been having those conversations. So, it is about listening, it is about opening up a process so that their roles are fully implemented and that they are a part of a system. As mayor, I would make the decisions.

Question: There was one well-known incident where the mayor dismissed a number of the members who were going to vote with the majority to overrule him a key decision [on not promoting third graders who failed a standardized test]. Would you have acted differently?

Virginia Fields: I would not have had to act differently because I would have been involved in having discussions with those board members. The issues that they raised are the same results that came out of that process. That was not looking to evaluate students just on the bass of standardized tests, but making sure that other things were looked at. How has the student done in the class up until that point? What input can the parent make? What additional advice can teachers and principals make?

Question: You said you wouldn't have had to dismiss them. I guess you would have convinced them? But what if they still disagreed with you? Would you have let them vote you down?

Virginia Fields: I think that working on those issues the important thing is to include, to engage, to listen. Through that process, I am confident that we can reach common ground.

Gifford Miller: If I can't get a panel of people that I appoint to agree with something that I'm proposing then I have a serious problem and I ought to evaluate my policy. In this case, the mayor should have reevaluated his policy.

The problem here is that what he was proposing has absolutely no support in any of the research, any of the data, and by any independent researchers throughout the country. In fact, in the places where people have experimented directly with third grade retention through a single high-stakes test it's been a failure.

What independence [the panel members] have - and they have very little independence, and I'm not suggesting that they should have more - I'm just suggesting that what independence they have they should preserve and you should strengthen that panel by appointing people who are independent people, who are thoughtful people, who you have respect for and who have respect for you.

There were much better ways for us to deal with third grade social promotion or social promotion anywhere else. And the most important way is actually by getting kids to learn in those classrooms instead of waiting until third grade and then flunking them with a single high-stakes test.

Fernando Ferrer: Let's be really clear about what happened that night in the firing of those three women [on the panel]. They were not expressing fundamental disagreement with the mayor's policy direction. They asked for another month to evaluate the research and the data. That's why they were fired. That's the antithesis of leadership. That's the antithesis of good management of our city public schools.

Look, we had to be guided by the data and the research, but as mayor, yes, I would want full accessible discussion by parents, by educators and by the community at large, including the free press, on important decisions of educational policy and how we spend public money on public schools. Not too much to ask.

POLITICS AND PRIORITIES

Question: We have been joined by Congressman Anthony Weiner who rushed up from Washington. Let me ask you one question that they have already answered. If you are elected mayor, IS it time for Chancellor Klein to go? And for everyone, as mayor, what will be your priorities for the school system?

Anthony Weiner: Chancellor Klein, I think, has too much of the mindset of his boss that the way that you govern is top down, closed-loop decision-making, not bringing in stakeholders. It's basically management by fiat. And I don't believe that when Chancellor Klein looks out at the school system he sees the individual relationship between a teacher and a student. He doesn't see the complex relationship between the supervisor and the teachers. He sees 1.1 million kids in 1,000 school buildings and frankly fails to grasp the subtleties of the job. So no, Joel Klein will not be the chancellor in the Weiner administration.

Perhaps the most important thing we can do once the Weiner administration begins is to restore a sense in the school system among all of the participants that we understand that not every cookie fits the same cutter. There are going to be times when a teacher looks out at the classroom -- and does not rely on a test - but looks out in the first grade and says this child needs more help, this child needs more challenge, this child needs to be strapped into his seat everyday. That type of a nuanced relationship needs to be encouraged and fostered. The Bloomberg administration has not issued a curriculum as much as a teaching style guide. They have taken the creativity away and are driving the best teachers and supervisors out of the system.

Question: I am quoting the chancellor. Referring to the Democrats in this race, he said; "So now what you are seeing is we've got a race for mayor where people are just going to whack away when they don't know what the facts are." He said, "I mean Weiner said publicly we only teach Spanish, no other languages in our school. I had to crack up, you know, his own mother corrected him and said, 'oh no that's not right.'" And referring to Mr. Ferrer, he said, "As far as I can tell, I haven't heard him say anything about education, but my sense is what is happening right now is that people are trying to politicize the issue; Mr. Ferrer was in office for many many years, what did he do?"

Anthony Weiner: I should get to respond to the comment about my mother first. Here in Brooklyn, when you talk about someone's mother, you better be ready to back it up.

First of all, the chancellor is in full campaign mode and wants to engage the debate, which is a good thing. I wish he had done that at the outset of this process because it would have been healthy. My mother, who, by the way, is a 33-year retired teacher and made me everything that I am, can challenge me or correct me anytime she wants. But what the chancellor is saying is absolutely wrong. He is saying he is immune to criticism. That when you raise the point that $43 million is paid for parent coordinators in the schools, that $75 million has gone into this leadership academy, when we have a wealth of qualified assistant principals in the system. The idea that those proposals are immune to criticism, not just by elected officials or those who want to be mayor, but citizens all around the city are asking these questions.

You don't see Mike Bloomberg at forums like this with parents. You know why? Because he doesn't really care all that much about what parents, what supervisors, what teachers have to say. And it's not just a matter of process. Democracy with a small "d" gets you better outcomes as well. You wouldn't be wasting that money on leadership academies if you spoke to the true leaders in our community. You wouldn't be wasting the money on parent coordinators if you spoke to the actual parents in our community. And if he thinks he's not going to be criticized for those things, he has another thing coming. And when Mike Bloomberg says the single defining issue is going to be education, and he'd like that to be on the debate, I have three words: Bring it on.

Gifford Miller: First of all, I do not believe that any chancellor should be in campaign mode. The school system's not supposed to be a place for politics, which does not mean that we in government cannot disagree about what's the right way to approach education and what's the wrong way to approach education. But a chancellor of a school system should not be attacking Democratic candidates or commenting on mayoral elections as a general matter. I read in the New York Post the other day that Jack Welch got together with a group of leaders of the top schools and asked everybody to raise their hand about how many of them were going to be voting for Mike Bloomberg and that their top goal should be to make sure that Michael Bloomberg is re-elected this year. That's completely wrong.

We have no place for that kind of politics in our school system. That's the old school system. Chancellors of our school system should not get involved in campaigns.

Question: So what's your number one priority?

Gifford Miller: Earlier today I proposed that we extend the personal income tax surcharge on those making more than $500,000 a year and use the money - we're extending that tax, we're not raising taxes - toward reducing class size in kindergarten through eighth grade. Every parent knows the quality of the education that their child receives is invariably affected by the number of kids in that class. That would be my number one priority. It's already been my number one priority.

Fernando Ferrer: It's obvious that Joel Klein spent a lot of time out of town because, in the nearly 15 years that I was borough president of the Bronx, we probably saw in the Bronx and throughout the city more increases in reading and math scores that we've seen in his three years at the helm as chancellor.

But more fundamentally, it's high time we had a chancellor who took his nose out of politics and stuck his nose in every classroom in this city, who stuck his nose in every school building in this city and saw the things that I saw. Schools without libraries. Schools without functioning bathrooms and leaking roofs. Overcrowded school buildings and classrooms. Parents who were locked out of the system. Teachers and administrators who've been shuffled around and pushed around to the point of distraction. If Joel Klein had paid as much attention to that as he has to politics and to having Jack Welch do a plebiscite on Mike Bloomberg, we'd probably have a more independent and more successful public school system.

Question: Speaker Miller just mentioned his proposal to reinstate the income tax surcharge to reduce class size. Mr. Ferrer, you're the only person who ran for mayor in 2001. At that time, you made the centerpieces of your campaign restoration of the income tax surcharge to create after-school programs in every middle school and also a teacher salary hike of 30 percent in exchange for having them work one month in the summer. Are those the centerpieces of your campaign his year and what's your reaction to Mr. Miller's proposal?

Fernando Ferrer: I'll be talking with greater detail not only about the important things we need to do in public schools in this city but, more fundamentally, how we pay for them. The elephant in the room, is how this city will step up and pay for its 25 percent of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity decision. Bear in mind that the Court of Appeals has already made a decision. Our New York City public school system has been shortchanged for over two decades. We can see the results of it in nearly every public school and classroom in this city and it's not right.

The CFE decision, the city's piece of that over four years is $3.2 billion, with a b - requires anyone who aspires to leadership of this city to propose to New Yorkers how we pay for that because paying for that will give you after-school programs, pre-k programs, teacher and administrator raises, better classrooms and better school buildings.

Question: Congressman Weiner, what would be your number one priority?

Anthony Weiner: I would completely revisit the idea that this new curriculum is a success. And I would try to create one that would bring in the stakeholders - teachers, administrators and parents.

Earlier this week, I rolled out my budget proposal, which is to create a new, tax bracket for those making a million dollars and above. In exchange, we're going to give a middle class tax cut for anyone making $150,000 and less. And we're also really going to pay for it by reassessing the bottom five percent of programs in the city every single year and either reprogram if we can fix them or eliminate them if we can't.

And one of the things that we have, since we have so much money left over from that proposal including a buffer to pay down deficits in the future, would be to increase teacher salaries. I think that when you ask most New Yorkers the way that we stay competitive with communities around New York is that we have to make sure that a teacher in Riverdale does not cross over and teach in Scarsdale.

Question: Was the mayor wrong to implement a standard curriculum for most of the schools?

Weiner: To a large extent a standard curriculum existed. Where the mayor was wrong was to do it without the consultation of teachers and professionals and others politicians. He was wrong when he substituted a style guide for a curriculum that focuses more on things like how chairs are positioned and bulletin boards and the like. I think returning a sense of authority to teachers and accountability to principals is something we have to do. The present curriculum, all it does is have teachers teach toward tests and teach toward a rigid schedule. I don't believe it's serving students well.

DAY CARE AND PRE-K

Question: This is about day care and what are your plans to protect child-care workers. But let me generalize it to the topic of pre-K. Many have advocated universal pre-K for New York City's public pre-K. I wonder if you each think that is financially prohibitive now.

Virginia Fields: I wanted to come in one the previous question because my number one priority as mayor would be to fight aggressively for those CFE funds. Until we get more dollars into New York, we will not be able to do the massive changes that I envision -- that is creating smaller classes trough high school. That will require some capital dollars for additional space, as well as more personnel. To be able to make the massive intervention at the earlier grades so that we can help to prepare students earlier and as they move through the first, second, third grade better prepare them. To be able to hire the assistant principals that I think are critically. To be able to expand our technical and vocational training in programs because all students by choice or by chance will not go on to college. We need to be able to connect them to jobs as well as through meaningful job training programs. So fighting aggressively, very publicly to make sure that the state responds to our needs and gives New York the money that we are due through Campaign for Fiscal Equity is extremely important.

In addition to that, we talked a lot about reorganization and this top down approach to education that has been created. I would bring the complete school community starting with the principals into the process of decision-making. With respect to day care, I certainly would bring the union to the table and negotiate a contract. They have been without a contract for far too long. And day-care workers enable us to keep the city moving because they provide care to over 300,000 or so parents to be able to go to work while providing care for their children.

THE STATE OF THE SYSTEM

Question: Congressman Weiner took exception with the fact that the mayor is not here.

Fernando Ferrer: There was no doubt in my mind that the mayor would not be here tonight. How could he be? There is little to take credit for. He has moved some boxes around in the table of organization, but he has not fixed the fundament problems of the school system. Yes, they announce with great fanfare, with elaborate press releases, and press conferences the opening of a new school. And then they abandon it. Abandon it in a building with large problems.

This mayor really does need to understand that New York City and this school district is not a subsidiary of Bloomberg Incorporated. We are a city of 8.1 million people, where every parent has the right to send his or her child to excellent public school that is not overcrowded, that is safe, that has all the things they need right in their own neighborhood.

Thomas Ognibene: I wanted to specifically address the Campaign for Fiscal Equity. I would like to see us get away from that. You are never going to see any money come from the Campaign for Fiscal Equity. If it goes to the higher courts, there are serious issues about separations of power in government. So when talk about restoring sanity and education to the city of New York. We have to be able to do it with the resources we have today.

 


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