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What To Do When The L Train Closes


mta out of service

Out of service (photo: MTA/Patrick Cashin)


The denizens of Williamsburg and Bushwick have responded to news of potential multiyear L train closures with a mix of shock, despair, and irritation. People are talking through the alternatives: taking the G, J, and M trains; boarding the East River Ferry; or even (gasp!) riding the bus. Quite likely Williamsburgers will also summon a swarm of UberPools and Lyft Lines unlike any seen in our time.

Hysterics aside, it’s unlikely that the MTA would do a full, year-long double-tube shutdown. The most plausible plan is a long series of “nights and weekends” shutdowns for tube repairs, with the possibility of a brief total closure of both tubes to finish them “Fastrak”-style while rehabs of the 1st Avenue and Bedford stations and additional electrical substations are built. The latter service upgrades, which would permanently boost the line’s peak-hour capacity by 10 percent (a big deal for a subway line often at “crush” capacity during rush hour), depend on the timely success of Senator Chuck Schumer’s request to expedite federal funding. Nothing is certain until the upgrade funding comes through, but some Sandy-related stretch of nights-and-weekends closures is sure to come, as the MTA’s initial bid requests describe a contract lasting about 40 months.

If the MTA does indeed briefly close both tunnels—or even just one at a time—what should be done to limit the carnage? First, carpool restrictions (HOV-2, or even HOV-3) on the Williamsburg Bridge during train closures—just like during transit strikes and natural disasters. Previous nights-and-weekends closures of the L have brought “Carmageddon” to the bridge, especially during UberPool and Lyft Line promotions. Ensuring that solo drivers don’t hog every lane is a surefire way to keep everyone moving.

I personally remember the bridge congestion during the UberPool $2.75-a-ride L train closure special, as it was both the first time I shared an UberPool and the first time I rode with a carsick middle-aged woman being ill out the back window into the East River.

So to minimize the stop-and-go, nausea-inducing congestion—and maximize the potential efficiency of ridesharing services—the city should cooperate with the MTA in implementing HOV restrictions on the bridge, and even dedicating a lane to shuttle buses and the B39. It’s not at all radical to take away a car lane for more efficient transportation modes: The Williamsburg Bridge was built for streetcars.

This potential L train crisis is a reminder that better transit redundancy plans are needed for high-volume chokepoints, even if they inconvenience a comparatively small number of drivers. A truly radical long-term proposal would involve permanently replacing some car lanes with transit-only lanes and re-opening the abandoned streetcar terminal under Essex Street on the Manhattan side of the bridge. Current proposals include replacing the terminal with an odd subterranean mushroom park.

But if the real estate industry ever gets serious about funding a public-private waterfront streetcar through Williamsburg, perhaps restoring the rail lanes to the old streetcar terminal could be added to the plan. No matter what the MTA decides, the coming L train closures are an opportunity to start getting creative with our transportation systems and our waterfront. Let’s hope at least some of these mitigation proposals get a serious hearing.

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Alex Armlovich is a policy analyst at the Manhattan Institute. On Twitter @aarmlovi.

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As Federal Aid System Advances, Our Outdated Way Leaves New York Students Behind


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Gov. Cuomo and SUNY 2020 (photo via The Governor's Office)


If New York wants to put students first, it must align financial aid statute
with the updated federal FAFSA.

FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) is the form that has been used to determine how much federal financial aid, and in some cases institutional financial aid, students receive since the early 1990s. Over the course of the last several years, the Obama Administration has worked to streamline the process, including an Executive Order announcing that beginning with the 2017-2018 academic year, FAFSA completion will utilize tax data from the year prior to the previous tax year (also known as "prior-prior") to make it easier for students and families to complete this critical form.

This is a change that advocates like NYSFAAA and Young Invincibles have been pushing for years. And, New York must act this year to bring its processes to meet the same type of standards.

So why are these changes such a big deal for students? In short, it can be incredibly difficult for students to find and use their previous year's tax information. Let's not forget that in many cases we are asking high school students to understand, process and use complicated tax information. Many students who complete the FAFSA before April of any given year end up using estimated tax information if they or their parents have not yet completed the most recent tax return.

This causes complications for both students and colleges, as families end up having the difficult task of trying to estimate their income information, and in turn schools end up having to award aid based on these estimates. Corrections to the data after taxes are actually filed can throw students who are already enrolled in a college for a serious and detrimental loop. What's worse, the aid pool can dry up while these institutions wait for accurate information. Either way, in some cases the aid they thought they could have suddenly seems to just disappear and with it, potentially the dream of going to school.

Most states are equipped to accommodate this transition to prior-prior year income data without a change in state law. New York, however, is one of the states that cannot seamlessly make this transition, and right now because of this students are going to bear the burden.

Completion of the New York State financial aid application for TAP (Tuition Assistance Program) requires by law that only prior year income be used in the determination of awards. This creates a disconnect between the federal aid application and the state aid application, making the system incredibly confusing and difficult for students to navigate. Fixing this disconnect and eliminating this burdensome requirement, as the federal system has done, could be the difference between a student going to college and a student being left behind by our state.

To remedy this problem and ensure that the application itself doesn't become an unnecessary barrier to aid, a statutory change in New York is needed that would require TAP to use prior-prior year income data. While there are a number of necessary reforms needed to bring the Tuition Assistance Program into the 21st century, this statutory change to align with federal regulation is common sense and an easy lift, and it must be done before the end of the legislative session in Albany.

The rising cost of getting a college degree is already a barrier to many New Yorkers, the financial aid application process should be the least of their concerns.

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by Sue Mead, Government Relations Chair for the New York State Financial Aid Administrators Association, and Kevin Stump, Northeast Director for Young Invincibles NY.

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Common Core Mistakes Worth Not Repeating


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State Education Commissioner Elia visits a school (photo: @NYSEDNews)


Political expediency is terrible policy.

This idiom is crystal clear when it comes to the criticisms of the Common Core. To hear the cynics tell it, repealing the Common Core learning standards is as easy as 1, 2, 3; repeal them, increase scores, then everything is fine.

But it is not nearly that simple.

As policymakers consider the next steps in strengthening New York's education system, and legislators enter yet another session fraught with politically motivated self-interests in Albany, it is important they learn from the mistakes other states have made.

There are real costs associated with replacing Common Core, and perhaps even more importantly, the process of doing so results in chaos in our classrooms. The warnings are clearly spelled out in a new report from High Achievement New York – and our state's leaders would be foolish to ignore them.

Despite the heated debate and rhetoric about Common Core around the country, including among presidential candidates, only two states, Indiana and Oklahoma, have actually repealed the standards and tried to replace them with something new and different.

What perhaps sounded like a quick fix designed to appease political agitators turned into a costly waste of taxpayer dollars and left confused teachers in both states.

Indiana spent $170 million to repeal the Common Core. The change came at a time when educators in that state were indicating they were just getting comfortable with the standards. Learning and preparing to teach new education standards is a difficult process; and one that teachers are usually given a year or more to adapt to. In Indiana, they only had three months. The haphazard change resulted in frustrated and flustered educators which hurt the education of every child in that state.

It was complaints about overtesting that, in part, drove Indiana to make this rushed change. The state's plan truly backfired and parents and students bore the brunt of the change. Indiana rolled out a new exam in 2015, which included 12 hours of testing time, double that of the previous year. That number is now at nine hours of testing time, again more than when the Common Core standards were in place.

In Oklahoma, the cost of repealing Common Core totaled $125 million. The state reverted back to old standards – which had failed to adequately prepare students for college and careers. In fact, 40 percent of Oklahoma's high school graduates under those standards needed remedial courses as college freshmen.

Elsewhere around the country, there are countless states that reviewed the Common Core looking to solve their political problems yet ended up leaving the standards themselves largely intact.
South Carolina's new standards are 90 percent aligned to Common Core and it is much the same for West Virginia's new standards.

In New Jersey, a review resulted in the recommendation to keep 85 percent of standards and to continue administering the PARCC exam developed by a consortium of states and aligned with the Common Core.

The story is much the same in Florida, Arizona, and Iowa where the standards were simply rebranded with new names.

Experience elsewhere clearly indicates that forcing the repeal of Common Core is the wrong move for our children and would be a colossal waste of time and money.

Instead of putting politics first, our policymakers, from the Governor to the Regents and Education Commissioner, should work towards customized standards that meet the unique needs of our students, while remaining closely aligned to the Common Core.

So what should we take away from all these efforts to help us make the right decisions here in New York right now?

First, and most importantly, trying to repeal or substantially replace the Common Core standards would be a waste. It would be a waste of time, a waste of money, and worse it would plunge classrooms into confusion, setting yet another generation of children back.

Second, new "New York" standards must be as or more rigorous than the Common Core. We cannot forget why these rigorous standards were implemented in the first place – to actually prepare children for college and 21st century careers. Standards that promote critical thinking and reasoning are essential so that our children have the tools to succeed in an increasingly global economy.

Rigorous standards based on the Common Core and assessments aligned with those standards give us the baseline to ensure that all children are advancing together. We cannot go backwards on this.

Third, when politicians become too involved in the mechanics of what happens in the classroom, nothing good happens. That is why any review process should be driven by the professionals at the State Education Department – the people who know education policies the best.

Fourth, and similarly, classroom teachers must be the driving voices in any revisions. Teachers are on the front lines and understanding what is working in our classrooms and what is not.

And finally, a new name actually matters. Renaming the standards, yet keeping them based on the Common Core, removes from the debate what has been a name easily demonized for political purposes. Instead, New Yorkers would be able to turn their attention to the standards themselves. When that happens, as shown in a recent Center for American Progress poll and in countless states, rigorous standards are overwhelmingly popular.

Students, teachers, and parents in other states learned the pitfalls of replacing Common Core the hard way. In New York we don't have to.

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Stephen Sigmund is the Executive Director of High Achievement New York and Denise Toscano is an Elementary Principal in Suffolk County. She is a member of High Achievement New York and an America Achieves' New York Educator Voice Fellow.

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Give New York Manufacturers the Space They Need


manufacturing background

photo: William Alatriste


In November, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito released a manufacturing policy that makes a strong commitment to the city’s Industrial Business Zones (IBZs). This is the culmination of a growing consensus among certain sectors of the city, from the Progressive Caucus of the City Council to the Hotel Trades Council the editorial board of Crain’s NY Business.

The ten-point plan includes investments in city-owned manufacturing facilities such as the Navy Yard, the creation of a shared advanced manufacturing incubation space, and, controversially, strengthening the prohibition of residential uses within IBZs. Naturally, however, some developers and real estate investors are skeptical, according to Politico New York:

"Several developers…were predictably troubled by the idea that they could not build apartments and condos in these zones … “There are areas of the city that manufacturing is never going to return to. With the housing crisis being what it is, it doesn’t make sense to preserve them for jobs that aren’t coming,” said one developer."

Steve Cuozzo at the Post goes farther, calling it “delusional:”

"What’s looney is the misallocated priority. While the city moves at a snail’s pace to rezone East Midtown, chief engine of the city’s tax base, and buries shopkeepers and small businesses under an avalanche of fines and regulations, it’s throwing the kitchen sink into massaging a sector that counts for peanuts in relation to a financial-, media- and service-driven economy."

As outlined by Saskia Sassen in The Global City, New York’s economy today, like most global cities, is built on producer services like finance, law, and marketing, which make New York into a command-and-control center for the global economy. When Cuozzo tells us to focus on rezoning East Midtown and the “financial- media- and service-driven economy” that operates there, he is arguing that New York should further specialize in producer services, on the assumption that they can sustain the city’s economy and finances indefinitely.

It’s natural to ask, why not? Why make space for manufacturing, when other sectors are contributing so much to the region’s economy, and with affordable housing in such short supply?

For one, cities need manufacturing. Urban production is a self-sustaining engine of prosperity. Not large-scale industrial monocultures like the Detroit auto industry in the “big three” era, but a large variety of small manufacturers buying and selling to one another, like New York’s economy was built on.

As Jane Jacobs argues in The Economy of Cities and Cities and the Wealth of Nations, with support from many economists, cities grow and thrive when small enterprises start producing things they previously imported from other cities, creating new markets for suppliers, maintenance, and distributors, while creating knowledge spillovers that lead to new innovation. The cycle continues as the new imports are replaced in turn. This cycle, she argues, is the very process of economic development.

Jacobs even went so far as to criticize Mayor Bloomberg’s rezoning of Greenpoint and Williamsburg in the last year of her long life, in part because it robbed the neighborhood of manufacturing land. Even Bloomberg recognized the importance of production, since his administration created the IBZs and, with great success, redeveloped the Brooklyn Navy Yard as a productive manufacturing space.

Producer services may result in high profits, but the majority of working-class jobs they create are precarious, low-wage service jobs. Without manufacturing jobs to fill the gap, workers can’t keep up with the rising rents and fares on the paltry wages they make mopping floors and mixing lattes. Fighting back against that inequality, whether through struggles for a $15 minimum wage, against racist police violence, and to preserve and expand affordable housing are crucial. So is building a stronger, more sustainable economic base for working-class New Yorkers.

To create that base, the city must reserve space for job-creating production to occur. Forget the market balancing supply and demand: in such a hot market, there is more demand for various land uses than the city will ever have the square footage to supply. Without public action, only the highest-margin uses will win out, so reserving space for manufacturing, just as it does for affordable housing, is exactly what the city should be doing. Affordable housing, public services, and manufacturing all contribute to the needs, prosperity and culture of the city, but if they are caught in a bidding war with finance and high-end real estate, they will lose. The city isn’t just a space to consume, it’s a place to produce.

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Matthew Rigney is a Master of City and Regional Planning Candidate at Rutgers University.

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Criminal Justice Reform Act is No Alternative to Broken Windows Policing


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NYPD ceremony in Times Square (photo: @CommissBratton)


Monday morning the City Council will begin consideration of a series of bills, called the Criminal Justice Reform Act, which would limit the use of criminal penalties to manage a variety of low level “quality of life” offenses such as public drinking, park code violations, noise, and public urination. City Council Member Vanessa Gibson, chair of the public safety committee, said she hopes these changes will reduce the problem of excessive criminalization in communities of color, a sentiment echoed by Council Member Rory Lancman, chair of the courts committee, on WNYC radio last Friday. Lancman noted that too many areas of the city have experienced overpolicing and overcriminalization.

The Act, being spearheaded by Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito,  already has broad support in the Council and the endorsement of NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton, and thus, Mayor de Blasio. It's encouraging that political leaders in New York City are exploring ways of reducing the impact of the criminal justice system on communities of color, but this package of reforms is at best a baby step, and at worst, may open the door to more racially discriminatory police actions.

The bills, if passed, would create new civil penalty options for these offences by allowing police to choose between a criminal summons and a civil one when encountering an offender, a choice made based on departmental guidelines. The criminal codes remain on the books per Bratton’s insistence, which he says is necessary so that officers can demand identification, conduct searches, and perform background checks.

With a criminal summons, people must appear in summons court and if they fail to do so a warrant is issued for their arrest. Over a million such arrest warrants are currently on the books, leading to numerous unfortunate encounters with the police, such as being arrested on the way to work or to pick children up from school.

The new civil process, to be administered by the city’s Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings, will be more like traffic court in which people must pay a fine or perform community service, but no warrant will result from failure to comply. Instead, a civil judgement will be issued, which could result in the garnishment of wages or bank accounts, or seizure of property. This might also affect one’s credit rating. None of this will result in incarceration, which is positive, but the penalties can still be substantial, with fines ranging from $25 to $250 for a first offense.

In addition, these financial penalties are likely to fall heaviest on areas where quality-of-life, or broken windows, enforcement is the most widespread, removing resources from already poor communities. While some will escape these penalties through community service programs, many working poor will not.

Vincent Riggins, chair of the public safety committee of Community Board 5 in East New York has actually called for the return of half of all those fines to the local community board to be spent on community development projects. It is a great idea that would reduce the financial incentive that has driven excessive and discriminatory summonsing in places like Ferguson, MO.

Riggins has raised another important point. By leaving these offenses on the books, rather than truly decriminalizing them, the door is left open for the kinds of invasive policing experienced under stop, question, and frisk in recent years. By keeping open alcohol an offense, police will have “reasonable suspicion” to stop anyone drinking a beverage in a bag or unmarked container, potentially leading to exactly the kinds of unwarranted police intrusions that we have worked so hard to reduce. While Bratton rightly touts reductions in police enforcement encounters, racial disparities persist.

Another area of concern is the discretionary nature of the new rules. The NYPD insisted that it would only support the bill if it retained the ability to treat these offences as criminal when officers felt it appropriate. This gives them the ability to demand ID and run people for warrants. But what will determine who gets a civil summons, who gets a criminal one, and who gets run for warrants? There is a real risk that the more punitive practices will become heavily concentrated in exactly those poor, non-white communities that bore the brunt of stop, question, and frisk, and who bear the burden of most criminal summonses and low level arrests now.

Council Member Gibson says that there will be a process of determining policies for guiding officer discretion, and that the City Council is calling for the default to be a civil summons. This outcome, however, is far from assured, since the ultimate decision rests with the NYPD and the officer on the street. Therefore, there is a real risk that the police will perceive the need to take harsher and more invasive action in exactly the same places they do now, with milder penalties reserved for more prosperous parts of the city. If these changes are enacted, this must be monitored closely, something Council Members Jumaane Williams and Mark Levine are proposing through a bill mandating reporting by the NYPD.

Any reduction in the use of criminal penalties is welcome, but this measure retains an adherence to using punitive mechanisms to manage so called quality-of-life problems in keeping with the deeply conservative Broken Windows theory. There is nothing in the bill to develop non-punitive mechanisms for addressing community problems.

As one caller to WNYC pointed out, the current criminal penalties seem to be largely ineffective in reducing the amount of public urination, why should the civil penalties be any more effective? They won’t. The reality is that public bathrooms are largely non-existent in New York City. Other major cities around the world have much more developed amenities in place and have largely avoided this problem. If you don’t want people to pee in public, give them functional and accessible public bathrooms, not a choice between criminal and civil sanctions.

In addition, a lot of quality-of-life problems are driven by pervasive underemployment for youth of color, a lack of positive social activities for young people, and widespread homelessness. While the Mayor and City Council have started to acknowledge the extent of some of these problems, their focus has been primarily on hiring more police and tinkering with what kind of punitive sanctions to use, rather than a major redistribution of resources away from police, courts, and prisons, and towards housing, healthcare, and youth services.

In his book The Silent Black Majority, Michael Fortner shows that the push for criminal justice solutions to community problems was supported by many in poor black communities and my own research on the rise of quality-of-life policing in the ‘90s shows the same thing. But what I also found was that these communities also called for youth centers, improved housing, and better schools, but what they got was only the policing and prisons. It’s time our political leaders quit asking the NYPD for permission to really shift resources away from the criminal justice system and towards improving communities in positive ways.

In Los Angeles, the Youth Justice Coalition has called for redirecting 1% of all criminal justice spending ($100 million) in the county towards youth jobs, community centers, and violence reduction outreach workers. That would be real reform. The Police Reform Organizing Project here in New York is currently exploring a similar initiative on an even broader scale. Crime and disorder matter and need to be addressed, but we must strive to develop affirming rather than punitive solutions whenever possible. If the City Council is serious about reducing the negative impacts of the criminal justice system, it should start by revisiting its decision to expand the NYPD. More police with more discretion is not the answer.

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Alex S. Vitale is associate professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and author of City of Disorder: How the Quality of Life Campaign Transformed New York Politics. He is senior policy adviser to the Police Reform Organizing Project and serves on the New York State Advisory Committee to the US Civil Rights Commission. You can follow him on Twitter: @avitale

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Time to Support New York Students with Billions Still Owed from Campaign for Fiscal Equity


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Council Member Dromm (middle), the author, at the Queens Library


Governor Andrew Cuomo's recently proposed budget plan for education is a mixed bag, but represents a major shift from his attacks on public education in years past. Ultimately, however, his plan falls short by allocating less than $1 billion in new education money this year at a time when public schools are still owed more than $4.4 billion in Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) funding.

The CFE was a lawsuit brought by parents against the State of New York over a decade ago. These parents charged the State with failing to provide public school students with an adequate education. In 2006, the New York State Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, finding the State in violation of a student's constitutional right to a "sound and basic education" by underfunding schools.

Nearly ten years later students have still not received the money due to them. The State still owes New York City a staggering $2 billion, leaving our public schools woefully underfunded.

Even the $1.3 billion school aid increase provided in the 2015-16 budget was not enough to restore the massive cuts our schools suffered earlier in the decade. Public schools in immigrant and low-income communities are particularly affected, most of which are owed over 77% of outstanding CFE dollars.

Just imagine the transformative impact a $4.4 billion dollar investment in public education would have on our children's lives. If adequately funded, schools would have the ability to hire additional teachers and school support personnel. Among other things, these sorely needed dollars would provide our students with a more robust physical education and help expand arts education in our schools. These CFE funds would bring about a dramatic reduction in class sizes in New York's most overcrowded school districts. The possibilities are endless.

Credit where credit is due: I am excited that the Governor sees the value of the community school model and recognizes how successful community schools have been in New York City. Supporting students holistically—by offering support groups and child daycare for parents, access to physical and mental healthcare, mentors for students and other valuable services—will make them successful in many ways.
The $100 million he has allocated for community schools is welcome news, but falls short of the $500 million needed considering that these schools have grown exponentially over the past year.

I am hopeful that the Governor's budget plan signifies a renewed interest in public education. But it's high time he settles this ten-year-old debt. New York State must deliver the entire $4.4 billion in CFE funding it owes in order to truly do right by our children. Their futures deserve no less.

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Daniel Dromm is a City Council member from Queens and chair of the Council Committee on Education. On Twitter @Dromm25.

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Stand Against Racism, Protect Asian-American Women's Health


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Council Member Chin, one of the authors (photo: William Alatriste)


New York City has the opportunity to support Asian-Americans and women's health by opposing deceptively named, so-called "sex-selective abortion bans."

These attacks on a woman's right to choose are wolves in sheep's clothing. At a glance, such bans might sound like laws meant to further women's rights. But they actually do just the opposite.

The tragic reality of "son preference" has been a serious issue in some countries, such as India and China, where women do not have the same rights and status that they have here. But male preference is not a widespread issue in the United States – not for any specific ethnic group or for the population as a whole. In fact, a recent study conducted by the University of Chicago Law School finds that Asian-Americans are giving birth to more girls than white Americans.

Given these facts, the sex-selective bans being introduced across the U.S. are disingenuous at best. They exploit a real problem around gender that has been well documented in other countries to harm the very communities they purport to help.

In an effort to draw attention to these harmful and offensive bans, we have drafted a resolution that was recently introduced in the City Council to put the City of New York on record in opposition to this latest attack on a woman's right to choose.

More than just an attack on reproductive health and family planning services, these bans promote ugly stereotypes about our community – namely, that we as Asian-Americans do not value the lives of our girls.

Many in the Asian-American community already face heightened barriers to accessing care, and laws like sex-selective abortion bans widen the gap. Sex-selective bans also damage the doctor-patient relationship by opening private medical decisions to scrutiny by both health-care providers and law enforcement.

This is not just bad policy; sex-selective abortion bans are dangerous to women's health and could have a chilling effect on women seeking health care. Under no circumstances should patient-doctor parenting discussions be called into question because of one's skin color or ethnicity.

Factors like immigration status, income and cultural and linguistic barriers already make it difficult for women in our community to get the health care they need. In New York City, 49 percent of Asian-American adults have limited English proficiency. And 20 percent of all Asian-Americans in the city are uninsured.

With New York City home to one of the largest Asian-American populations in the country, we must take a stand and demand that our state and federal colleagues work to ensure our communities have greater access to health care — not more restrictions.

In their myopic pursuit of an anti-choice agenda, some lawmakers are irresponsibly placing basic health care needs of the Asian American community at risk. And yet, despite the dangerous consequences, they are having some legislative success. In 2013 and 2014, sex-selective bans were the second most proposed type of abortion restriction in the country. Even New York State is not immune —this year, one such law was introduced in the Assembly. We must stem the tide of these attacks.

By working together with advocates to introduce this new resolution, we are urging our city to take a stand against these offensive bans. If the City Council passes this important resolution, it could become the third city in the country to denounce this attack on access to health care and family planning for thousands of Asian-Americans.

New Yorkers deserve better. Join us in standing up against racism and supporting women's health by urging your City Council representative to support this important resolution.

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by New York City Council Member Margaret Chin and National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum Executive Director Miriam Yeung.

The Wisdom of Primaries


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Zephyr Teachout, in yellow, with "fractivists" (photo: @zephyrteachout)


In her zeal to attach herself to Barack Obama at the recent Democratic debate in Charleston, Hillary Clinton at one point issued a somewhat unexpected line of attack. In advance of the 2012 campaign, Clinton charged, Bernie Sanders had "publicly sought someone to run in a primary against President Obama." 

There's no disputing that Sanders did in fact express such a position, based on his concern that Obama was moving to the right during his first term. But during the debate on Twitter and later that evening on CNN, Obama's chief strategist David Axelrod echoed Clinton's disdain for Sanders' view that a primary might be good for the party.

Notably, neither Clinton nor Axelrod deemed it necessary to explain why in their view, such a challenge would have been a bad thing. Here in New York, meanwhile, we've seen quite clearly the positive benefits of making an incumbent answer to his party's base.

In 2014, Zephyr Teachout bucked the leadership of both the state Democratic Party and the Working Families Party by running a primary challenge against Andrew Cuomo. Though outspent by an astronomical sum, Teachout won the same number of counties as the sitting governor. Cuomo's healthy margin of victory (62-34%) came mainly because of the vote in New York City and Buffalo.

Although weakened by a novice candidate, the legendarily vindictive Cuomo has actually sought to make amends with the constituencies that did not support him in the primary.

First he surprised many upstate activists by banning fracking. Over the past year, he has responded to the teachers unions and public school parents by withdrawing his support for the Common Core (an issue central to Rob Astorino's unsuccessful Republican bid in the general election). And Cuomo has patched up his ties with Working Families Party unions by pushing for a $15 minimum wage and paid family leave.

Ethics reformers—another Teachout constituency—are still holding their breath. Even as the cloud of suspicion cast over by Cuomo by Preet Bharara hovered, the governor paid only lip service to changing the rules in Albany. For example, despite his stated support for closing the LLC loophole, he continued to rake in donations from big real estate developers. Bharara's investigation thus can't be credited with forcing Cuomo to shift gears.

Nor does Cuomo's sandbox sparring with Mayor de Blasio sufficiently explain the governor's leftward lurch. After all, de Blasio campaigned for Cuomo in 2014, and the latter remains the more popular of the two figures in citywide polling.

In short, absent the primary contest that allowed voters across the state to express various disagreements, Cuomo most likely have would have remained on the centrist course of his first term.

Because there no was primary challenge to Obama in 2012, it would be pure speculation to say that a meaningful challenge from the left would have forced him to move in that direction. But in his second term, Obama hasn't offered up any significant new domestic policy initiatives, suggesting that he's not terribly worried about what the activist wing of the party thinks about his presidency.

Here in New York City, it's unclear whether any candidate will wage a primary contest against Mayor de Blasio next year. But those on the left unhappy with the mayor's caution on police reform and closing Rikers, or coziness with developers, might welcome it. So, too, might more centrist voters concerned about the mayor's management of the homeless problem or the budget implications of his deals with unions.

Regardless of whether a strong contender enters the ring, this much is clear: Always be wary of politicians or pundits who argue that more democracy is not a good thing.

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

New York's Education Policy in Historic Disarray


cuomo parental choice BK May 2015

Gov. Cuomo in May, 2015 (photo: Office of the Governor - Kevin P. Coughlin)


The past several months have been one of the most tumultuous periods in New York State's educational history, culminating several years of false starts and disarray in education policy. It's not without precedent, though, and history has valuable lessons for New York today.

Disillusionment and disavowal of recent educational practices
In December, President Barack Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act, replacing the 15-year old No Child Left Behind Act and sweeping away its emphasis on standardized tests and punitive approach to failing schools. The new law returns power to the states and dilutes the federal government's power to impose educational standards. That will loosen the hold of federal requirements on New York's educational policy.

Also in December, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced and endorsed the report of his "Common Core Task Force," which had been charged with evaluating the rollout of Common Core educational standards, which the federal government had supported. The task force recommended adopting new, locally-driven New York State standards and, as the governor noted, "greatly reducing testing and testing anxiety for our students. The Common Core was supposed to ensure all of our children had the education they needed to be college and career-ready – but it actually caused confusion and anxiety. That ends now."

At the same time, the Board of Regents approved a four-year moratorium on using student scores on state standardized tests as part of the teacher evaluation system, something teachers had protested (local tests will still be used, though). The Regents' suspension of the policy is in line with another recommendation of the governor's Common Core task force. The governor had also endorsed use of student test scores in teacher evaluation, a position he has also now abandoned.

The Regents adopted the Common Core some years ago and required its use in the schools without providing the necessary implementation materials or training for teachers, and mandated exams on material that had not been fully covered in the classroom. Teachers protested that the process was too rushed and opposed using the test scores in their own job evaluations. Thousands of parents joined an "opt out" movement by refusing to let their children take the exams. The embattled state commissioner of education, John King,  who oversaw the rushed rollout, left for a post in Washington, D.C. His successor, MaryEllen Elia, has promised a more thoughtful and responsive approach.

New York's per-pupil spending is among the highest in the nation but there are constant reports and press stories that our graduates are not adequately prepared for the workforce or college.

In the meantime, over the past several years New York has established a second network of publically-funded schools called charter schools, paralleling and often competing with its traditional public schools, with mixed results.

After years of disarray, we are (or should be) at a turning point. It is time for a fresh look at education policy in New York.  

Gov. Cuomo, in his State of the State address on Jan. 13, proposed changes, but relatively limited ones. Referring to criticism in his common core task force's report of "common core curriculum implementation mistakes and testing regimen," he said that "we urge the state education department to do it right this time." He supports increased school aid, expansion of charter schools, and more support for "failing" high-needs schools, including through the community schools program.

Those are significant, but they are modest; mostly more funding and a do-over of the common core rollout, well short of new departures.

Historic turning points in New York educational policy
This could be a time of opportunity for major changes to strengthen education in New York. But that would require bold, imaginative leadership.

Over the years, history suggests, New York periodically worries about, analyzes, and occasionally takes dramatic initiatives to strengthen its educational system or move off in substantially new directions.

A few examples:

*New York commits to public education. In 1812, after earlier plans to stimulate the establishment of public schools (or "common schools" as they were called then) had failed, the legislature passed the Common School Act of 1812. It created a state superintendent of public schools, outlined a process for creation and operation of local school districts, provided that the voters in each district would elect trustees to operate the schools, established a system of local revenue raised by towns and counties matched by state aid to support the schools.

The act established three precedents: public schools are a function of the state; they are to be locally administered with state oversight; and funding is a joint state-local responsibility. Article XI of the current state constitution reflects the state commitment established back in 1812: "The legislature shall provide for the maintenance and support of a system of free public schools, wherein all the children of the state may be educated."

*A governor initiates consolidation and streamlining of state educational policy. New York entered the 20th century with responsibility for educational policy scattered between the state Department of Public Instruction (successor to the Superintendent of Public Schools established in 1812) and the Board of Regents, established years earlier mainly to oversee higher education. Governor Theodore Roosevelt (1899-1901), a Republican, appointed a study commission which recommended consolidation of educational oversight in a new State Education Department under the Regents. "The plan proposed is simple, effective and wholly free from political or partisan considerations," Roosevelt said, optimistically, in a message to the legislature in 1900.

However, partisan bickering and procrastination stalled action until 1904 when, during the tenure of Roosevelt’s successor, Republican Governor Benjamin B. Odell, Republicans in the legislative majority drew up a bill to implement the recommendation.

But Democrats denounced the bill, in part because Republicans had proposed it. Democratic Assembly Minority Leader George Palmer called it "the most vicious...partisan legislation offered before this body in the last decade." The bill passed by a strictly party vote, except for one Democratic assemblymember who broke ranks to vote for it. But it launched New York onto a new educational path.

*A Commissioner of Education charts a new course for education. New York's first Commissioner of Education, Andrew S. Draper (1904-1913), took charge of educational policy. "The public school system has come to be the main hope of our nation," he wrote in his book, American Education, in 1909. "In this American system of schools the predominant characteristics of our future American citizenship are being, and must continue to be, developed." Schools should be expected "to give every child not only the means of informing himself and of expressing himself, but also a definite trade or vocation through which he may earn a living."

Like most effective commissioners since then, he recommended policy actions to the Regents, worked for their approval, and then vigorously implemented them, rather than waiting for the Regents to tell him what to do.

Draper raised standards, adjusted the curriculum to ensure students received instruction that would make them job-ready and also effective citizens, clarified and strengthened the roles of local principals and superintendents, and pushed for school consolidation. He supported stronger teacher training and established a statewide teacher retirement system. Draper's initiatives strengthened and elevated  education.

*A governor dramatically increases state aid for education. State aid to schools was meager in the early 20th century. Governor Alfred E. Smith (1919-1921, 1923-1929), a Democrat, championed public education and pushed for more school funding. When the Republican-controlled legislature balked, Smith appointed a Commission on School Finance and Administration headed by a prominent civic leader and businessman, Michael Friedsam, president of  B. Altman & Company department store in New York City, which recommended a substantial increase in state funding in 1926.

The Friedsam report resulted in a good deal of public support for substantially increased aid to education. But the fiscally tight-fisted legislature refused to act on the report. Smith made education aid a priority in his successful 1926 re-election campaign, denouncing his political opponents' "cheap political tricks" and "underhanded propaganda." The 1927 legislature raised funding to $82,500,000, a significant increase. But in a political swipe at the governor, legislative leaders announced that this was $2 million less than Smith's request, an indication, they insisted, of the legislature's fiscal frugality.

*The Regents revamp education policy. By the early 1930s, educators were complaining that curricular requirements were outdated, employers asserted that public education was not adequately preparing students for jobs in business and industry, and many taxpayers thought that education had become too costly.

The Regents responded by launching a searching analysis, The Regents Inquiry into the Character and Cost of Public Education, in 1935-1938. When the legislature showed reluctance to fund the study, the Regents secured support for it from the Rockefeller Foundation. The study was headed by highly respected Regent Owen D. Young, who was also chief executive officer of General Electric. It was carried out by recognized experts in education and public policy. The inquiry issued a summary report and ten supplemental reports on specific topics.

Youths leaving high school "are not adequately educated...not prepared to play a helpful part in the life of this state," the report said. The school curriculum "has not been designed to fit them for the new and changing work opportunities which they must face in modern economic life." The report recommended more technical and vocational training to impart "immediately marketable skills" and "character education," training in civics and citizenship, and many other curricular changes.

The Education Department should relax its regulatory oversight over the schools, allow greater local school board autonomy, and concentrate on identifying and disseminating modern educational practices to the schools, it said.

The report also recommended stronger teacher training programs, higher salaries and expanded tenure protection to attract more and better teachers.

The report was a wellspring for substantial changes in education policy, practices, and curriculum over the next decade.

This could be another historic turning point for education in New York State
The past few years of education policy disarray, and the historical examples outlined above and others that might be cited, suggest five insights for shaping New York's future educational plans.

One, leadership is critical, and it can come from the Governor, Regents, Commissioner of Education, or key legislators.

Two, for many years New York's educational system was regarded as among the best in the nation. Regents exams and degrees were something approaching a gold standard in education. Those were years before substantial federal involvement in education, before externally-created standards such as common core, and before a continual barrage of proposed educational reforms from outside think tanks such as the Gates Foundation. New York leaders acted on New York reports on the state's needs and opportunities. This might argue for returning to a system of more reliance on New York's own educational experts and less on outsiders.

Three, a carefully-compiled, visionary, thoughtful analytical report, describing current conditions, setting forth a vision, and outlining a preferred course of action, can inform and streamline the process of reaching a consensus and taking action.

Four, sometimes a bold, innovative, mostly unprecedented new approach may be needed, e.g., a new way of preparing and evaluating teachers, more robust and imaginative integration of educational technology and social media in education, more sharing of resources between schools (for instance, courses taught over the web), different forms of evaluation, or a new way of funding public education.

Five, whatever is proposed and enacted will require years to be implemented, take root, and have a measurable impact.

***
Dr. Bruce W. Dearstyne lives in Guilderland, New York. He is the author of The Spirit of New York: Defining Events in the Empire State's History, published in 2015 by SUNY Press. 

Cuomo’s Preparatory Commission Should Prioritize Fixing ConCon Process


color guard SOTS

photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo 


In his 2016 State of the State Address, Governor Andrew Cuomo promised to “invest $1 million to create an expert, non-partisan commission to develop a blueprint for a [constitutional] convention.” New Yorkers will vote on Nov. 7, 2017 on whether to call a state constitutional convention and the commission would educate the public on what a “yes” vote might entail.

Traditionally, such commissions have taken the constitutional convention process itself as a given and focused on the substantive changes to state government a convention might propose; for example, today’s hot-button issue of legislative ethics. But that agenda is too limited. The commission should also consider reforms to update the convention process.

In the past, a potent argument against calling for a convention has been that a convention would merely replicate the Legislature’s corruption. For example, some major New York good government groups opposed calling a convention in 1997, the last time the question was on the ballot, by arguing legislators elected as convention delegates would dominate a convention (approximately 5% of the delegates elected to New York’s last convention in 1967 were sitting legislators). Legislators elected as delegates would also unjustly receive two salaries: one for serving as a legislator; another for serving as a convention delegate.

Clearly, fixing such procedural problems is critical to winning popular support for a convention.

Governor Cuomo has taken a good first step in addressing such arguments by announcing that the commission will be “authorized to recommend fixes to the current convention delegate selection process, which experts agree is flawed.”

But that is not ambitious enough.

The Legislature currently controls too much of the constitutional convention process. In passing enabling legislation, it has every incentive to exacerbate rather than fix procedural problems so as to make a “yes” vote as unappealing as possible to the electorate. The Legislature has this incentive because New York’s Constitution includes a convention process designed to serve as an effective check on the Legislature’s power. That—and not because a convention would be no different than itself—is why the Legislature is an intractable enemy of conventions.

Other states have used the constitutional convention process to fix the constitutional convention process itself, and that should be a major goal of New York’s next convention. For example, concerns about legislators serving in a convention could be easily addressed if legislators were banned, as is done in Missouri and Michigan, from running as convention delegates.

Such a ban shouldn’t be controversial. Plural office holding is universally banned in American state constitutions because it violates the checks and balances principle. Elected officials, for example, cannot simultaneously serve in the legislative and executive branches. Some states ban public officials from simultaneously holding two public offices even when not violating the checks and balances principle. The more universal principle involved is that it is hard for officials simultaneously holding two separate public offices to fulfill their fiduciary duties of care and loyalty to the public.

November 2017But the plural office holding problem is merely one of many procedural issues that a constitutional convention could fix. Instead of New York’s past practice of making procedural concerns an objection to calling a convention, they should be one of its chief attractions because a convention is the most realistic opportunity to fix them.

Consider what is at stake. A constitutional convention is the only democratic mechanism New Yorkers have to introduce constitutional amendments that aren’t in the institutional self-interest of the Legislature. That’s far too important a democratic function—a function that implements the people’s most fundamental right, the right to alter their constitution—to allow easily fixable problems to serve as an excuse for preserving the status quo.

Fixing the problems would require a genuine concern for future generations of New Yorkers—something the public and our leaders often profess but rarely do. The question is not merely what the convention New Yorkers would call in 2017 could do to create tangible benefits for our generation, but how that convention could improve future conventions a generation or more hence, when the politicians of today will have left office.

It turns out that democratic theorists think very highly of designing democratic institutions when those doing the designing cannot know whether the rules they design will benefit themselves at the expense of others. For example, you don’t want politicians to design presidential rules of succession after a president has died and they know which specific politicians will benefit from a given succession rule. Under such a “veil of ignorance,” as democratic theorists label it, delegates can act with the greatest degree of civic virtue.

Paradoxically, then, the set of procedural problems convention opponents use to disparage conventions should actually be one of the best reasons to call one.

Fixing the procedural problems should be a major priority of the governor’s commission not merely because it wants to submit its recommendations to the Legislature, but because it ultimately wants to submit them to the convention, which should be spurred on, not hindered, by the Legislature’s obstreperousness. Coming up with the right policies for New York—not merely what is politically feasible given expected Legislature opposition—should be the commission’s goal.

***
Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

In a previous column for Gotham Gazette, Snider called for Gov. Cuomo to create a preparatory commission: Preparing for New York's Next Constitutional Convention Referendum, June 4, 2015.

DOE Language Access Expansion Builds Bridges to City Families


choi DOE

Steven Choi, the author 


For years, advocates and community based organizations have urged the New York City Department of Education to increase translation and interpretation services to public school parents and guardians with limited English proficiency. Last week, I was honored to join schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, a true champion for the immigrant community to announce a series of initiatives aimed at easing language access for parents in schools.

Immigrant families face tremendous obstacles – speaking to their child's teacher or principal should not be one of them. With nearly half of public school students – almost half a million families – speaking a language other than English at home, it is essential that these families have the ability to participate in their children's school lives. That's why the New York Immigration Coalition and our Education Collaborative of member organizations representing Asian, Arab, Caribbean, African, Latino, and other immigrant families, launched our "Build the Bridge" campaign that advocated for increased translation and interpretation for immigrant parents.

And we are grateful that the DOE has stepped up and heard our calls. The city's language access expansion efforts are a significant step that will help notably reduce language gaps in our schools. The expansion includes the creation of nine new full-time positions in the Borough Field Support Centers and Affinity Groups that will determine the specific needs of each school, and build the necessary supports so that parents receive quality translation and interpretation services.

The expansion also includes new direct access to over-the-phone interpreters available after 5 p.m. In the past, schools had to contact the Translation and Interpretation Unit, which then connected the call – a step that has been eliminated. This will help reduce wait time for an interpreter, and allow teachers and staff to call non-English speaking families after business hours. Interpreters are available in 200 languages. In addition, starting this month, members of the Citywide and Community Education Councils will also receive additional language support. We want our elected parent leaders to be representative of our diverse school system and want to make sure they are able to communicate among themselves and with others no matter the language they speak.

Having the ability to communicate with parents in a language they understand and in a timely fashion is key to the DOE's work. We will keep up our efforts to ensure that immigrant students and parents are provided with culturally competent services to further strengthen this bridge to immigrant families that the DOE, with help and support from advocates, has built. We celebrate this groundbreaking accomplishment and thank Chancellor Fariña and the DOE for their continued efforts to improve services for immigrant families all across our great city.

***
by Steven Choi is Executive Director of New York Immigration Coalition. On Twitter @stevechoinyic & @thenyic.

***
Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? E-mail editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.



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