Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics




VA Scandal Demands Bold and Decisive Action

coast guard vets parade

Coast Guardsmen, 2013 NYC Veterans Day Parade (Petty Officer 2nd Class LaNola Stone)

Last month, reports surfaced that a Phoenix-based Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) health care facility maintained two separate lists of patients, one of which doomed nearly 1,600 sick veterans to suffer serious illness without treatment and led to the preventable death of 40 others.

Since the Phoenix scandal emerged, other VA hospitals across the country are warning of similar instances and schemes to cover up excessive waiting times for care. A Congressional hearing earlier this month revealed a 2010 VA internal memo from a high-ranking official addressing "inappropriate scheduling practices" to cover up delays. The practice, referred to as "gaming strategies," should have ended a long time ago, but evidently still exists.

According to the VA Inspector General (IG), 26 VA healthcare facilities nationwide are now under investigation for serious allegations of fraud, malfeasance, and mismanagement. Equally disturbing, some executives from these troubled facilities received performance bonuses upwards of five figures in 2013.

Over this past Memorial Day Weekend, I heard from countless veterans their outrage and disgust with this scandal and the fundamental lack of accountability and widespread mismanagement at the VA. Our veterans deserve the facts and there must be some degree of answerability and consequence for those officials who presided over these heinous acts.

This is why I recently introduced a resolution (Res 0201-2014) to the City Council in support of The Department of Veterans Affairs Management Accountability Act of 2014. This Act would enhance accountability by providing the VA Secretary the authority to immediately remove Senior Executive Service (SES) employees for performance. Current employment protections afforded to SES employees make it extraordinarily difficult to remove them. This bill eliminates the appeals process to allow for immediate disciplinary action that will ultimately aid in reducing the VA's backlog, improve access to care, and bolster other services.

Going forward, the VA needs to act immediately to ensure that veterans who may have been affected by delays in care secure the medical attention they need. The Obama administration announced this weekend that more veterans will be allowed to get health care outside of VA facilities, but this policy should be broadened, extended, and potentially made permanent to avoid any further delays.

Congress should also move quickly to enact legislation that would provide veterans easier access to care. Earlier this year, Senator Bernie Sanders introduced sweeping legislation that addressed the disability backlog, healthcare, education, and other core issues. Regrettably, this bill was defeated. However, I implore our federal representatives to re-work and re-introduce this package with measures that enhance accountability and streamline the process for veterans to receive the health care services they need and are rightfully entitled to.

Our veterans deserve answers and we need leadership from Congress and the President. Our veterans fought our wars and answered the call to protect our freedoms time and time again. Now it is our duty to fight for them.

Eric Ulrich is a Council Member from Queens and Chairman of the Council's Committee on Veterans.

A Commitment to Affordable Housing

bdb housing

Mayor de Blasio announces his housing plan (nyc.gov)

Over the past several weeks, those of us committed to meeting the housing needs of all New Yorkers have witnessed real progress, giving us great hope for the future of affordable housing in our city and state. Highlighted by the announcement of a comprehensive housing plan for New York City, along with a sound capital budget, we have learned that we have a Mayor and housing leaders who are true visionaries for dramatically growing New York City's affordable housing stock.

This was particularly evident when last week the de Blasio administration, as the old saying goes, put their money where their mouth is. By announcing $1.2 billion in additional capital funds as well as critical increases for HPD staff, the Mayor has demonstrated a significant and wise investment to immediately allow for the construction and preservation of units across the five boroughs.

For the Mayor's plan to succeed, however, it will take more than just the work of government, which is why, as the state's largest organization of affordable housing professionals, we have been called to action. Speaking at our 15th annual NYSAFAH housing conference earlier this month, Mayor de Blasio addressed the more than 1,400 attendees and outlined his guiding principles towards reaching 200,000 units over the next decade, including smart rezoning, eliminating regulatory hurdles, and streamlining permitting – all worthy objectives.

As he concluded, the Mayor made his case for why, in order to meet the plan's ambitious benchmarks – 8,000 units of new housing per year, for instance – all of us committed to affordable housing must work faster, more creatively, more efficiently, and, most importantly, must work together. This includes, among other priorities, placing an emphasis on bringing new construction to economically distressed neighborhoods, as well as preserving existing housing in order to ensure these buildings can remain affordable over time.

A true public-private sector partnership is the only way to ensure we are using every tool available to solve New York's housing crisis, and our organization is honored that the Mayor has asked for our collaboration in this effort. Our members stand at the ready. With decades of experience investing in New York's communities, we understand that the real goal of affordable housing is to ensure that every New Yorker has an opportunity to succeed. Affordable housing revitalizes entire neighborhoods, it creates jobs, and it allows our economy to grow.

This will not be an easy task. But as the Mayor said in his address: "We don't take on small and easy plans. We challenge ourselves on purpose." We believe this is the right approach – one that leaves little doubt that the future of affordable housing in New York City is bright. With strong leadership from government and a community of private sector professionals demonstrating their shared commitment to this cause, we are confident that we will achieve the goals for the coming decade.

To those within affordable housing industry who have not yet joined our efforts – whether developers, financiers, or others – we urge you to become a part of this growing community. Together, we can achieve great things, enabling future generations to experience a city and state that is affordable for all.

Jolie Milstein is the President & CEO of the New York State Association for Affordable Housing, a trade organization representing more than 300 affordable housing professionals statewide. For more information on NYSAFAH visit www.nysafah.org

The Case Against Solitary


jail cell

With about one percent of our adult population behind bars, far more per capita than any other country, the United States also leads the world in the use of solitary confinement inside our prisons and jails. Inmates in solitary are typically locked in cells about the size of a parking space for 23 hours a day, with no human interaction and no regular access to educational or vocational training, psychological counseling, addiction treatment, or other rehabilitative programs. While overwhelming empirical evidence indicates that imposed social seclusion can lead to severe and often-irreparable psychological harms, extreme isolation punishments unfortunately remain a popular and widely accepted means of enforcing prison rules.

Despite recent reforms, solitary confinement punishments are more prevalent in New York than in any other state, with two prison facilities entirely dedicated to housing inmates in seclusion cells. Each year, approximately 4,500 inmates across the state are subjected to crushing isolation, often for months or years on end. The situation in New York City's jail system is especially dire. A September 2013 study prepared at the request of the City's Board of Correction noted that 7.5% of all City inmates are held in solitary at any given time.

The prevalence of solitary confinement as a disciplinary method of first resort flies in the face of what the Supreme Court once described as "the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society." Complete social seclusion and sensory deprivation have long been used as methods of psychologically dismantling captives for interrogation purposes. In recalling his experiences as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, Senator John McCain has described how solitary "crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment." The contemporary use of extreme seclusion as a jailhouse punishment is practically indistinguishable from its use as a wartime torture device, and the resulting mental health effects often last far beyond inmates' time in prison, with obvious negative implications for criminal recidivism.

Disciplinary actions and administrative decisions made behind prison walls are largely impervious to monitoring or supervision from the outside world, and prisoners who face solitary punishments generally have no recourse aside from a lengthy petition process which can last beyond the time of their initial prison sentence. Inmates have no right to legal assistance during disciplinary proceedings and must represent themselves against accusations brought by prison officials, many of whom work alongside the hearing officers who determine the inmates' guilt and set their punishment.

The use of solitary confinement for any reason, and for any length of time, is a fundamental human rights concern, and our Constitution requires that individuals' liberty interests should not be deprived without due process of law. While the Supreme Court has so far refused to provide incarcerated people with a right to legal assistance during disciplinary hearings, legislators and executives at the state and federal level should implement measures to provide counsel for inmates who face potential isolation punishments. To stem the abusive and reflexive use of solitary confinement, prisoners in disciplinary proceedings should be given competent legal assistance and a fair hearing before an independent hearing officer. In addition, those who are sentenced to a period of solitary confinement should be afforded regular access to legal counsel throughout their time in isolation.

The financial cost of providing competent representation in these situations would likely be offset by even a slight reduction in the use of solitary confinement. During a recent Congressional subcommittee hearing, Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois noted that it costs the federal government nearly three times as much to keep an inmate in an isolation cell than in the general prison population. Indeed, as Mississippi, Illinois and several other states have moved to reduce their use of solitary confinement in recent years they have realized tremendous cost savings in addition to decreased levels of prison violence.

In February, the de Blasio administration agreed to settle a lawsuit brought by the NYCLU and to limit the use of solitary confinement against teenagers while also placing caps on the length of isolation punishments for certain offenses, and Joseph Ponte, New York City's new DOC Commissioner, is known as a reformer who cut the rate of solitary punishments in Maine's prisons by two-thirds. New York State prison officials have also made efforts in recent years to reduce the prevalence of solitary confinement by prohibiting its use against mentally ill inmates. While these developments mark some degree of progress in addressing the serious problems caused by the pervasive use of solitary confinement, there are still thousands of people across the state at any given time who have been sent to "the hole" without adequate representation or an objective fact-finding process.

As a society, our standards of decency may continue to evolve, but every day in our prisons and jails thousands of people are subjected to debilitating psychological harms for want of effective advocacy and outside intervention. Human rights and the need for due process do not end at the prison gates, and as a mature society we should at the very least provide counsel and assistance to those who face what may be our last legal form of torture.

by Lucas Anderson
Contact: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. & @CriminalNYLaw

What's So 'Progressive' About 1000 New Police

NYPD at Council

Representatives from the NYPD testify at the City Council (William Alatriste)

The first showdown between Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, erstwhile progressive partners, has come over the police. In his budget last week, de Blasio shot down Mark-Viverito's call for 1000 new officers, but the speaker says she's sticking to her demand.

While some have criticized de Blasio for bringing back William Bratton as police commissioner because of his past association with Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and a variety of punitive policing tactics targeting youth, homeless people, and sex workers, the mayor held the line on the police budget. He has refused to add more officers despite extensive pressure from the police unions.

Mark-Vivertio, however, in her first major budgetary stand is demanding that the Mayor add 1,000 new officers. The $97 million price tag makes up 40% of the new spending the Council is proposing.

On Monday, the Black, Latino, and Asian Caucus (BLAC) held a press conference to reinforce the speaker's call for hiring more police. Council members pointed to recent upticks in crime in mostly minority communities as the primary reason for needing more police on the streets. But, will more police on the streets help reduce violent crime?

Several council members feel that local police precincts are stretched too thin, forcing them to rely on excessive and costly overtime. The speaker argues that some of the new expense of hiring more police will be recouped by reducing overtime costs—a laudable goal. However, much of the overtime accrued by police is not directly tied to staffing levels. Officers routinely rack up large amounts of overtime when they make arrests near the ends of their shifts. Standard procedure calls for the arresting officer to follow through on the processing of the arrest to ensure continuity of evidence and paperwork. Another big chunk of overtime comes from detectives and specialized units who are sometimes put on assignments that take up more than a standard shift in order to maintain the integrity of an investigation.

Reducing these forms of overtime would require a change in police procedures, not increased personnel. The one area where staffing increases might reduce overtime costs is in counterterrorism, but adding more cops there would do nothing to beef up local precincts. At a city council hearing on Tuesday Bratton said he intends to use the equivalent of 320 officers' worth of overtime to address increased crime in public housing, but according to the NYPD's own analysis most of this uptick is in domestic violence, which is largely impervious to increased policing.

During the Bloomberg years the number of police fell by 15%. But, over the last 20 years major crimes such as homicide and robbery are down 80% or more as are auto theft and larceny. Despite constant claims by many police leaders and politicians, the evidence is clear that these dramatic drops in crime are not primarily the result of policing. While there were significant changes in how policing was conducted in New York in the mid 1990s, the crime drop started well before that.

More importantly, the crime drop is an international phenomenon affecting cities and countries that made no changes in the way they conducted policing, added no new officers, and in some case pursued strategies antithetical to those used in New York. Berkeley law professor Franklin Zimring, in one of the most rigorous examinations of the issue, found that at best 20% of the reductions in robbery and burglary might be because of policing changes specific to New York, and even this was based on a process of eliminating other explanations, rather than the identification of clear positive evidence. In addition, there are numerous studies that show that there is no causal relation between increasing the number of police and reducing crime. During the high crime periods of the 1980's and 90's New York had one of the highest concentrations of police per capita of anywhere in the country, but it seemed to have no effect on explosive outbursts of crime.

Throughout the city and around the country there is a growing awareness that there are ways to produce public safety that don't rely on police, courts, and prisons. New York has a string of community based organizations, such as SOS Crown Heights, Man Up!, and the South Jamaica Cure Violence Program, that are working with young people in high crime areas to teach them alternative conflict resolution methods, help them overcome problems at home, and mentor them for success in school, work, and life.

The City Council has been an important supporter of these groups, using some of its discretionary money to fund them through the Council's Anti-Gun Violence Task Force co-chaired by Jumaane Williams from Brooklyn and Fernando Cabrera of the Bronx. Unlike Mayor Bloomberg, Mayor de Blasio has put some resources into the baseline budget for these groups. The Task Force, however, asked for more and is trying to find the money. The difference: about $6 million.

One of the things that's been learned by these groups and many researchers is that increased and aggressive policing actually makes their work harder. The constant harassment and criminalization of young people pulls them out of school, disrupts their home life, reduces their self-esteem, immerses them in a culture of violence, gangs, and professional criminality, and inhibits their future job prospects.

The main culprit in this dynamic has been the aggressive pursuit of the War on Drugs. The NYPD continues to make tens of thousands of low-level drug arrests every year. After a short-lived drop off during the mayoral transition, marijuana arrest rates have again spiked to their previous levels of 30,000 a year. And these arrests are highly concentrated in communities of color. According to an analysis by Queens College Sociologist Harry Levine, in the first 3 months of 2014, in predominantly white Park Slope, police made 7 marijuana possession arrests and in Carroll Gardens and Red Hook, they made 12. At the same time police made 111 of these arrests in Bedford Stuyvesant, 130 in Crown Heights and 438 in East New York, all neighborhoods that are mostly black and Latino.

Commissioner Bratton has made it clear that he opposes decriminalization of marijuana (despite the fact that private possession is already decriminalized) and will continue to aggressively enforce the drug laws. More police on the streets invariably means more low level arrest, more criminalization of young people, and more of a siege mentality in high crime areas. As Bratton pointed out in his first stint as Commissioner, police are not trained to be social workers, they are trained to enforce the law through arrests.

It is ironic that the members of the BLAC, who represent mostly poor minority neighborhoods, are prioritizing increased spending on new police while decrying the lack of resources for community-based anti-violence initiatives. Politicians in high crime communities like those represented by BLAC members need to quit looking to the police to solve their communities' problems. We cannot arrest our way out of gangs, drug abuse, and or even violent crime. It's time to move beyond the failed policy of throwing more cops at the crime problem. To really produce long-term safety we need to support truly progressive programs that invest in the lives of young people in high crime areas, not in more police.

Alex S. Vitale is Associate Professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College and author of City of Disorder: How the Quality of Life Campaign Transformed New York Politics
Contact: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. & @avitale


The Aging Tsunami: Building an Age Equality Platform in New York City

CSCS Senior Advocacy Day Press Conference 1

Bobbie Sackman, the author, speaks at a press conference at City Hall (Emmanuel Yusuf)

Mayor de Blasio's new housing plan recognizes that New York City is in the middle of an "Aging Tsunami" and pays special attention to senior housing. From 2000-2030, the city's age 60+ population will increase by 47% to 1.84 million, or 20% of the population. According to the City's measure, more than 20% of older New Yorkers live in poverty. Average annual Social Security payments of only $14,700 leave thousands struggling financially. Single elderly households, on average, pay 58% of their income on rent, with little left to afford food or medicine. There is a compelling need for affordable senior housing.

The Mayor's plan offers an increase in supply of senior housing (including on NYCHA sites), supports higher SCRIE income limits and better outreach, and champions Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities, among other initiatives. This is smart and cost-effective planning but what really distinguishes his attention to senior housing is compassion and dignity. Mayor de Blasio understands that older adults are the backbone of families and communities.

All that being said, Mayor de Blasio's 200,000-unit affordable housing plan can be a game-changer for New York's elderly with three add-ons:

1) The City must at least double production of senior housing. The new housing plan does not specify production targets for senior housing and fewer than 10,000 senior units were developed and preserved over the last 10 years, while our population is aging and demand is growing rapidly. In addition to increasing production at HPD, the City should target 1 in 5 guaranteed inclusionary units for senior housing so that we can start to prepare for a population of 1 in 5 seniors that is expected by 2030.

2) The City must adopt a new model for senior housing which includes service coordination. Cost savings and improved outcomes can be achieved by congregate senior housing with an on-site social worker to connect low-income seniors with appropriate services and supports as their needs evolve.

3) City Hall must support SCRIE reforms that will reduce unmanageable and extreme rent burdens. Protecting seniors on fixed incomes from rent increases is essential, but for SCRIE beneficiaries who already pay more than half of income on rent, they need rent relief to age in place with dignity.

After seven years of relentless cuts, $55 million from the Department for the Aging (DFTA) funded community-based services, the City would be wise to invest in rebuilding services and enhancing those that are inadequately funded. A robust community-based service network along with a comprehensive affordable housing plan will go a long way to allowing older adults to remain actively engaged in their communities. Family caregivers, including many women in the workforce, need supportive services for their parents or loved ones in order to remain working or be promoted. Access to affordable elder care is the workforce issue of the 21st century.

CSCS' "Age Equality" budget agenda, totaling $25.4 million, includes core services that are substantially underfunded – increased funding for senior center and home-delivered meals so they meet the City's own nutritional requirements (meals currently meet the lower federal requirements); expanded elder abuse victim services to better address this hidden crisis; reducing case management for frail, homebound elders to relieve case managers with caseloads of 80 and over 1700 seniors on waiting lists; adult day care programs for people with Alzheimer's and respite for family caregivers; provision of a take away weekend meal from senior centers; NORC funding allowing seniors to remain home; and rental funds for financially strapped senior centers.

And, especially important in New York City is building capacity to serve an increasingly diverse older adult population is key to allowing older adults access to culturally competent services.

Challenges of growing old in NYC include issues and values progressives are concerned about: access to nutritional food and hunger, poverty and income inequality, domestic violence including elder abuse, affordable housing, support for families, support for immigrants, retaining and building strong communities and more. Including all New Yorkers across the lifespan in this great progressive movement is "age equality".

Impactful additions to the City's new housing plan combined with a robust community-based network of aging services will allow older adults to age with dignity in their homes. By adopting the Age Equality agenda, Mayor de Blasio will be laying the foundation to make New York a more affordable and livable city for all ages.

Bobbie Sackman is Director of Public Policy, Council of Senior Centers and Services
Contact: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.



New York's Uncovered Crisis

 nyc jobs group

Fellows in a city job-training program (nyc.gov)

We all hear about how hard it is for young adults to get a decent job in New York City. Popular TV shows and news stories usually focus on college graduates with great grades and connections being forced to take unpaid internships to get a foot in the door. But the youth unemployment crisis is far more extensive and dire than often depicted. Nationwide, 6.7 million young adults ages 18 to 24 are neither in school nor working; 172,000 live right here in New York City. Many of them lack a high school credential and have limited work experience, making the task of getting a job even more challenging.

New York State partnered with four other states and the District of Columbia to try and address this crisis by developing the National Work Readiness Credential (NWRC). The well-intentioned goal was a common credential to show employers that a jobseeker could perform well in an entry-level position. According to an investigative report by JobsFirstNYC, however, few of the tens of thousands of young people who tried to earn the NWRC attained it. Only 312 young adults in New York City secured the credential in 2011, out of an estimated 12,000 who prepared for it. The few who earned the credential gain no benefit in getting a job, because employers do not recognize the NWRC. Black test takers fail the NWRC exam at twice the rate of whites, suggesting the test is racially biased.

The test for the NWRC fails to measure the skills needed for the service and retail jobs sought by most unemployed young adults in New York City. Some questions are taken directly from the New York State Trooper entrance exam, which requires a driver's license and at least two years of college. Other questions require knowledge of office and warehouse operations. These questions have nothing to do with the skills that most young people need to perform on the job. The test was not found valid for young adults and non-white populations, the very same persons to whom the test is now administered.

Because the test doesn't measure the skills they seek, employers do not recognize the NWRC. Of over 100 New York City employers surveyed by JobsFirstNYC, none asked candidates if they had the credential. Consequently, the hiring rate for the few individuals with the credential is virtually identical to the hiring rate of those without it.

New York State is fully aware of these deficiencies, but has made this ineffective credential a key component of its youth employment programs - at a potential cost of millions. Job training providers statewide are required to spend weeks preparing their participants for the qualifying exam. The State's costly promotion of the NWRC despite its nonexistent benefit to young job-seekers and apparent racial bias, diverts resources away from programs proven to get young adults into the workforce.

So what should New York State be doing instead? Thousands of well-paying jobs are available in New York City that can be performed without a four-year college degree. Young adults can become cable installers, computer technicians, and truck drivers, for example, by earning employer-recognized postsecondary certificates. Employers can develop and implement high-quality on-the-job training that meets their needs.

JobsFirstNYC and our partners connect service providers and sectoral employers to create customized training to meet industry-specific demands. Programs like these enable young adults to acquire industry-recognized credentials, as well as work experience leading to good jobs. Strategies that help workforce development organizations respond to labor market demands in growth sectors of the economy are proven to increase employment of individuals with limited education.

There is currently no State support for such employer-driven workforce development programs, despite reports that employers in many of the City's economic sectors are having difficulty filling openings.

Forcing young adults in New York City to take a test they will likely fail when they already confront tremendous barriers in entering the workforce is counterproductive and interferes with efforts to improve their skills and get a good job. New York State needs to drop the National Work Readiness Credential and put resources instead in programs proven to help young people get and keep decent-paying, good quality jobs.
Louis Miceli is Executive Director of JobsFirstNYC, a nonprofit focused on connecting young adults to the economic life of New York City.



Philosophers or Bullies?

Billy Easton

The author, Billy Easton (Times Union)

The future of public education looks frightening under Governor Cuomo.

The Governor has completely abandoned his obligation to adequately fund public schools—and this weekend, he will travel up to Lake Placid to "reform, relax, and retreat" at Camp Philos, a "philosopher's camp" on education.

Real philosophers, like Ralph Waldo Emerson, who retreated into those same woods 150 years ago, believed in a well-rounded education system that would be fully funded by the state.

But in our modern day, when it comes to public schools, retreating and relaxing is a privilege that parents, students and teachers in severely underfunded public schools across the state just don't have.

So what is this all really about?

Camp Philos is really more of a private resort for the wealthy and powerful corporate education reformers—tickets cost a whopping $1,000 each (for VIPs $2,500). It's a chance to plot and scheme about how to control the direction of education in New York State and the nation; and they just may have the money to do it.

Governor Cuomo will be the honorary chairman of Camp Philos, and next month he will be honored by a charter advocacy group in D.C. as the national "Charter Champion." These "honors" are well deserved, in the Orwellian sense, following a state budget session where Cuomo proposed to underfund traditional public schools that serve 97% of students. At the same time, he aggressively drove more resources and special privileges to charter schools that serve a mere 3% of students across the state.

This honor allows Cuomo to cash-in on the lucrative campaign donations of ideologically-motivated bankrollers of the corporate education reform agenda; people like Ken Langone, chairman of Republicans for Cuomo, who gave the Governor $50,000 and has raised much more. This is the same crowd that just spent more than $5 million on TV advertising and lobbyists to bully the legislature into submission as Governor Cuomo carried their water on education.

While backers of the corporate school agenda are proclaiming Cuomo as a conquering hero, public school parents around the state are protesting against him. His policies have systematically forced classroom cuts every year he has been in office and have promoted a damaging culture of teaching to the test. Under his watch New York State schools have dropped from 8th to 20th in K-12 Achievement, according to Education Week, the nation's leading education periodical.

The organizers of Camp Philos are literally bathing in money from hedge fund managers and other super-wealthy donors that are ready to continue arming the Governor in his effort to push forward more corporate-style reforms for our schools. These reforms do absolutely nothing to improve teaching and learning at the majority of public schools across the state. Instead, they aim to increase testing, expand privately-run charter schools, punish schools instead of improving them, and take parents out the equation of improving schools.

This corporate reform agenda is based on competition and bottom-lining schools, students and teachers the way you would a balance sheet. It is the completely wrong direction for education in our state, but the Governor insists on getting our children lost deeper in the woods.

Meanwhile, our public schools are barely scraping by. Year after year, school districts across the state have been put through an endless cycle of classroom cuts that have resulted in shrinking opportunities for students. The result is less art, music, gym, afterschool programs, and Advanced Placement courses for students—all while increasing the amount of test-prep and testing.

Basically, while becoming Chief Philosopher of Camp Philos, Governor Cuomo has kicked the Campaign for Fiscal Equity to the curb, even though the state's highest court established that billions of classroom dollars were needed for students, especially those with the highest need.

This out-of-touch attitude for public education is no surprise, considering he has not toured a single public school since taking office.

Here's a solution: instead of hanging out with the corporate reform crowd collecting campaign cash, Governor Cuomo should visit a neglected and underfunded rural school, or an overcrowded urban school and ask students to grade his education policies.

by Billy Easton, Executive Director of the Alliance for Quality Education


Restoring Sanity to Student Promotion Decisions

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Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña (@NYCTransition)

Two weeks ago, Chancellor Fariña introduced a major education policy change. Students in grades 3-8 will be assessed for promotion by "the integrated use of multiple criteria" equivalent to an achievement portfolio, and "State test scores may not be the primary or major factor in promotion decisions." This policy replaces the Bloomberg fantasy that holding students back is a useful solution to our systemic education problems.

Ten years ago Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein announced a new student promotion policy based on retention – holding students back in the 3rd grade based on their New York State test results. The mayor and chancellor trumpeted this tough love approach as a system to improve students' outcomes and strengthen academic standards across the city's schools.

This new retention policy generated a maelstrom of protest. Opponents cited decades of research demonstrating that holding students back encourages academic failure and dropping out, and argued that standardized tests were not designed to assess individual students' readiness for promotion. But the mayor and the chancellor were undeterred. They submitted their end-social-promotion policy to the Panel for Educational Policy, and when three panel members declared they would vote against it, the mayor engineered their removal before the vote.

Eight years later, in June, 2012, the Bloomberg administration quietly decided roll back it's approach. The administration's 2012 revision of its retention policy gave principals discretion to promote 3rd through 7th-graders who'd been held back multiple times or were significantly over-age for their grade – a covert admission that the get-tough policy wasn't working.

Retention numbers tell a similar story. In the 2003-04 school year, some 3,600 3rd graders were held back. In 2008-09, the last year I could find references to specific numbers of students retained, some 480 3rd graders were held back, a decrease of almost 750%.

Some of this huge decrease was due to a rise in test scores, however ultimately spurious they were, and a corresponding drop in the numbers of students targeted for retention. But most of the decrease was due to the decisions of frontline educators who stretched the limited discretion written into the end-social-promotion policy on behalf of 3rd graders who, in their professional view, should not be held back.

Chancellor Fariña's new promotion standards justifies, and retrospectively honors, all those teachers and principals who used the loopholes in Bloomberg's get-tough policy to demonstrate that student achievement and capacity cannot be usefully assessed by standardized tests, and that holding students back cannot contribute to their educational growth. The new policy mandates the use of a range of assessment measures that respond to the diversity of students' learning capacities, such as a student's body of work over the span of an entire year.

Thanks to this advance, the New York City school system now has the opportunity not only to restore sanity to promotion/retention decisions, but to tackle the core questions of how best to assess our students' academic achievement and, most important, how to improve their outcomes.

by Norm Fruchter, senior scholar at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform and a mayoral appointee to the NYC Board of Education, colloquially known as the Panel for Educational Policy (PEP)


De Blasio's Next Move on Charters


Mayor de Blasio reads to a pre-k class (nyc.gov)

An analysis of the new State charter school siting law demonstrates that the City has the ability to decide, as a regular practice, to purchase or rent charter facilities instead of engaging in endless co-location battles. This would enable the Mayor to keep his campaign promise to tamp down co-locations while appeasing charter advocates who backed the new law.

Despite a widespread assumption that the City can only offer off-site space if co-location is impossible, the recently enacted State statute on co-locations requires the charter school to request co-location but gives the City an equal option of responding either with a proposed co-located site or a non-Department of Education private or public building.

The law even opens to question whether such a decision by the City is appealable (the appeals provision only refers to "co-location"), but assuming a charter's right to appeal an off-site decision, the standard of appellate review favors the City, as clearly stated in recent court decisions holding as reasonable Mayor Bloomberg's charter co-location decisions. Those cases were misunderstood as charter victories, but their real importance is that they upheld the city's discretionary authority to determine charter sites. Under the law, reversing such a decision requires a finding that the city's proposal was "arbitrary and capricious," a very high standard for charters to meet. The new statute explicitly incorporates that standard.

As a result, the City could successfully defend a good faith off-site offer without charter acquiescence. But why wouldn't a charter prefer independent space, especially given all of the tension over space sharing and district school displacement? I'm foreseeing deals in which the charters will agree; move into their own sites, free and clear without co-location hassles and with School Construction Authority renovations thrown in!

Where co-location arrangements make sense in schools without future over-crowding or other instructional detriments, such decisions would be financially preferable. But the governor and Legislature created the payment obligation, so any mayoral decision to cover charter rental costs instead of co-locating should be laid at the State's door, not the City's. And the City's sole share is limited to a $40 million ceiling, after which a State contribution is triggered with federal charter school aid also likely to be available.

While the $40+ million in possible rental payments are attributable to the City's annual expense budget, purchase or renovations are capital items. Remember the new administration's cut of $210 million in the capital budget that Bloomberg had earmarked for off-site charters, arguably the action that set off this real estate scramble? That previously committed money is still available and, if the editorial pages didn't object to Bloomberg's handing it over to charters, they can hardly object to de Blasio's pressured re-allocation.

A further reason for highlighting the mayor's discretionary siting power, one of the few he actually has over charters since their operations are intentionally out of the hands of the mayor and chancellor, is the likelihood that school space will soon become scarcer. Will we suddenly demolish a bunch of buildings? No. But the mayor has a commission, working behind the scenes, which will soon recommend changes in the usage formula used for calculating school overcrowding, known as the Blue Book. The old formula, which Bloomberg used to justify spaces for charter co-locations, is likely to be recalibrated to require more space per child plus the need for libraries and art spaces, significantly lowering the threshold at which a school is designated fully enrolled. Add to that a promised decrease in class size and the need for pre-k space. Poof!, an immediate and significant decrease in available space for co-located charter or traditional public schools.

As politicians, budget experts, and lawyers toil over the intricacies of school siting under the State's new rules, it is to be hoped that educators, parents, and students are allowed a voice in these determinations. If so, a new spirit of cooperation, if not co-location, may result.

David C. Bloomfield is Professor of Leadership, Law, and Policy at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center; contact: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
The statute in pertinent part, at NYS Education Law § 2853(3)(E)(1), requires the city to "(A) offer at no cost to the charter school a co-location site in a public school building . . . or (B) offer the charter school space in a privately owned or other publicly owned facility at the expense of the City School District and a no cost to the charter school. The space must be reasonable, appropriate, and comparable and in the community school district to be served by the charter school and otherwise in reasonable proximity."

[Have an op-ed submission? Send it to Gotham Gazette executive editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.]


The Next 100 Days

new york school


To be fair, as much as pundits and talking heads like to focus on an elected official's "first 100 days" in office, 100 days is not a very long time. Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Fariña can't be expected to have fully eradicated poverty in New York City or turned around every failing school in such a short timeframe. But we can expect them to offer a vision for improving public education, along with concrete ideas about how to make schools tangibly better for students.

In place of specifics, the mayor and chancellor gave speeches to mark their first 100 days that were heavy on rhetoric and light on substance. The mayor parroted UFT talking points – inaccurately at that – and exaggerated a teacher retention crisis to lay the groundwork for large teacher raises. The chancellor, in a 17-page speech, offered not a single solution to improve struggling schools. In place of specifics, she offered vague references to increasing joy and collaboration. To be clear, we are also pro-joy and collaboration, but we need real solutions to the real challenges facing our schools.

With the first 100 days behind us, it's time to look forward. What can the mayor and chancellor do over the next 100 days and 100 weeks to ensure that every child in New York City has access to a high quality public education?

Over the next 100 days, the de Blasio administration will engage in a process that will have a direct and profound impact on the course of New York City schools for years to come. The City and the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) will hammer out the details of a new teachers contract that will serve as a blueprint for how the mayor plans to shape public education. The mayor should use this opportunity to focus on retaining and rewarding great teachers and getting rid of ineffective teachers.

StudentsFirstNY understands that a great education starts with great teachers. That's why we support higher pay for teachers and we encourage the administration to negotiate a contract that treats teachers like the professionals they are. In order to retain the best, the City should increase pay for highly effective early career teachers. Paying good teachers more money will help attract more talented candidates to the profession and encourage those currently in classrooms to continue their careers in New York City public schools. We can pay for this increase by eliminating incentives that have nothing to do with effectiveness – like salary increases for extra courses that don't impact teaching quality.

While we're investing in effective teachers, we should make sure that ineffective teachers show tangible improvements or leave the system. The City currently pays approximately 1,200 teachers in the Absent Teacher Reserve (ATR) pool $144 million per year not to teach full time. Many of these ineffective teachers have disciplinary records and few actively look for new positions. We should stop paying these people not to teach, but rather than force them back into classrooms – as the UFT is pushing to do – we should set a time limit for the ATR pool. If an ineffective teacher goes an entire year without finding placement in one of the thousands of open positions, it's time for that person to move on to a new profession.

Based on their rhetoric over the first 100 days, it seems like the mayor and chancellor believe that our school system's chronic problems can be solved by more collegiality and less academic rigor. This comes up woefully short of what it will take to make schools better for the hundreds of thousands of struggling students this system is failing each year.

We hope that the next 100 days will bring more specific plans of action, and we strongly encourage the mayor and chancellor to focus their efforts on a new teachers contract that values outstanding teachers, protects our kids from ineffective ones, and provides city students with the high-quality instruction they need to be successful in school and beyond.

Jenny Sedlis is the Executive Director of StudentsFirstNY


Park Equity Begins with a Better Public Budget

park volunteers


An early springtime sun was shining down on Seward Park as Mayor de Blasio introduced Mitchell Silver as New York City's next parks commissioner last month on the Lower East Side. It was an inspiring day for park advocates across the city, as both the mayor and incoming commissioner offered thoughtful, even-handed commentary centered on a clear goal: a fairer park system for all New Yorkers.

Now, with budget season upon us, we're pleased to see that the mayor's preliminary budget for parks not only baselines many of the important restorations made over the past few years, such as street-tree care and stump removal, but funds items up front that are usually subject to the annual budget dance, such as Playground Associates and seasonal workers to staff pools, among other facilities.

This good news gives the parks community the opportunity to turn its attention to the larger issue of addressing inequities across the park system – including at a city council hearing next Wednesday, April 23rd. The solution is complex and nuanced. While many of the large park conservancies are ready to work with the commissioner on bringing more private resources – financial and otherwise – to parks in need, it's clear, as council parks and recreation committee chair Mark Levine noted recently in the Huffington Post, that addressing inequities must begin with the public budget. There are several specific budget and policy reforms that the administration and its Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) can undertake in the name of equity and fairness.

Expense budget
On the expense side, fostering greater equity will require addressing the top concern of many local park advocates across the city: there simply isn't enough full-time staff assigned to the parks that need them most. Rather, 75 percent of DPR's maintenance staff is made up of Job Training Participants (JTP) who work at DPR up to six months but are almost never given an opportunity for permanent employment once their training is complete. "Almost as soon as they're really up to speed on the park, they cycle out," a local advocate told us recently. Her comment rings true across the city.

At the same time, many advocates tell us that having full-time staff – a familiar face in the park – goes a long way toward improving the overall park experience for users. These issues offer Mayor de Blasio and Commissioner Silver an opportunity to both address park equity issues and create good entry-level jobs.

What would those jobs be, where would they make the most immediate impact, and how much money is needed to create them? A good place to start would be to create a neighborhood parks fund of $10 million, which would allow Commissioner Silver to work with the Council on a plan that really starts to address needs in underserved parks. Here are a few ways such a fund could be spent in high-need areas:

  • $4 million for 100 full-time workers to staff playgrounds with comfort stations.
  • $3 million for 50 skilled full-time gardeners to help maintain midsized neighborhood parks.

Our organization learned first-hand how important these positions are when we helped lead the Neighborhood Parks Initiative almost 10 years ago.

Not only would these new positions start making a difference for parks most in need right away, but they'd offer an opportunity for DPR's part-time workers to gain full-time employment through a new, robust training program to help transition JTP staff into full-time maintenance workers and gardeners.

  • $3 million for park-tree pruning and stump removal. Though DPR has shortened its street-tree pruning cycle thanks to recent budget restorations, it still prunes very few park trees.
  • $2 million would allow DPR to prune at least about 25,000 trees in parks: a good start toward a pruning cycle.
  • An additional million dollars would allow DPR to remove approximately 4,000 more stumps.

Capital budget
There is also an opportunity to address park inequities through the capital budget. In recent years, the Department of Parks and Recreation has not had a meaningful discretionary budget to really enable it to plan for and fund capital projects over time across parks citywide. Rather, DPR has been reliant for funding for the majority of its projects on piecemeal discretionary allocations from city council members and borough presidents. Cobbling together allocations over multiple fiscal years from different elected officials is inefficient, leads to inequitable results, and often means the nuts-and-bolts needs of parks across the city fall through the cracks.

We are pleased to see that our call for increased discretionary capital funding, as highlighted in our Parks Platform 2013, seems to have been heard: the initial fiscal year 2015 budget contains a significant amount of capital funding for parks, and it appears to be at the discretion of Commissioner Silver. We call on the Council and administration to ensure that this funding remains in the final budget. At the same time, our recent research on improving the timeliness of capital construction shows that funding should be added to the budget for additional full-time positions in the capital division.

The introduction of Mitchell Silver, an urban planner, ushered in a new era not only for New York City's parks, but for its neighborhoods. After all, parks lie at the heart of city neighborhood life, in every corner of each borough – infrastructure as essential as housing, sewer lines and roads. The community building impact these spaces have extends far beyond their boundaries. Park issues are neighborhood issues.

As Commissioner Silver takes office, we're hopeful the administration and Council will supply him with the budgetary tools needed to really address inequity – and, in turn, lift the park system as a whole.


Tupper Thomas is the Executive Director of New Yorkers for Parks, an independent research and advocacy organization.


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