Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics




Is The VA Ready For The Onslaught Of Returning Veterans?

obama vet handshake

(photo: Yuri Gripas/AFP/Getty Images)

In early May, the National Commander of the American Legion called for Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki and other Under Secretaries in his agency to resign. It was the first time since 1941 that the veterans organization called for such a measure. The American Legion Commander cited poor oversight and failed leadership in the VA when explaining his position. He listed a number of recent high-profile scandals, which have "infected" the VA system as reasons for his public request.

In mid-May, the VA undersecretary for health, Dr. Robert Petzel resigned the day after testifying about the scandals on Capitol Hill. Some say the resignation was more like an early retirement, as he had planned to go later in 2014. By Memorial Day, Secretary Shinseki was also history, and a number of other changes and management staff shuffles have taken place since that time. While WWI veterans may never have received their bonuses, VA personnel certainly did while the VA number-fudging continued over time.

The list of VA problems is long and is not new to veteran advocates who continue to urge the government to do better. Advocate and VA watchdog Jim Strickland enumerates the current allegations at the Phoenix, AZ VA hospital and the VA clinic in Ft. Collins, CO, as well as problems at VA medical facilities in Fayetteville, Virginia, Brockton, MA and Dallas, TX. Government inquiries and reports on the VA are also listed on his website as they become available.

There have been other recent accounts of the long-standing backlogs of VA claims, which have been reduced by 44% to "just" 344,000 on March 31, resulting in "only" an average wait of 119 days to receive a decision on a claim, provided that all the "T"s are crossed and the "I"s dotted. Veterans and their Service Officers will tell you that they consider the claims of reduced processing times to be bogus.

With these current, unacceptable problems, we must ask: is the VA ready for the coming onslaught of newly discharged veterans?

According to the VA, the agency is currently involved with administering services for:
* 8.9M veterans enrolled in the health care system.
* 4.3M vets and survivors receiving compensation and pensions.
* 2M veterans with active home loans, with 950 applications approved daily.
* 1.6M veterans and dependents receiving education and training benefits under the new post-9/11 GI Bill.
* 120,000 who receive final honors or burial in one of the VA's 131 cemeteries.

According to the budget proposed in February by the Obama Administration, the Army is expected to soon shrink to pre-WWII levels. There are also calls to retire hundreds of aircraft and warships. National Guard units are also expected to be downsized.

Like the post-draft Vietnam Era drawdown, advocates worry that soldiers will be discharged to the streets just short of vesting for military pensions. In New York State alone, 44,027 newly discharged veterans are expected to return within the next five years. If trends hold, upwards of half this number can be expected to return to the City of New York.

These brave men and women will be in need of services and benefits, and will be filing claims in an already overwhelmed VA administrative system. They will be seeking health care in an already overwhelmed VA medical system. They will also be seeking housing, education and most importantly, jobs, in a most challenging economic climate.

Former Lt. Governor Betsy McCaughey said it best in a recent NY Post editorial: "Veterans' demand for medical care exceeds the VA's capacity. Again and again, VA bureaucrats have responded to that problem by lying, gaming the electronic-monitoring system and making false promises to the public."

The looming question as to whether the VA is up to the task, and whether the President and the Congress are ready to meet the challenge is one that I shudder to consider.

Lee Covino is a US Army veteran. He became an advocate for veterans affairs as a peer counselor while attending the College of Staten Island on the GI Bill from 1973-1977. From 1980-1984, he worked as an intervention counselor for the VA's Vietnam Veterans Outreach Center in Brooklyn and Staten Island. In 1990, he was appointed to the Borough President's Cabinet, where he served as the Veterans Affairs Advisor and Director of Contracts & Procurement until his retirement in 2014. In May 2002, Covino was appointed to the City's Veterans Advisory Board by Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He was re-appointed to the board by the mayor in 2007 and in 2012.


Community Schools Will Succeed If Parents Are Engaged

Gonzalez and Farina at a school

The author, left, and Chancellor Fariña make a school visit

Last week, Mayor de Blasio announced he is ready to move on his pledge to open 100 community schools by the end of his first term by utilizing a $52 million grant to create 42 new community schools in high-needs neighborhoods.

Community schools hold the power to tackle the tale of two cities in our school system—where deep educational disparities have meant 80% of students graduating college-ready in Tribeca and only 8% in Mott Haven. The innovative model will turn schools into community hubs that bring together social-emotional, medical, adult education, recreational, and job training services, and, along with a positive school climate, can address the needs of students, families and the entire community.

As a parent of two sons, I've experienced the best of times, and the worst of times, through two very different New York City public schools. Based on my experience, I believe parent engagement is the key to making the mayor's community schools initiative succeed. In turn, the community schools initiative can serve as the guiding vision to support all public schools to succeed.

The worst of times was at PS 73 in the South Bronx, a school left to struggle and which my sons no longer attend. Under the Bloomberg administration, the school stood at risk of closing for poor performance, while being underfunded and neglected. Students, parents, teachers and staff were kept on the edge of their seats, with repeated threats of phase-out and closure. In the end, they never closed the school. But, they also never provided any additional resources or supports, and the majority of parents were shut out from any meaningful role in school improvement.

The year my sons graduated from PS 73, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity commitment, which had promised us billions of added classroom dollars for struggling schools across the state, was put on hold for a third year. I was forced to accept budget cuts, instead of high quality education for my two sons.

Why should parents have to accept that their children receive an unequal education? I didn't, and no parent should.

Now in the best of times, my sons attend the New Settlement Community School, with the community schools model that Mayor de Blasio is going to expand. The school has everything: a clinic if they have a cavity or any other health needs; strong academics; swimming, ballet, and music programs; parent workshops regarding school involvement and nutrition; and so much more—all under one roof.

My sons now get up early in the morning to play basketball in a full, well-maintained court and stay after-school for reinforcements in math and reading. I have never seen either of them more focused or motivated. The community school makes both of my sons' education complete.

The key to the success of this school, which should be applied to each of the mayor's 100 community schools, is strong parent engagement from the beginning in both design and evaluation. Unlike at PS 73, parents at New Settlement are treated as full partners. The doors are open, there is mutual trust among teachers, administrators, and parents, and constant outreach is made to parents to get us involved.

In the mayor's initiative, each school will receive a full-time resource coordinator. They will recruit partnerships and resources for the school, working with the principal and school community to create a well-designed and effective community school. I strongly believe that this is a job for people with passion—for individuals who truly believe transforming education is possible.

The engagement of parents must be a large part of measuring the success of these resource coordinators. They must meet parents where they are, and reach out especially to parents who aren't involved in the school through home visits, phone calls, community meetings, whatever it takes. They should listen to parents' ideas, their anxieties and their vision. Parents should be offered clear pathways to become leaders in the school and the community.

My optimism for real improvements in our education system is now revived. The community schools model transformed the education of my two sons, and now our mayor and chancellor are committed to expand this model and move the public school system in a direction that is focused on educating the whole child.

Jose Gonzalez is a parent leader with United Parents of Highbridge and the NYC Coalition for Educational Justice. His two sons attend the New Settlement Community School in the South Bronx.

At A Hearing On Veterans Affairs, Missed Opportunities

mova hearing

MOVA Commissioner Terrance Holliday & his deputy at Monday's hearing (Mario Figueroa of United War Veterans)

On Monday, the New York City Council Committee on Veterans, chaired by Council Member Eric Ulrich, held an oversight hearing on the Mayor's Office of Veterans Affairs (MOVA) and its role in serving New York City's roughly 200,000 veterans.

Since Mayor de Blasio was elected in November, there have been renewed discussions in the veterans community regarding MOVA, its resources, and its direction. Beside awaiting the mayor's decision on an appointment to head MOVA, the community has been lobbying the administration to allocate $250,000 dollars in the new budget to continue MOVA's benefit counselor initiative. The City Council also asked the mayor for additional funding toward mental health, employment, and legal assistance services for veterans.

So the lead-up to the first oversight hearing of MOVA in a number of years was filled with anticipation and concern. Would this be a hearing about MOVA's role in helping veterans or a popularity hearing from those who want Mr. Terrance Holliday to stay as MOVA commissioner? It turned out to be both.

At the packed hearing, Commissioner Holliday gave fairly standard testimony by addressing all the good things MOVA does. He spoke on how MOVA provides "advocacy, referral and short-term case management services to veterans." He talked about MOVA's coordination of the city's Veterans Advisory Board (VAB) and the establishment of a Women's Advisory Committee. He talked about the Indigent Burial Program, the City's Agency Liaisons; the office's veterans clothing initiative and the office's coordination of City Services.

Despite the commissioner's presence, this hearing was no different from others. The commissioner concluded his remarks and Council Member Andrew Cohen started asking a few questions. His question regarding the veteran liaisons at city agencies and their periodic training should warrant a future hearing - no one followed up by asking what the liaisons were trained in, who trained them, or even how they could verify the training actually took place.

However, it was when Council Member Paul Vallone asked the commissioner for his thoughts on his budget that everyone really leaned in. The community has known for many years that MOVA is underfunded. Every director or commissioner I have known has had to deal with the problem of underfunding. So when the Commissioner was asked if he was comfortable with his budget and what the Council could do to help, he incredibly stated that he has not needed money to get things done and that he obtains needed resources from other city agencies.

This comment came back to hurt him on a couple of occasions. When Council Member Vallone asked if MOVA has offices in the outer boroughs, the commissioner stated he only has an office of four individuals, at which point Council Member Vallone brought him back to his point of the office needing more money.

This happened again when the discussion turned to the benefit counselors and Council Member Vallone asked what the plan was when the Robin Hood funding that supports the counselors ends. The commissioner's response was: "I'm still thinking about it, still trying to figure it out, how to work it out."

Again, Council Member Vallone brought him back to the office needing money.

And as if to drive home the point, the Council Member asked for the current budget breakdown between salaries and services. The commissioner's response was that just about the entire budget goes to salary.

What the committee members and everyone in the room wanted to hear the commissioner say was that he wants and needs more money – not that he has to ask other agencies for help or that he would take money if it was given to him. How can MOVA provide more services and better assist veterans without better funding?

The commissioner's continued reiteration of getting it done without additional funding, but then talking about expanding services was conflicting and is detrimental to how MOVA can better help veterans. Sadly, this was then compounded by the commissioner leaving the hearing after he finished his testimony.

The remainder of the hearing consisted of several panels made of up people who gave testimony on how MOVA can better address the needs of veterans; why the city needs to fund the benefit counselors program; or that the commissioner is doing a great job. This last one was apparent as Council Member Ulrich asked all who testified to rate MOVA's performance on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being the best) and several individuals rated it a 10. This rating was more out of fondness for the commissioner and wanting to see him stay on than the role MOVA serves in helping veterans.

If the commissioner had stayed, he would have seen that the majority of those who testified agreed that MOVA's current mission as defined in the City Charter is too broad and too vague and everyone who testified agreed that MOVA needs more money.

The United States has been at war for over a decade and while veterans are shown respect by our local elected officials, we're still trying to find a seat at the political table. Testimony from Coco Culhane of the Veterans Advocacy Project said it best: "The Mayor's budget proposal, which offered a paltry few extra dollars to MOVA, sent a message about the priority of veteran's issues for this administration."

Veterans need help with housing, education, jobs, health care, and, most of all, knowledge of the array of programs that are available to them. MOVA still has the potential to do great things, but it is underfunded. Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Council Members Ulrich and Vallone represent a change in direction - and they showed that with their budget commitments to veterans services. As the son of a veteran, Mayor de Blasio needs to get onboard though. MOVA is, after all, the "Mayor's Office of Veterans Affairs." I know we can do better.

Joe Bello served 11 years in the US Navy/Naval Reserve and has been a veteran's advocate in New York City for almost two decades. He is the founder of NY MetroVets.

The Crucial Role of Year-Round, Part-Time, Private-Sector Employment

job fair

Job seekers (Mark Lennihan/AP)

Advocates for the poor rallied last month for additional summer youth jobs. City Councilman Jumaane Williams said many youth in the city have to decide between getting a legitimate job or turning to drug dealing to make money. "It is unfair to ask young people to make the correct choice when we give them no choice," Williams said.

While there is something positive about summer employment, much more substantial benefits come from year-round part-time employment. As Councilman Williams points out, teens from poor families have substantial consumption needs, but these needs are year round. Unfortunately, the teen employment rate in 2013 was little more than half what it was fifteen years ago as firms shifted to young adults and retirees. Nationally, only one in ten black teenagers from low-income households is employed. While I strongly endorse a minimum wage increase, there is some evidence that it may accelerate this shifting of employment to older workers.

Legal employment for young men reduces the temptation to engage in illegal activities. Less discussed, is the impact of joblessness on young women. Without paid employment, many must rely on male partners; men who will demand sexual favors that put these young women at risk for sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies. These problems are most pronounced for disadvantaged black teen women whose incidence of gonorrhea and chlamydia are at least seven times the rate for white teen women. Each year in New York, 13 percent of black teen women becomes pregnant - a rate 3.5 times higher than the white rate. While paid employment is not a magic bullet, it will help many young women avoid these risks.

Continuous teen employment has other benefits. The Community Service Society recently documented the substantially higher graduation rates for black and Latino students who attended Career and Technical Education (CTE) High Schools. These CTE programs not only prepare students with the academic skills necessary to succeed in the world of work, but also provide mentoring and the work skills needed, including team work, work discipline, and communication skills. Many of these same skills are developed through paid teen employment.

There are already a number of programs that aid disadvantaged youth. Year Up is a successful program to prepare promising students for demanding occupational programs that lead to backroom employment in the financial sector. Other programs focus on disconnected youth who are neither in school nor employed. None of these programs, however, focus on high school students who are at risk of not graduating. There is a crucial need to introduce to the world of private-sector paid employment this large group of disadvantaged students before they become disconnected from school and work.

There are a number of ways that government support can move significant numbers of students into year-round part-time private-sector employment. In the 1990s, the government shifted many long-term welfare recipients into the workforce; and continues to have a number of programs that move ex-offenders into paid employment. As in both cases, a critical component of work-readiness programs is preparing participants for the behavioral traits private-sector employers require; and ongoing counseling to help facilitate effective employment.

Besides the work readiness and ongoing counseling, other modest incentives can be given to the national retail chain stores and fast food establishments to induce them to increase their teen employment. In addition, government should find ways to induce firms that provide summer employment to extend, for a modest proportion, employment into the school year. Once hired, employment counselors can help students to balance work and school and to develop strategies to reduce risky sexual behavior. By providing soft skills, mentoring, and spending money, year-round employment could move disadvantaged youth forward.

by Robert Cherry, Stern Professor of Economics, Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of CUNY


Have an op-ed idea or submission? Send it to Executive Editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


Hynes' Dubious Battle


Former Brooklyn DA Joe Hynes (Bryan Thomas for the New York Times)

As revealed by the recent Department of Investigation inquiry, former Brooklyn DA Joe Hynes spent a significant amount of his final year in office fretting about local media coverage.

Despite the raft of negative stories about various aspects of his tenure that appeared in all the dailies, Hynes seemed to think that endorsements from the city's leading editorial boards could carry him to reelection. As a result, he continually tried to spin his actions in ways that would impress these opinion-makers.

Is this how any elected official, scandal-plagued or otherwise, should act?

Hynes seemed particularly concerned with winning the Grey Lady's nod, stating in one email that it was the "only opinion page that matters." The D.A. likely perceived that the Times held sway over voters in Brownstone Brooklyn. Other emails captured his considerable frustration with the views of the Daily News and Post editorial boards.

In his attempt to impress the Times, Hynes went so far as to assemble a 9.5-page brief outlining his case for reelection. In preparation, he solicited feedback from Judge Barry Kamins, a frequent adviser, whom Hynes in his letter said was known for "his expertise in Legal Ethics."

Here as elsewhere, Hynes either defended or distanced himself from many ongoing charges, notably those involving his alleged mishandling of child sex abuse cases in Brooklyn's Ultra-Orthodox community as well as the murder cases involving Detective Louis Scarcella. As Kamins had recommended, amidst the campaign Hynes formed a high-profile review panel to study the Scarcella cases.

But throughout the summer, challenger Ken Thompson kept attacking Hynes on these and other issues, and the six-term incumbent could not shake the perception that he had mismanaged the D.A.'s office. As the September primary approached, only the Daily News editorial board weighed in on the race, giving a notably lukewarm boost to Thompson based on its "judgment compelled by serious evidence that Hynes has presided over miscarriages of justice."

Hynes' failure to win over the leading editorial boards thus contributed to his lopsided defeat in the primary. Yet even if he had the endorsements he coveted, it's unlikely they would have made much difference. In the mayor's race, Christine Quinn ran the table, but nonetheless went down to a humiliating defeat.

Newspaper endorsements, of course, cannot alone shape popular perceptions of candidates. One of the leading criticisms of Quinn was that she remained too close to Mayor Bloomberg - which also explained why she got the support of the same editorial boards that helped sanction Bloomberg's third term. So "playing to the boards" certainly can be a losing campaign strategy.

Moreover, as the role of social media expands, the views of powerful opinion leaders will face increasingly more competition. Online readers are paying less attention to what's on A1 of the Times, raising questions about the future influence of the official positions taken by the city's legacy media institutions.

It nonetheless would be a mistake to dismiss Hynes' view of the dominance of editorial boards as a thing of the past. They obviously can still steer the popular discussion. Consider the tabloids' relentless charter school advocacy, the Daily News' crusade to save horse carriages, or the Times' robust support for reforming stop-and-frisk. And as evidenced by the Espaillat campaign's enthusiastic reaction to receiving the Times' endorsement, all candidates still welcome the instant credibility provided by a leading board's support.

The best lesson that the Hynes example teaches current and future elected officials is simply this: spin things all you want, but you're not going to impress any civic leaders when you're not upholding the basic responsibilities of your office.

Theodore Hamm (@HammerDaily) is chair of journalism and new media studies at St. Joseph's College in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn.


Have an op-ed idea or submission? Send it to Executive Editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


A Free-Market Solution To The Affordable Housing Crisis

Hammel Houses - NYCHA

Hammel Houses, NYCHA (wikimedia)

Mayor de Blasio's recently released affordable housing plan is extensive and forward thinking – but also extremely expensive. The 200,000 units it envisions are estimated to cost $41 billion, of which $8 billion will come from City coffers.

We could reach the same goal without such astronomical spending. In fact, the City could do it without spending a single dollar from its budget.

To accomplish this feat, we need to harness the power of the market. Here is a five-point plan for how we can do so to create a housing plan that serves all New Yorkers:

First, we must put to use the vast sums of funding in the capital markets to build mixed-income housing and provide for low-income households through a partnership between the public and private spheres. This funding can help generate more housing in a cost-effective way.

Second, there are numerous tracts of land around the city that are not meeting their full potential. By enabling development in these areas, we can reduce the overall cost of land to a level that promotes the creation of affordable housing. For a start, more than 30 million square feet of development rights related to NYCHA projects are sitting unused in Manhattan. In addition, the City controls or outright owns many other properties around New York, including the nine blocks in the Seward Park Urban Renewal Zone and the 90 acres adjoining the Brooklyn Army Terminal, that could be turned into thriving mixed-income developments.

Third, developers should be required to lease the ground on which new projects are built, which can generate ground rents through the luxury component of the development. The additional funding, in turn, can be set aside for a self-funded rent voucher program.

Fourth, the solution to low-income affordability is not more low-income housing; rather, it is more income. We can empower struggling working households by providing them with the income needed to rent an apartment like others in the marketplace, in the form of transferable or "sticky" vouchers. These rent vouchers would be self-funded by the new mixed-income communities to be created under this proposal.

Fifth, to make these ideas a reality, we need to create an independent Affordable Housing Authority. An Authority with the appropriate mandate and powers can solve the problem using a public-private partnership model. Similar agencies, such as the 42nd Street Development Corp., have successfully revitalized neighborhoods around the city. The new Authority would simply apply this proven archetype on a citywide scale.

By using this model, the funds needed for new developments can be financed through capital markets without the massive outlays of the mayor's plan. Indeed, we can completely redevelop many of the city's aged and dilapidated NYCHA projects, using this very model.

Creating affordable housing is one of the major public policy challenges of our time. Fortunately, we have the financing and know-how to fix this problem in an economical way. Now we need only the political will to make it happen.

Leonard Grunstein is Managing Member at Hanlen Real Estate Development & Funding

Have an op-ed idea or submission? Send it to Executive Editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


New York City's Classroom Space Crunch


(photo: Michael Albans)

Last week Class Size Matters released a new report, Space Crunch, which analyzes the school overcrowding crisis in New York City, and points out the need to improve the City's proposed five year capital plan for school construction. While the real need for seats is likely over 100,000, the plan would create only about 38,000 new seats at most.

Among the findings in the report:
School overcrowding has worsened in the last six years, especially at the elementary grade level. Elementary school buildings currently average 97.4 percent capacity, according to the DOE's figures in its utilization report, known as the Blue Book. The median figure is at a shocking 102 percent. High schools are not far behind at an average of 95.2 percent.

What this means in real life terms is that class sizes are pushed above reasonable levels, students have lost their art, music and science rooms, are assigned to lunch as early as 10 a.m., or have no access to the gym. Many special needs students are forced to receive their mandated services in hallways or closets rather than in appropriate dedicated spaces.

In eleven city school districts, elementary schools average above 100 percent capacity; in 20 out of the 32 districts, they average above 90 percent. In addition, high schools in Queens and Staten Island average above 100 percent. More than 30,000 additional seats are needed in just these districts to bring their average down to 100 percent.

Even more seats are needed to address overcrowding at the neighborhood level, as evidenced by thousands of students sitting in trailers in 21 districts, and thousands of prospective kindergarteners on wait lists for their zoned school in 19 districts. In addition, the city's population is growing fast, and the two consulting companies hired by DOE to project enrollment have predicted increases of 60,000 to 70,000 students over the next five to ten years.

At the same time, most experts believe that the utilization figures reported by the DOE are faulty and actually underestimate the actual level of overcrowding in our schools, The Chancellor has appointed a taskforce to improve the formula.

Thus while the real need is likely greater than 100,000 seats, there are only 33,754 to 38,654 seats in the proposed five year capital plan – with the latter figure dependent on whether the state's "Smart Schools" bond act is approved in November. Unless the plan is significantly expanded, our students are likely to be sitting in even more overcrowded schools in the years to come.

The capital plan is also unlikely to achieve the DOE's widely-publicized promise to eliminate trailers or temporary classroom units (TCUs). While it has been reported that "only" 7,158 students are sitting in these trailers, the actual number of these students is likely 50 percent higher – as the DOE has omitted from its count thousands of high school, middle school and elementary school students, as well as severely disabled students, who attend classes in these substandard structures in more than 40 schools.

Moreover, although DOE officials have promised that the capital plan will accomplish the goal of eliminating trailers, many of which are in disrepair and long past their expected lifetime, and have allocated nearly $500 million to remove them and recondition the school yards on which they sit, there is not a single dollar in the capital plan dedicated to replacing their seats.

The past failures of the City to adequately address the problem of school overcrowding is due to many factors, including the disappointing record of the Bloomberg administration in school construction, with fewer schools built than in earlier periods. In addition, the DOE has redefined the size of a classroom downward in recent years, which may lead to building code violations, as more and more children are squeezed into smaller and smaller spaces. This year, the city's class sizes are at a fifteen-year high in grades K-3, and the largest in grades 4-8 since 2002.

The Department of Education has also made policy choices that have worsened overcrowding; including hundreds of small schools and charter schools inserted into existing buildings, eating up classroom space through replicating administrative offices and specialty rooms. In the report, these breakdowns of policy and planning are revealed by the DOE's own data, surveys, and interviews with principals and other school officials.

The report concludes with a number of policy recommendations, suggesting how the DOE can improve the school utilization formula. These reforms, along with enhancements to the planning process, and a more aggressive capital plan funded in part by "impact fees," would help ensure that more of the city's students are provided with the space they need to learn.

We are urging the City Council to insist on expansion of the plan to at least 50,000 seats this spring -- the DOE's admitted need – and for the City Comptroller or another independent agency to undertake a needs assessment that is more credible than the DOE's. There has not been a transparent needs assessment for our schools undertaken for more than twenty years. None of the goals for improving public education, including expanding pre-kindergarten, reducing class size, providing a well-rounded education, or establishing community schools with wrap-around services, are possible without a more ambitious capital plan. Only with significantly improved planning, policies, and funding can our public school students be provided with the facilities – and the quality education – they deserve.

Leonie Haimson is the Executive Director of Class Size Matters, a citywide advocacy group dedicated to improving opportunities to public school students through reducing class size.


Vergara's Shaky Significance

students matter vergara

The students of Vergara (Monica Almeida/NY Times)

A June 10th lower court decision in Vergara v. California found that five California teacher employment statutes violate the State Constitution's Equal Protection Clause by disproportionately maintaining "grossly ineffective schools serving predominantly low-income and minority students."

Speculation immediately turned to Vergara-type suits in other states with the aim of eliminating or weakening teacher tenure and other job protections across the country.

Not so fast.

The ink is hardly dry on Vergara and a lengthy appeals process awaits. Meanwhile the contested statutes remain on the books. Final victory for plaintiffs is hardly inevitable since the trial court decision shows scant evidence proving that the statutes themselves, rather than feckless administrators' failure to initiate required evaluation and termination proceedings, were the cause of plaintiffs' alleged educational injury. In addition, the court's high bar requiring the state to show a compelling interest in preserving each of the current statutes is wide open to appellate attack.

On the other hand, there is little legal traction to arguments that Vergara is over-dependent on suspect test score data and predictions that teacher quality will fall without the statutes' job security guarantees. Not that those aren't good points - but they are not legal arguments. As the court took pains to address, this case will be won or lost on legal principles of equal protection based on California precedents and facts established at trial, not policy pronouncements about the best system of teacher evaluation and due process rights for optimal educational quality. Judge Treu made clear that he believes the judicial system is too crude an instrument to decide those matters and that, under our system of separation of powers, curtailing the evidentiary parade of horribles that he said "shock the conscience" requires legislative remedies.

Which is why Vergara is more an opening for public debate - likely the main intention of the lawsuit - than it is a catalyst to directly bring about substantial changes in state or national education law. For example, Judge Treu found that California's two year probationary period prior to tenure was too short to adequately evaluate teacher quality, disproportionately penalizing poor and minority students. What if, in response, the state legislature changes that period to three years, which Vergara looks upon favorably? New fact, new case! Any or all of the statutes in question can be tweaked - cynically or not - to meet legal requirements surviving appeal.

Similarly, beyond California, any attempt to nationalize Vergara faces a tortuous path, much like the school finance battles that ensued late in the twentieth century and continue today. Each state, assuming the presence of equal protection, will have its own precedential scheme for interpreting those laws. Each will have its own constellation of teachers' employment rights. Each will have different statistical profiles of the presence or absence of incompetent teachers based on differing measures. In short, each years-long case will need to be financed and litigated individually, an extremely tall order, especially when legislative responses after any wins will have the potential to undo plaintiffs' initial expectation of educational improvement.

Remember, too, that teachers' working conditions are not generally statutory but bargained with school districts. It's even a little weird that tenure is a statutory right at all, treated as a public good rather than a private benefit. Teacher unions have been particularly successful in selling that idea so that they do not have to subject tenure, first-in-first-out, and other job protections to the give-and-take of cyclic contract negotiations.

But surely, if the Vergara plaintiffs ultimately succeed at total elimination of tenure, FIFO, etc. at the state level, the fight will just move to districts where school boards will vie with one another to offer sweet deals on job security and due process to attract the best teachers. Like white flight after Brown v. Board of Education, invoked by Judge Treu in the first line of Vergara more as a benediction than a precedent, any state-level evisceration of teacher job protections will have a negative checker-board effect on districts.

I support teacher tenure since it allows teachers uniquely necessary opportunities for classroom freedom and student advocacy that would otherwise be threatened by supervisors or public disapproval. But, with varied experience as a teacher union organizer, New York City Board of Education General Counsel, and expert witness for school districts in termination proceedings, I have too often seen procedural protections used as a sword to preserve ineptitude rather than, as intended, to shield professionalism.

Healthy debate is necessary over these policies and practices, including the crying need for administrators to vigorously exercise their supervisory duties toward probationary and tenured teachers alike. As a catalyst for this debate, Vergara serves a useful purpose even if, as legal mandate, it stands on shaky ground.

David C. Bloomfield is Professor of Education at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. He is the author of American Public Education Law, 2nd ed. and many other works, including an earlier column, Teacher Tenure Tantrum.

New York City Must Care for Seniors

Rosenthal seniors rally

Council Member Helen Rosenthal speaks at a rally in support of seniors (ALIGN)

Take a close look around your neighborhood and your house of worship and you'll see an aging city. New York, like the rest of the country, is experiencing an unprecedented age wave, as Baby Boomers grow older and life expectancy rises. By 2030 - in 15 years - one out of every five New Yorkers will be a senior.

With this major demographic shift, the need for home care is rising dramatically. Approximately two-thirds of seniors need some form of long term care at some point in their lives. Many are like a 92 year-old member of B'nai Jeshurun we met recently who is struggling to age in place with dignity. She would like to live independently in her home for as long as possible, but the simple physical tasks of daily life are becoming too difficult to manage. She cannot rely only on help from family and friends, and she cannot afford home care services. There are many people like this senior, whose incomes are too low to pay for home care out-of-pocket, but slightly too high to qualify for services through Medicaid.

Seniors should be able to age in place - in their homes - maintaining their lifelong connections to friends and community. As Rabbi Abraham J. Heschel says, "A test of a people is how it behaves toward the old."

As neighbors and people of conscience, we must come together to meet the challenges of caring for seniors.

One small program that has been helping New York City meet these challenges is the Expanded In-Home Services for the Elderly Program (EISEP). It helps low and moderate-income seniors over the age of 60 who are above the Medicaid threshold pay for part-time home care services. It also provides home care to undocumented seniors, who do not qualify for federal programs like Medicaid even if they are below the poverty line. Unfortunately, in 2008, City funding for EISEP was drastically cut. In 2008, City funding was at $15 million a year, and today it is at less than $5 million. What was once a robust program currently serves fewer than 3,000 seniors with care needs; that is less than 4 percent of the seniors who could benefit from the program. And the wait list for services is long.

As a first step, the City should increase funding for this vital program. Just this week, the City Council requested that the Mayor include an additional $1.8 million in this year's budget, which would ensure that the 240 seniors on the waitlist are able to receive home care services.

Beyond restoring some funding this year, we need an expanded and sustainable long-term investment in seniors and home care services. Investing more in care for seniors will benefit low-income and undocumented seniors, family caregivers who often juggle work and arranging care for a loved one, and home care workers who earn a living wage working with EISEP clients.

Many of us are dealing with difficult family situations - whether it's how to care for an ailing parent, or planning and saving for our own future care needs. At times it can seem like a private struggle, but we are not alone. By 2030, close to one million New York City seniors could need home care. It's time we heed Rabbi Heschel and start preparing for how we, as a society, will ensure dignity, respect and a decent quality of life for both caregivers and those who receive care.
Helen Rosenthal represents New York City's 6th City Council District and Marilyn Williams is a member of B'nai Jeshurun and a leader in the Elder Care Dialogues.

Closer to Home

Osborne Association

A family visit made possible by the Osborne Association

The evidence that children love and need their parents is all around us. That evidence is a lot less visible when it comes to the 80,000 children with a parent in one of New York's 57 prisons. Maybe that's because most of our prisons are located far from the urban centers where most of our prisoners' families live.

Last week the Senate Crime Victims, Crime and Corrections Committee passed a bill (S.1789A) that we have worked on together, along with Assemblyman Crespo in his chamber, for nearly two years now. It brings New York State correctional policies in line with extensive research that shows the positive impact of making, mending and maintaining family relationships both for children and their incarcerated parents. The committee voted in support of the Proximity Pilot Bill, which would add "proximity to children" to the criteria to be considered by the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) when deciding where an incarcerated person should serve his or her sentence. Current criteria includes security, mental health and other services, and availability of beds.

This pilot would add proximity to children as a factor to consider for 100 incarcerated parents who meet a set of determined criteria. The Assembly Corrections Committee approved this bill in March.

Distance is the number one barrier to children and families visiting an incarcerated parent or loved one. To their credit, the Legislature and DOCCS supported the establishment of a video visiting program with the Osborne Association, a community organization serving the incarcerated and their children and families. While this program offers real benefits to children and families, it cannot be considered a substitute for children being physically embraced by their parents. In-person visiting is critical not only for the well-being of children, but also to the success of parents when they return home. Family visitation is an effective and valuable anti-recidivism strategy and a public safety strategy.

In his support for this bill last week, Committee Chair Senator Patrick Gallivan recognized that this is a statewide issue: the demographics of the state's incarcerated population are shifting. Just half of women in our prisons are from New York City and its suburbs; 50 percent are from other parts of the state. The demographics of incarcerated men are similar. There are mothers and fathers from Western New York who are incarcerated within an hour of New York City; their children are suffering and their own likelihood of successful re-entry is weakened by not maintaining family ties.

Adding proximity to the calculus is in all of our best interests. People returning from prison are less likely to again commit crimes and are more likely to contribute productively to society when their family relationships are intact. Despite this, DOCCS' current practice seems to favor incarcerating someone far away from home, bringing them closer to home as they near release. But by that time, relationships have already been damaged by distance, and family support diminished. Far too often, the legacy of incarceration is severed relationships, with children also paying a hefty price.

It is time for our state correctional policies to reflect what research continues to confirm: that family connectedness – best achieved through visiting – is integral to successful re-entry, lower recidivism rates, and better outcomes for children. We join together to call on the State Legislature to bring this bill to the floor in both Houses and pass it.

Gustavo Rivera is the New York State Senator for the 33rd Senate District, which extends from the Northwest Bronx to areas of the East Bronx. He serves on the Crime Victims, Crime and Corrections Committee.

Elizabeth Gaynes is Executive Director of the Osborne Association, one the country's largest and most effective nonprofit organizations serving individuals affected by crime and incarceration. Follow Osborne on Twitter @osborneny

Justice Denied: A Call for Action in Our City’s Housing Courts

CM Mark Levine

Council Member Mark Levine, co-author (William Alatriste)

If your only source of information on our legal system were Law & Order, you might believe that everyone going into a courtroom to face a potentially life-changing judicial decision would have the benefit of an attorney.

You would be wrong. The right to counsel applies only in criminal court. In civil court, only those with means have attorneys – and everyone else is left to fend for themselves.

This has clear implications for the fields of immigration, bankruptcy and family law. But it is in housing court (the division of civil court dedicated to ruling on disputes between landlords and tenants) where the impact is breathtaking, with sweeping consequences for New York City.

Fewer than 10 percent of tenants in housing court in the five boroughs have the benefit of legal counsel. In contrast, upwards of 90 percent of landlords citywide have representation. This makes housing court in New York City a dramatically uneven playing field.

New York's housing court system is notoriously byzantine, and is complicated to navigate even for attorneys. Tenants forced to represent themselves on this terrain can have difficulty grappling with even basic procedural matters like filing the necessary paperwork to secure a court date. Failure to do so results in a default judgement in favor of the landlord.

The imbalance in housing court carries a heavy toll for tenants: in 2013 there were nearly 30,000 families evicted from their homes in New York City. This figure is steadily rising, up more than 20 percent in the past decade. Two-thirds of evictees have annual incomes of $25,000 or less. Two-thirds live with children under 18 years of age.

For low-income tenants, the consequences of evictions are devastating. Evictions contribute to our record homeless population and the city's rapid loss of affordable housing. Thirty-seven percent of those admitted to our shelter system are coming directly off an eviction, and the vast majority of these individuals had no attorney during their housing court proceedings.

The majority of evictees live in rent-regulated apartments. Once these homes are vacated, landlords can easily exploit legal loopholes to permanently move the units to market-rate rent for future tenants.

Landlords are all too aware of the uneven nature of housing court. The most unscrupulous building owners regularly initiate legal proceedings based on shaky cases. They bank on the fact that few tenants will be able to afford an attorney and many are intimidated into leaving their apartments rather than face a trial.

Even tenants who win their cases don't necessarily come away unscathed. A small industry of tenant screening companies maintains a "black list" of individuals whose names appear in housing court proceedings. Many landlords in New York City and nationally buy these lists and will refuse to rent to tenants who have had cases brought against them, regardless of the final decision of the housing court judge.

Most elected leaders in New York City support ending this clear injustice. The obvious solution is to provide attorneys for tenants in housing court. But funding concerns have prevented anything more than tiny pilot programs from taking root.

There are, however, compelling economic arguments for implementing such programs. Each bed in our homeless shelters costs $36,000 per year. Developing a single unit of affordable housing costs over $250,000. Yet the price of legal representation in housing court is a comparative pittance, estimated at $1,600 to $3,200 per case.

We are collaborating with our ally and colleague, Councilmember Vanessa Gibson, to address this problem. The Levine-Gibson bill, Intro 214, calls on the City to provide all low-income tenants with attorneys in housing court. A majority of the City Council already co-sponsors this bill.

We are optimistic the momentum for dramatic action on behalf of low-income tenants in housing court will continue to mount. After all, viewers of Law & Order know that the little guy can indeed beat long odds and win the case. Especially when they have a good attorney.

Mark Levine is the New York City Council Member for the 7th District in West Harlem and Jaron Benjamin is the Executive Director of the Metropolitan Council on Housing.