Thursday, June 4, 2009

Group Rallies to Limit Mayor's School Control by Jon Blau - Queens Chronicle

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Hoping to sway state Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-Queens) to their side of the mayoral control argument, the Campaign for Better Schools brought a group of about 40 people to the majority leader’s St. Albans office on Friday, armed with what they said were postcards from parents who want to limit Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s control over educational policy.

Smith has outlined plans to renew Bloomberg’s mandate to appoint eight of 13 voting members of the Panel for Educational Policy before mayoral control expires June 30. While Smith has promised revisions to the law to include more avenues for parent participation, the Campaign for Better Schools backs a bill from Assemblyman Carl Heastie (D-Bronx). The legislation, titled the Better Schools Act, has been submitted in both houses and has provisions supporters say render more transparency, accountability and include initiatives for parent and student involvement.

“One man rule has got to go,” the group chanted.

Heastie’s bill would keep Bloomberg’s appointees at eight, but the panel would grow to 17 members to take away his majority. Nine PEP members would be voted in by other elected officials, such as the governor, members of the City Council, the borough presidents, the Assembly speaker and the Senate majority leader.

Those individuals would have fixed, two-year terms, eliminating the chances Bloomberg could terminate anyone who opposes his policy decisions. And the chancellor, who currently has a vote on the board, would become a non-voting member.

According to Heastie, the PEP has voted with the mayor “97 out of 97 times.”

“They are a rubber stamp organization,” Francisca Montana, mother of a three-year-old girl in Middle Village, said of the PEP.

Many of the protesters said they feel as though the community is left out of decisions impacting students, and that figures on schools’ budgets and performance are disseminated from non-objective sources. State Sen. Kevin Parker (D-Brooklyn) has said in support of the Better Schools Act that it is now impossible to “distinguish facts from spin,” and part of the bill mandates that the New York City Independent Budget Office report on “financial investments and academic achievement” in city schools.

Montana said she sees the signs in the subway praising mayoral control of schools. Graduation rates are up as a whole, they read, but she hears other figures through the Campaign for Better Schools, which says only one out of three African-American and Hispanic children graduate high school with their Regents diploma. Her child, Qwania, is a child of both races.

“I want the best education she can get,” Montana said of her biracial daughter. “She’s smart, she’s beautiful. I want her to be developed with all of her brightness.”

PTA organizations are “just paper,” according to Montana, who said parents and teachers — the ones working with students every day — cannot grab Bloomberg’s ear to address issues in schools.

At the same time, the Campaign for Better Schools says it is not completely against mayoral control. Claudio Idrovo, a resident of Jackson Heights and a high school teacher in his native Ecuador, acknowledged the policy has brought some grade improvements. On the other hand, he does not want to rely on statistics that are connected directly to the mayor’s office.

And Idrovo reiterated the feelings of his group when saying parents need to participate more in educational policy. The Better Schools Act seeks to provide parents with input on school closings and restructurings. It would also reinstitute the offices of district superintendents as a way to solve issues within communities.

“I’m convinced interaction with parents is going to improve education, which Bloomberg isn’t doing,” Idrovo said.

Smith’s office released a statement after the rally. He thanked the community for voicing its concerns, and reassured them that his proposal for mayoral control will not exclude them.

“Mayoral control has proven to be a far bigger success than what came before it, but no policy is perfect and I want to take this opportunity to enhance the measures that need improvement by providing parents with greater input and avenues for participation in their child’s education and ensuring greater fiscal accountability,” Smith said. “I look forward to a rigorous debate on what is best for our children.”