Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics



A Universal Internet Guarantee to Bridge the Digital Divide for Every New Yorker

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A plan for internet access at school and home (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

The coronavirus pandemic has shown all of us the importance of a reliable high-speed home internet connection, whether for remote learning and working from home or for gathering virtually with loved ones. There is a common cliché that “the virus doesn’t discriminate,” but the reality is that coronavirus disproportionately harms low-income communities of color impacted by systemic racism in government and the private sector.

With many households in these communities lacking high-speed internet, the shift to social distancing has been particularly challenging. As we prepare for a second wave, or for the next virus, we must rebuild our society with the guarantee of universal broadband—finally treating the internet as a utility like phone service or electricity. We must use all of New York City’s local regulatory power to deliver on the promise of universal broadband by establishing a Universal Internet Guarantee.

Mayor de Blasio recently took a step in the right direction when he announced $157 million in funding to expand broadband internet access to 600,000 underserved New Yorkers, including 200,000 public housing residents. But New York City’s public housing authority (NYCHA) has 173,762 public housing units, home to 381,159 authorized residents, and this plan could still leave half without internet. More than 1.5 million New Yorkers do not have broadband, and this plan would leave nearly 1 million of them on the wrong side of the ‘digital divide.’

To deliver truly universal broadband, we need several fixes at once. We could start with rezoning to require affordable Mandatory Inclusionary Internet, just like we required affordable housing with Mandatory Inclusionary Housing. We could create incentives for 5G providers to offer affordable access. We can require cable providers to expand affordable internet offerings we already won to every single low-income New Yorker. And if the providers won’t do it, we can take over their networks and do it ourselves by establishing a municipal broadband network.

We can upgrade existing infrastructure by speeding along the conversion of old payphones into free internet kiosks and add WiFi to bus stops. We can even open up the city government’s wireless network to the public.

The pandemic has shown us the importance of giving every public school student who needs one a laptop and affordable broadband in the home to eliminate the ‘homework gap’ (that became a ‘schoolwork gap’ during the pandemic) and give a whole new generation a real chance at equity. Where all else fails, for those we still haven’t reached in low-income communities of color, we must invest the millions promised by the mayor in businesses owned and operated by women and people of color to spur innovation and connect every last New Yorker.

In partnership together, with an eye toward each of our roles in the city’s franchising, we have authored a report that focuses on some of the most important aspects of the digital divide and proposed solutions to help close it and bring us closer to the equitable New York City we need to move toward immediately.

Read the full report here.

Eric Adams is the Brooklyn Borough President and has a vote on internet franchises through the FCRC. Ben Kallos is a New York City Council Member with a vote on internet franchise authorizations in the City Council. On Twitter @BKBoroHall & @BenKallos.

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The Pandemic Means We Must Put Federal Block Grants to Better Use

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Housing is the focus (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

Over the next several months, New York City will continue deciding how to disperse roughly $34 million in federal Community Service Block Grants (CSBG) and related funds that are available for the current period. However, at this juncture, the magnitude and intensity of the COVID-19 pandemic’s effects suggest strongly that going forward the money should go to community-based groups focused on meeting two urgent needs: relieving hunger and preventing homelessness. 

CSBG funds are made available under a federal program that has existed nationwide since the 1960s War on Poverty. In New York City, determining how to spend them involves collaborative work between 41 Neighborhood Advisory Boards (NABs), designated as “representatives of the poor,” and the Community Action Board (CAB) under the supervision of the City’s Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD). The work typically begins with a roughly four-month long triennial exercise known as a Community Needs Assessment, an information-gathering and analysis process by the NABs of their communities. Ultimately, requests for proposals (RFPs) to address those needs are issued by the DYCD to community-based service-providers, based on the findings of these assessments.

The most recent Community Needs Assessment wrapped up in the autumn of 2019, and the NABs had submitted their recommendations to DYCD shortly before the pandemic struck the city in March 2020. For the past eight months, the issuance of RFPs based on these recommendations has, like much of life in New York City, been in limbo. They’re now expected to go out in the next couple of weeks; a realistic timeline for disbursing funds is perhaps the fall of 2021, or even later.

In preparing the RFPs and in evaluating the responses to them, DYCD should give added weight to meeting the city’s hunger and homelessness emergencies over less-pressing demands. 

First as to hunger: According to the nonprofit organization Feeding America (perhaps the nation’s largest hunger relief organization), by the end of 2020 an estimated 19% of New York State residents will be struggling to put food on the table. That’s up from 11% in 2018. Feeding America also expects a greater rate of food insecurity to persist well into the post-pandemic period. This worsening hunger scenario is also confirmed by the experiences of non-profit organizations such as Staten Island’s Project Hospitality, which lately has reportedly been distributing about 2,000 meals a week across that borough, and Manhattan’s Urban Outreach Center, which regularly feeds many hungry people from all across the city. Ominously, the ranks of the food-insecure include college students, single mothers, new immigrants, and homeless or displaced young people. 

The immediate and long-term outlook on homelessness is also grim. At mid-November, New York City’s daily headcount of people in homeless shelters hovered around the 54,000 mark. There is little doubt that number will rise dramatically if existing eviction and foreclosure moratoriums lapse at year’s end.  Even if extended, it’s just a moratorium: tenants, many of them deprived of income during the pandemic, will still eventually owe all their back rent. Absent emergency federal help to tenants, the city will, in the recent words of New School housing policy expert Alex Schwartz, “experience a rise in homelessness the likes of which we’ve never seen before.” 

Making the specters of both hunger and homelessness even worse is the fact that there are many thousands of previously employed undocumented immigrant city dwellers who were unfortunately left out of the federal COVID-19 stimulus assistance payments who have now tumbled into poverty.

There is no need to start from scratch in addressing these problems. For instance, hunger alleviation services could be boosted in the various programs where they already exist, such as in family support programs touching on nutrition assistance or in runaway and homeless youth programs that furnish food, clothing, and even shelter assistance to its clients. The same goes for housing assistance programs focused on landlord neglect and foreclosure prevention. Such programs also have the ability to refer clients to city agencies in situations where the needs of clients fall outside their portfolios – for instance, cash assistance for renters, which can be available through the city’s Human Resources Administration. 

It’s also essential that the program partners who are contracted to provide the services have solid on-the-ground experience with the tasks to be undertaken. This can no doubt be accomplished via appropriate qualifying specifications for prospective service-providers. 

Let me end with two caveats. First, this is a prescription for fighting extraordinary conditions. After the worst effects of the pandemic dissipate, CSBG grants can be reallocated to address a wider range of needs. And second, we should all recognize that $34 million certainly isn’t enough to slay the two-headed monster of hunger and homelessness in poor neighborhoods throughout the city. But by putting it in the right hands of community-based organizations with proven track records, it can make a real difference. In the current emergency, this is what we need to do. 

Carl Unegbu is a lawyer and Vice Chair of the Neighborhood Advisory Board (NAB) 12 in Manhattan. The views expressed here are those of the author alone and do not in any way represent the opinions or position of any entity or agency, including the Neighborhood Advisory Board and the Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD).

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Support Mink Farmers, Don’t Attack Them, As They Work to Protect Their Animals from Covid Risk

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Farmed mink peeking out of its nest box (Truth About Fur)

Since it was learned that COVID-19 can pass from humans to mink, farmers in the United States have put in place strict biosecurity protocols to protect their animals, their families, and public health. But instead of supporting farmers through this difficult period, animal activists -- like Priscilla Feral, who wrote about "The Covid Mink Slaughter" in these pages last week -- are fanning fears that new mink-specific variants of the virus could reduce the efficacy of vaccines, and are calling for a ban mink farming and the sale of all furs.

In fact, public health authorities do not support such extreme measures. After concerns raised in Denmark led to the culling of mink there, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control concluded, in November, that the risk to human health posed by mink-related variants of SARS-CoV-2 is low for the general public.

Similarly, leading U.S. virologist Dr. Anthony Fauci said, “It does not appear at present that the mutation that has been identified in mink will affect vaccines or the immune effect of vaccines.”

Rather than culling – let alone an end to mink farming -- the USDA, the CDC, the U.S. Veterinary Diagnostics Lab, State Veterinarians, and other authorities recommend precautionary measures, including employee screening and testing, PPE, and restricted access to the animals. This is exactly what mink farmers are doing, in close cooperation with their state agriculture and health departments.

The real goal of some animal activists, however, is not to protect farms, but vegetarianism and the elimination of all animal agriculture. The real issue, some like Feral argue, is that “humans continue to treat animals as a means to a human goal and not sentient beings worthy of their own rights to live their natural lives undisturbed.”

The problem for animal activists is that most Americans do eat meat and dairy, and wear leather, wool, and other animal products. So fur is seen as a convenient thin edge of the wedge, and mink farming is condemned as “cruel” and “unnecessary”.

Cruel? U.S. mink farmers work hard to provide their animals with excellent nutrition and care, as this is the only way to produce the high quality fur that the U.S. is known for. Mink farmers follow strict operating guidelines developed by veterinarians, animal scientists and animal-welfare authorities to ensure the health and welfare of their animals.

Unnecessary? Fur today is sustainably and responsibly produced; it is a hand-crafted, long-lasting, and biodegradable, natural clothing material.

By contrast, the fake furs and other synthetics proposed by animal activists are generally made with petroleum, a non-renewable and non-biodegradable resource. These synthetics leach millions of micro-particles of plastic into our waterways each time they are washed; plastics that are now being found in marine life around the globe. Cruelty-free indeed!

Mink are raised on small, family-run farms, supporting employment in rural communities. Mink are fed leftovers from our own food production, the parts of cattle, poultry, and fish we don’t eat, and that might otherwise end up in landfills. Mink manure and remains are composted to produce organic fertilizers, completing the agricultural nutrient cycle.

As for the new risks posed by COVID-19, mink farmers take their biosecurity responsibilities very seriously, to protect their livelihoods, their animals, their families, and their communities.

When swine flu and avian flu were detected on farms, we didn’t ban pork or chicken production; farmers and health authorities worked together to responsibly resolve the problems. And that is exactly what we are doing now.

No one forces anyone to wear fur or leather, or to eat meat or dairy. But this does not give animal activists the right to attack the reputations and livelihoods of farm families. This is a time when we should be supporting farmers, not attacking them.

Alan Herscovici is Senior Writer & Researcher at Truth About Fur. On Twitter @TruthAboutFur.

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What Covid and the 2020 Elections Taught Us: It’s Time to Do Right by New Yorkers on Health Care

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Health care remains the top issue for voters (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

The Biden-Harris victory is great news and a huge relief. Our country has suffered under Trump.

But we have a problem. A record number of voters rejected a national campaign that stood for greater economic fairness, science-based policies on COVID-19 and the environment, protecting health care coverage, and racial justice.

In New York state legislative races, moderate and progressive candidates did well, achieving strong legislative majorities for Democrats in both houses. But several challengers as well as good incumbents running for re-election lost or won in races that were real nail-biters. After all we went through with Trump, these candidates, and others, should have had stronger results.

As we look forward, we need to ask: What’s wrong, and how do we fix it.

Many working people across the country, in every demographic group, are disillusioned. They believe many of our political leaders are too close with corporate interests and fail to fight on vital kitchen-table economic issues.

Many people have been swayed by campaigns that make dishonest accusations and exploit divisive issues and fears.

But that doesn’t mean they can’t be won back or for the first time, to support policies that would make a real difference in their daily lives and futures.

To achieve that, I believe we must strengthen our progressive message, not move away from it.

Opinion polls have long told us that health care is the number one issue for the most voters. And while the Affordable Care Act has done a lot of good, COVID-19 has further exposed the gaping shortfalls and gross inequality that plague American health care.

Three quarters of our neighbors are afraid that they cannot afford their health care or health coverage and fear medical debt. Each year, a third of families who have health coverage have a household member who goes without needed health care because of cost; their health coverage doesn’t do the job.

We don’t have real choices. The vast majority of employees are covered by a health plan that’s tied to their job. Health plans impose rising premiums, deductibles, and copays, and we have to pay them if we want to keep our insurance. Health plans dictate which doctors, hospitals, and medicines they cover. And they impose the same costs whether you’re a multi-millionaire CEO or a receptionist.

If you lose your job, which has happened to millions of people, you lose job-connected health coverage.

Access to health care is diminishing. Losing hospitals, doctors, nurses, and neighborhood pharmacies is a growing problem in many communities, including rural areas, in large part because “third party payers” (i.e., health insurance companies) underpay them or exclude them from their restrictive provider networks.

We need to deliver a health plan that by law guarantees everyone complete coverage; complete choice of doctors, hospitals, and other health-care providers; and is funded based on ability to pay. It should include long-term care (home care and nursing home care), which can be a frightening cost that can wipe out a family’s lifetime savings.

In New York, this means the New York Health Act to establish universal single-payer health coverage. It’s more comprehensive than any health plan available. Having us all in the same boat – rich and poor alike – is the best way to guarantee it’s the best possible plan.

Passing the New York Health Act is the one best thing we can do for the health and family finances of almost every New Yorker.

Does the covid recession mean we can’t afford it? No.

Taking insurance companies out of the picture will save New York $55 billion a year we now waste on insurance company bureaucracy, marketing, and profit; on administrative costs doctors and hospitals spend fighting with insurance companies; and on the excessive prices we pay to drug companies because no single insurer has enough bargaining clout to force prices down.

These savings would enable us to cover the uninsured and cover what New Yorkers now spend on deductibles, co-pays, out-of-network charges, and other out-of-pocket costs.  Instead of premiums, the New York health plan will be funded through a broad-based tax based on ability to pay.

It will simplify an excessively complicated and convoluted system, for patients, health-care providers, and employers, while providing universal health coverage for all New Yorkers, regardless of ability to pay and not attached to employment.

The New York Health Act has passed the State Assembly four times. We need to do it again and get it through the State Senate. New York’s health depends on it.

Assemblymember Richard N. Gottfried represents parts of Manhattan and is the chair of the New York State Assembly Health Committee. On Twitter @DickGottfried.

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Creating a New Hub to Protect and Empower Brooklynites

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Supplies arrive in Brooklyn (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

Every neighborhood in New York City has been touched in some way by the COVID-19 pandemic. But due to longstanding disparities in our health-care system and structural economic inequality, communities of color have been more susceptible to the virus and more vulnerable to its consequences. 

One of these consequences was the distant and dysfunctional health-care supply system, which left safety net hospitals like One Brooklyn Health, which serve and employ the city’s most vulnerable, without the personal protective equipment and medical supplies necessary to keep both patients and staff safe. While President-elect Biden has made clear his team will take an aggressive stance to fighting the virus, the surge in cases in our city is proof that we must act now to prevent another massive calamity. That is why Brooklynites are coming together now to address the structural impediments to local, quality health care.  

Building on years of partnership, a rich array of organizations have come together as Brooklyn Communities Collaborative (BCC), united under the common goal of improving health and wealth, and precisely addressing the conditions that have left too many Brooklynites at the mercy of the virus. BCC’s founding anchor institutions include the One Brooklyn Health System, Maimonides Medical Center, the City University of New York (CUNY), and a new social enterprise entitled Citizen Share Brooklyn. 

A key aspect of BCC’s work is the anchor mission approach, which calls on institutions rooted in their local community, such as universities and hospitals, to fully harness their economic power through hiring, purchasing, and investing to inclusively and sustainably benefit the long-term health and wealth of their communities. 

To leverage the economic power of these anchor health-care institutions, which spend billions of dollars annually on goods and services, BCC and strategic partner Citizen Share Brooklyn will be launching the Brooklyn Health Enterprise Hub — a borough-wide regional health-focused workforce development and enterprise ecosystem.

Comprised of key stakeholders in the health-care industry, including 1199SEIU, the New York State Nurses Association, and other labor unions, employers, academic institutions, as well as community-based organizations, the Hub will redirect the supply chain to benefit the local economy, particularly in neighborhoods most affected by structural racism and economic inequality. 

Specifically, the Hub will help implement leading workforce engagement, recruitment, and development practices to identify, recruit, and retain top talent in Brooklyn, expand high-quality health services training programs to meet the needs of anchor health institutions, and establish an approach to securing working capital for business launches and business expansions. Taken together, these initiatives will significantly increase local spending by anchor health institutions, thereby creating more local jobs and local profits.  

The Hub will also address the challenges exposed during the current crisis, with plans to create a local supply for essential items. 

Ultimately, with leaders across various sectors, boroughs and regions, the Hub will advance a progressive reform of the dysfunctional supply chain – one that adheres to the principles of democratic accountability, equity, and community self-governance by investing in local enterprises that promote economic democracy. A reformed health care supply chain must support local workers not just by paying a living wage, but by investing in forms of citizen-based profit-sharing as well as enterprises that will directly address the depression of wealth – which has exacerbated structural economic inequality and contributed to poor health in communities of color.

To truly succeed, any progressive COVID-19 recovery effort must not only bring us back to where we were before this crisis, but also build a reformed infrastructure for health and shared wealth. The Health Enterprise Hub will serve as a national model in response to the racial, economic, and health-care challenges that are currently facing our nation. The next stage of the recovery effort will require us to be courageous and innovative like never before. Only then can we ensure all communities have the same opportunity to live longer and healthier lives.       

George Gresham is President of 1199 Health Care Workers East. Representative Hakeem Jeffries represents parts of Brooklyn and Queens. LaRay Brown is CEO of One Brooklyn Health.

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We Must Not Return to ‘Normal’: Seizing Our Opportunity to Rethink Health and Health Care in New York

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Health care workers during covid (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

Last month, Governor Andrew Cuomo delivered remarks at Riverside Church on the inequities in the Trump administration's COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan. He admirably stated that we must prioritize fairness and equity. Communities like many in the Bronx that have suffered the most because of this virus must not be left behind. But that commitment to leaving no community behind must also be applied to addressing the underlying issues that led to disproportionately negative outcomes for impoverished communities of color impacted by the virus. 

Governor Cuomo was right when he stated, ”Covid low tide in America also showed us the deep inequality in our country and the systemic discrimination in this nation. The truth is covid killed Black people in this country at twice the rate of white people. The truth is covid killed Hispanic people at 1.5 times the rate of white people. Those are ugly facts. The covid infection rate was 2.5 times higher among Black and Hispanic people and the hospitalization rate for Black and Hispanic patients was over three times higher compared to white patients.”

This accurately describes our experience at SBH Health System (SBH). For the community we represent, a return to "normal" would be both a disaster and an affront, as it would not address the life and death issues being further exposed by this "low tide" moment in America. According to the New York City Department of Health's COVID-19 database, more than 90% of Bronx residents who have died from COVID-19 had preventable underlying health conditions.  

A recent study by Gibenga Ogedegbe, et al also supported the fact that Black and Hispanic populations were more likely to test positive for COVID-19, and although their in-hospital mortality rate was not higher than white patients, “the structural determinants pervasive in Black and Hispanic communities, including inequality in housing, access to care, differential employment opportunities and poverty…explain the disproportionately higher out of hospital deaths due to COVID-19 infections in these populations.”

Moving forward, we know that access to affordable and accessible quality community health care will be a primary factor in addressing the systemic health-care inequities in New York. Without coordinated patient-centered care, it will not be possible to ensure appropriate care continuity. Coordination is key to prevent redundancies and lost opportunities across the entire health-care delivery system, from vaccinations to highly-specialized procedures.

This means primary care clinicians and specialists, ambulatory surgery centers, specialized procedural centers, hospitals, and post-acute care facilities must seamlessly interact on behalf of the patient. We began to see the immediate benefit of this coordination during the height of the pandemic last spring, when hospital systems and others developed collaborative relationships with each other, in concert with public health officials to effect rapid responses to the crisis.  

We also know that health and wellness depends not only on healthcare delivery, but also on those social determinants of health that interfere with that delivery. New York must immediately adopt policies that embrace and demand value-based health care. This must include a continued and renewed financial commitment to move health-care delivery from a volume- and profit-driven model to a value-based model that encourages providers and payers to collaborate and focus on programs aimed at improving the health, wellness, and resilience of all communities. 

As part of this program, we must preserve the safety net by investing in community-based anchor institutions such as SBH, which has consistently exhibited a commitment to broad-based Bronx community partnerships aimed at improving the lives of the residents of the Bronx.

Our Affordable Housing and Wellness Center Development, in part supported by New York State, is an example of this willingness, and we are proud that we have created opportunities for hundreds of families by investing in safe, clean, affordable, and permanent housing, including for those who were formerly homeless. But it’s not enough. 

The Bronx continues to rank 62nd of 62 New York counties in terms of health and wellness, according to the RWD Community Health Rankings. Housing, physical, and food insecurities; education, income, technological, and health-care disparities -- many of them further revealed by the impacts of covid -- must be addressed to ensure that the next pandemic doesn't wipe out the rest of our community.  

The moment is now to right the wrongs of previous generations and put our communities on a different trajectory. We have a real opportunity and responsibility to address once and for all the structural inequities that have contributed to the overwhelming losses experienced in our community. New York can serve as a model for the rest of the country about who we are and who we must be, and in the process create a “new normal” that guarantees opportunity and fairness for all New Yorkers. 

David Perlstein, MD MBA FAAP, is President and CEO of SBH Health System. On Twitter @SBHBronx.

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Where To Go with Mayoral Control

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Mayor de Blasio at school (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

Mayor de Blasio's mishandling of the public school pandemic response has led to calls to reform or replace mayoral control of New York City schools.

Almost six years ago, I wrote in these pages advocating the case for mayoral control based on the still-valid theory that quality education depends on maximum funding based on the Mayor's control of the city budget and the need for political accountability to drive instructional improvement. In this way, mayoral control is consistent with the system of elected school board members in districts across the country where elected officials determine the schools' budget and financing, negotiate union contracts, and appoint a Superintendent (our Chancellor). Here, all of those powers reside with the Mayor. Merging fiscal and operational control, once separate provinces of the Mayor and Board of Education, is key to efficient and effective school governance.

But strains on this system, apparent earlier, have become open wounds under Bill de Blasio. He has concentrated power in City Hall rather than delegating decision-making to the educators housed steps away at Department of Education headquarters in the Tweed Courthouse. While the Police Commissioner is allowed a high degree of professional determination over law enforcement, DOE operations under a feckless Chancellor have become an extension of City Hall, with high-level staffers lacking education backgrounds routinely assigned by the Mayor's Office to the Chancellor’s. 

Education in the city has become the political pawn of a single individual, unchecked by other governmental structures. This is at least partly because the DOE is not technically a mayoral agency, subject to normal checks and balances by the City Council and Comptroller, but a quasi-independent authority subject to State Education Department regulation. The Mayor's theoretically indirect control stems from his appointment power of the Chancellor and a majority of the Board of Education, re-named by Mayor Bloomberg the Panel on Educational Policy. But de Blasio and, before him, Bloomberg, have redesigned this appointive power to assert autocracy. The City Council has no direct authority over the DOE, relegated to passing reporting requirements rather than statutory controls.

What’s to be done?

Other Models' Weaknesses
I believe there is a better way for mayoral control to work, using a strategic management approach to maintain its budgetary and accountability advantages while delegating instructional policies to educators at Tweed, in the districts, and to parents through parent associations and Community Education Councils. But this opportunity to remake mayoral control may never have been possible and likely has been permanently lost to the closely-held paradigm embedded over the last 20 years by Bloomberg and de Blasio.

The oft-proposed reform of eliminating the Panel for Educational Policy’s mayoral majority with more members with fixed terms appointed by the Borough Presidents, Council, and others is a cure likely worse than the disease. Most recently promoted by teachers' union President Michael Mulgrew, the model is much like the old seven-member Board of Education, which had five members appointed by the Borough Presidents and only two by the Mayor. That system was abandoned in 2001 in favor of mayoral control, an apt testament to its failure to produce either adequate funding or educational quality. In addition, the members' fixed terms allowed them to become independent political actors, without accountability even to their appointing officials. 

Replacing an appointed board with an elected body of similar size mirrors many of these same problems through its lack of budgetary and collective bargaining independence, with the additional wild cards of one-person-one-vote seat allocation and the likelihood that our heated education culture wars would produce a volatile mix of political factions, a frequent and paralyzing phenomenon in other districts with resulting operational and educational dysfunction.

Moving further backward in the city's school governance history, community control remains a fervent wish among some, promising a degree of local self-determination never fulfilled after the teacher strikes of 1968. But the demise of community control demonstrates its impracticality. We are one city and bound educationally whether by union contracts, city funding, and most of all the need for city-wide solutions to issues of equity and diversity. Balkanizing control among our still-existing community school districts is a dream at odds with political and fiscal realities. 

With these alternatives failing historical and theoretical tests, the key to improving New York City school governance may be hiding in plain sight. As education historian David Tyack pointed out in his classic analysis, there is no "one best system" to solve our educational problems. Each era produces the governance that best fits the circumstances of its time, fitting into its unique socio-political framework.

City Control
When, in 1989, the United States Supreme Court declared the old Board of Estimate unconstitutional, Borough Presidents' budgetary powers were eliminated in favor of the more representative City Council which, until then, had been a mostly vestigial body. In response, the city's elite, distrustful of the newly-empowered Council members, wrote the 1990 City Charter revision to create a strong Mayor system. We live with that system today.

But the Council now is a mature body, having secured public respect over three decades by responsibly exercising its Charter mandates. Perhaps it made sense in 2001, when mayoral control was established, to cut out the largely untested Council from a stronger role in school governance. But today, the measure of the Council has been taken and it has developed a strong reputation for educational advocacy and policy acuity, as well as a culture of consensus that might keep it from the culture wars and procedural paralysis of a less representative, non-mayoral-majority Panel for Educational Policy (PEP). The past two Council Speakers have shown respect for their limited role in education by appointing able Education Committee Chairs who, in turn, held the Mayor to close account through public hearings and greater data-based transparency.

It may be time to reward this record and improve New York City school governance by recasting mayoral control as city control, aligning educational governance with other city services. There are important advantages to this concept, perhaps most importantly to give a powerful voice to individual community interests now lacking in the Mayor's hegemony over the Department of Education or through a slightly enlarged PEP. This check on mayoral power might be the missing ingredient in attenuating executive political interests not by watering them down, as with the Mulgrew plan, but on the constitutional model, balancing executive power with legislative constraints.

The State Education Law establishing mayoral control is already largely consistent with replacing the ineffectual PEP with an independent City Council acting as the Board of Education. Section 2590-g, "Powers and Duties of the City Board," clearly states that "except as otherwise provided by law, the board shall exercise no executive power and perform no executive or administrative functions." Thus, the Council stays in its policy lane, leaving executive functions to the Chancellor and the rest of the DOE in line with separation of powers principles. 

Some tweaks and more substantive revisions will of course be needed. For example, the City, not the Council, should be the employer of record for DOE personnel under Education Law § 2590-g (2). As I have suggested elsewhere, the Council should be able to hold hearings before rendering advice and consent over mayoral nominees for Chancellor after a more transparent search process. But how wonderful to put the Education Committee in charge of vetting DOE proposals for "standards, policies, and objectives proposed by the chancellor directly related to educational achievement and student performance"; "regulations proposed by the chancellor"; and "all school closures or significant changes in school utilization," including charter school co-locations under Education Law § 2590-g (1)(a, c, h, respectively). These, as well as other oversight functions, are deserving of greater public scrutiny than possible under unilateral mayoral control.

Advantages and Dangers of 'City Control'
This shared governance largely maintains the related education funding and accountability advantages of mayoral control. Voters would now hold local City Council members responsible, in addition to the Mayor, for fully funding schools. The Mayor could no more pawn off responsibility for education than he or she might try to disown police, fire, or other city agencies subject to similar Council powers. At the same time, with a Chancellor and major policies requiring Council approval, that body could no longer serve as mere gadfly but would have to take ownership of the success or failure of our public schools. By its approving the Chancellor's appointment, Council members would have skin in the game when questioning educational policies, perhaps leading to less adversarial hearings of less heat, more light.

This is not to say that there aren’t substantial dangers in this as yet-untried arrangement, which would be unique in the nation. The Council can be an ungainly body and its new education responsibilities would require a degree of discipline and timeliness not ordinarily found in large deliberative bodies. Particular burdens would fall on the Education Committee Chair to hold numerous hearings and filter reasoned recommendations to the full Council for approval. Grandstanding is a given and the chance of the Council being captured by dominant political interests is also present, though probably not any greater than is currently the case under mayoral control. Most important, the agility of mayoral control to deliver system change could be stymied by ungainly shared decision-making. 

Day-to-day operation of the Department of Education would see little change under this arrangement. After all, the current PEP meets only once per month and while its meetings are long on procedure, there are usually few matters of substance, however important. It will take time for the DOE, the Mayor, and the Council to negotiate such new terrain, balancing oversight against micromanagement, promoting educational quality over political expediency. 

After 20 years of mayoral control, a fair test of its advantages and disadvantages can be declared though never finalized. There can be no doubt the current system has staunched the school system's previous unaccountable complacency and its pernicious reciprocal weakness, chronic mayoral underfunding. But severe problems of unilateral control and increased politicization haunt today's education policy-making. 

Whether more political involvement will improve the situation is an open question. Traditionally, though, the American way of solving this conundrum is checks and balances between elected executive and legislative branches. No governance structure is determinative of sound education policy, but it may be time to adopt this solution by including the City Council's broad representation of popular interests in schools decision-making.

David C. Bloomfield is Professor of Education Leadership, Law, and Policy at Brooklyn College and The CUNY Graduate Center. On Twitter @BloomfieldDavid.

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New York Must Not Exacerbate Disparities Again: Key Considerations for Equity in Covid Vaccination

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Covid field site (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

There are many high-stakes questions to be sorted out in the design of the coming covid vaccination distribution program. But there’s one issue that’s not receiving enough attention: How can we design a plan that avoids exacerbating pre-existing racial inequities and instead meaningfully advances equity?

It’s essential that we answer this question — now.

Vaccine distribution will be the most complicated implementation challenge of this pandemic, even more so in Black communities and other communities of color. We need to ensure that every aspect of the program is structured to avoid short-changing these same marginalized communities yet again.

Throughout this pandemic, Black, Latino, and indigenous communities have suffered from inadequate and inequitable resources. Hospitals in low-income areas have been under-staffed and under-supplied. Testing has been far more accessible in affluent communities. 

Unfortunately, COVID-19 vaccine trials have followed this same disturbing pattern. Black Americans only made up 8% of the Pfizer trial participants. The Moderna trial fared better at 13%. But both fell short of the portion of COVID-19 fatalities among Black Americans: 19%.  

Even more worrisome is the possibility that Black, Latino, and indigenous communities could be underrepresented in the early distribution of the vaccine, further exacerbating the pandemic’s racial health inequities.

There is general agreement that early prioritization should go to health-care workers, followed by residents of congregant settings, and then essential workers more broadly. But the way each of these categories is defined has huge implications for equity.

The health-care worker cohort should, of course, include those who directly provide care to patients, like physicians and nurses. But what about the many other job categories in hospitals? Cleaning staff, translators, cafeteria workers, and security guards all have contact with COVID-19 patients. The same is of course true for home health aides. And all are far more likely to be people of color. Excluding them — or any covid-facing worker in a health-care setting — would be profoundly unfair. 

Similar questions arise with the congregant setting cohort. Clearly residents and staff of nursing homes should be included in this group. But what about jails, where rates of infection among detainees and staff have been alarmingly high? Or crowded homeless shelters, which are known to be high-risk for transmission? Here again, excluding groups in these more marginal settings would disadvantage populations that are disproportionately people of color.

There are questions about the essential worker cohort as well, which rightly will almost certainly include people who work in transportation or on essential infrastructure such as wastewater treatment facilities. But what about those who work in supermarkets, laundromats, food delivery, or restaurants? These low-wage workers have been performing essential functions throughout this pandemic while exposed to the public — and are far more likely to be people of color. They must be included as well, for their own sake, and for the general public that depends on their work.

Once vaccination distribution moves to a broader public phase, decisions about the locations in which vaccines are administered also have implications for equity. The default option is to primarily use hospitals and chain pharmacies. But there are fewer of both in low-income areas. To reach the broadest number of Black, Latino, and indigenous people, vaccination programs should be set up in a variety of accessible local settings, including churches, community centers, public housing developments, and schools. 

It is also critical that there be no barriers to receiving the vaccine based on an individual's immigraiton status. Preliminary plans from the Trump administration would require patients to present a form of ID that is a proxy for citizenship in order to be registered in the vaccination database. This would have disastrous consequences, and cannot be a standard that is used in New York.

And then there is what may be the biggest challenge of all: building confidence in the vaccine among communities that have a century-long history of abuse, exploitation, and neglect by the medical system, in particular around vaccines. Communities of color still experience discrimination and bias in health-care settings today.

To overcome the trust gap, there must be total transparency about COVID-19 vaccine safety, efficacy, and side effects. Additionally, there must be a well-funded, culturally-responsive, multilingual outreach campaign to share this critical information with Black, Latino, and other communities of color. Local community organizations must be mobilized for on-the-ground outreach, at a scale that is more robust than the campaign to promote participation in the Census.

The federal government will be imminently rolling out guidelines on key aspects of the vaccination distribution process. But it will be up to state and local governments to tailor these plans to the needs of their local communities.

It is critical that here in New York City, and across the country, we design a fair and equitable vaccination program that ensures that no one is left behind. Lives depend on it.

Dr. Uché Blackstock is a Board-certified emergency medicine physician, the founder and CEO of Advancing Health Equity, and a Yahoo! News Medical Contributor. New York City Council Member Mark D. Levine represents parts of Manhattan and is chair of the Council’s Health Committee. On Twitter @uche_blackstock and @MarkLevineNYC.

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The Covid Mink Slaughter is a Symbol of Fur’s Inhumanity and New York City’s Inaction

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An activist at a City Council hearing (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

Word from European countries that they will be killing millions of minks because of coronavirus outbreaks jumping from animals to humans on farms is shockingly upsetting.

But the real offense here is that the minks were being farmed to be killed anyway for the fur industry and that atrocity doesn’t really garner headlines anymore.

By now the world is aware that zoonotic diseases – diseases that spread from animals to humans such as COVID-19, Ebola, HIV, H1N1, Mad Cow Disease and Avian flu – have caused millions of deaths worldwide and yet humans continue to treat animals as a means to a human goal and not sentient beings worthy of their own rights to live their natural lives undisturbed.

The origin of the COVID-19 outbreak last winter has been linked to wild animal meat markets in China where bats and other wildlife such as pangolins were stacked together in cages waiting to be bought by patrons and consumed. Trade in wildlife is a primary contributor to zoonotic disease outbreaks, as is habitat destruction that expels wildlife from their natural ecosystems and overdevelopment.

Denmark is the world’s largest exporter of mink furs. But the responsibility for the slaughter doesn’t end with that country. There are mink farms in other countries as well as in the U.S., where the coronavirus has killed more than 15,000 mink.

But again, these minks were doomed anyway, fodder for the trade in their pelts to feed a fur industry that should be shuttered for good.

The way forward to prevent more zoonotic diseases and the needless killing of millions of animals is to take concrete steps to end the exploitation.

In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, Denmark’s leading fur auction house, Kopenhagen Fur, announced that due to the loss of minks for production it would shut its doors in a few years. The coronavirus was just one more nail in the coffin of an industry that was already on its way out. Many major fashion houses, retailers, and designers have already spurned fur, including Coach, Kors, Ralph Lauren, Gucci, Versace, Calvin Klein, Macy’s, and Nordstrom.

And yet, the New York City Council is sitting on a bill that would end the sale of fur in the city. Council Speaker Corey Johnson introduced the bill in 2018 and spoke forcefully for its passage at a health committee hearing but the bill stalled when it was met with opposition from the fur industry and some religious groups.

Declining to pass the bill sends a message to the world that the caging and killing of mink will continue and that humans will aid and abet commerce and trade that causes needless animal suffering and fosters pandemics such as COVID-19, which has already killed more than 250,000 U.S. residents. It’s time to pass the bill and ban the sale of fur in New York City.

Priscilla Feral is the president of Friends of Animals, an international, nonprofit animal advocacy organization incorporated in New York in 1957. On Twitter @foaorg.

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Saying Yes to Good Jobs in Queens When We Need Them Most

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Construction workers at work (photo: Edward Reed/Mayoral office)

New York City is on a long road for recovery from COVID-19. Many of us have a family member, friend, neighbor, or co-worker who has been directly infected with this horrible disease. Because of our tragic experience, New Yorkers recognize better than people from any place across the globe the importance of masks, social distancing, and handwashing, and we have transitioned from the epicenter to become one of the safest places in the country.

But while we have taken many necessary steps to combat the spread of COVID-19, the tragic loss of life has coincided with a demoralizing loss of livelihood. As a new federal administration prepares for the next four years, we need to focus on reviving our economy. Close to one million New Yorkers are out of work and the Partnership for the City of New York predicts that as many 75,000 small businesses may never reopen. Those are our neighbors, friends, and loved ones. Many are wondering how they’ll pay the rent or mortgage, get health care, or put food on the table.

At times of deep unemployment, infrastructure projects often provide an economic stimulus that can make a big difference in our neighborhoods. One of those projects is right here in Queens.

NRG plans to upgrade the technology at the Astoria Generating Station to make it much cleaner and much more efficient, providing an economic and environmental boost to a neighborhood that needs both. These are well-paying jobs with benefits. Many employees live in Astoria, supporting local businesses and helping to create even more jobs. They pay taxes and support community groups year-round. 

This is one of the plants the state relies on to provide extra power when electricity demand surges. For example, if the plant hadn’t been activated during August’s tropical storm that resulted in massive blackouts across New York, hundreds of thousands more city residents could have lost power. Much of what took place in California is the direct result of shutting down power plants before there is adequate power generation to replace them. 

That’s why NRG plans to replace these 50-year-old turbines with cleaner technology that will reduce peak air emission rates by 99% per hour. The project will create 175 new good-paying union jobs at a prevailing wage and with full benefits.

Many unions and labor organizations – including the 100,000-member Building & Construction Trades Council of Greater New York that I lead – are proud members of Climate Jobs NY. We’re dedicated to projects that meet the state’s aggressive commitment to addressing climate change, which this plan will do. The technology that our members will be installing in Astoria is fully convertible to hydrogen fuel in the future, giving New York State even greater opportunities to achieve its zero-carbon emission goals.

These jobs would come at a crucial time during this historic economic downturn. Right now, one in eight working-age adults in Queens is out of a job. If a second COVID-19 wave moves into New York City this winter, our economy is likely to take another hit. 

In addition to the full-time jobs created at the work site, the project will create an additional 1,000 jobs—stemming from increased business at local restaurants, shops, and other businesses. In all, according to an independent economic study, the project stands to inject more than $325 million into the local economy, a crucial lifeline for countless small businesses that are struggling to get by.

Approving this project should be a no-brainer for the state. The new technology is available now, is better for the environment and helps the state meet its climate goals. It creates good-paying union jobs and supports the local economy in an area hit hard by the pandemic. It’s important that everyone understands what this project will bring, because we can’t continue to let some activists disrupt crucial opportunities to add jobs because of their narrow definition for what the borough and its people need.

And essentially, upgrading the Astoria plant ensures that New York City has reliable power at a time when demand is increasing. For all these benefits, the project doesn’t cost taxpayers a dime. NRG is fully funding these improvements. 

For all these reasons, let’s make sure the Astoria Replacement Project moves forward to help our communities. We can’t turn our backs on Queens. 

Gary LaBarbera is president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, an organization comprising local affiliates of 15 national and international unions representing 100,000 working men and women in New York City. On Twitter @NYCBldgTrades.

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Public Matching Funds, A Crucial Campaign Lifeline, Are On The Way

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Small donations can power campaigns (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

We’ve never seen this many candidates before. There are more than 300 declared candidates for New York City Council running in 2021, along with more than 50 running for positions like Borough President, City Comptroller, and Mayor. There are 51 City Council districts, so on average, voters will have six or more choices for their ranked-choice vote just for their local Council member in the June primaries. These unprecedented numbers demonstrate an unqualified success for the city’s campaign matching funds program that has recently been improved to lower contribution limits and increase public matching dollars. 

In the middle of a global pandemic and widespread economic distress, matching funds are more important than ever. Here’s how the matching-funds program works. For every dollar up to $175 a New York City resident donates to a political campaign, the city adds eight dollars up to a total of $1,400 per contribution. There are strings attached for candidates. Candidates who opt-in must participate in debates, abide by a spending cap, and open their spending to increased scrutiny. Executed as intended, it’s a strong and balanced system benefiting smaller donors, candidates, and the public.

When the program was initially implemented in 1989 and altered several times, most recently through significant amendments in 2019, no one could have imagined the dual pandemic and economic crises that New York City would be facing for the 2021 city elections. New York State has no such program currently but will make one available for the 2024 elections. It’s a good thing the city has this program in place right now.

Still about seven months before the June primaries, there are already 50 more Council candidates than in all of either 2017 or 2013, the last two city government election cycles. And if this year follows historical rates of matchable contributions, the New York City Campaign Finance Board will pay out millions in its initial December 15 public funds payment on their way to tens of millions of dollars this cycle. 

These public fund payments are crucial. They provide salaries for campaign workers and rent for office space. A candidate might have just a few thousand dollars in the bank right now, but can be owed tens of thousands more under this system. With New York City’s latest unemployment rate at over 13% and office vacancy rates at nearly 9%, these funds are a lifeline for campaigns and those who depend on them to be able to pay their bills and survive. And, of course, the funds pay for the distribution of important information via pamphlets, mailers, and digital advertisements that define and distinguish the candidates while informing the public. Community organizers have worked hard and hustled to raise funds from their neighbors. These public funds allow campaigns to swing into high gear. 

Above all, each campaign represents a choice for voters as well as someone’s dream to serve their community. This program expands both. This year, in Manhattan, there were 14 candidates for seven contested state legislative races in the Democratic primary. Eleven seats saw incumbents run unopposed. For 2021, enabled by the matching funds program, there are already 54 announced candidates for City Council across ten races in the borough. All but one district has multiple candidates. Even more candidates are likely to announce. It’s clear that the availability of these public matching funds is enabling hundreds of New Yorkers to run for office and create more competitive elections.

The city’s matching funds program has already been proven to work. In the 2019 Public Advocate special election, small-dollar contributions went from about 25% of all funds raised to more than 66%, according to data from City Council Member Ben Kallos of Manhattan. That race drew 17 candidates, a harbinger of what was to come for 2021. New York City’s matching funds program means more candidates, better campaigns, and greater choices for voters at the ballot box.

Martin Rather is the Co-Founder of The November Group, a NY Political Compliance Firm. On Facebook.

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