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A proposal to empower parent councils by transforming them

Lots of people nod at the idea that the biggest failing of mayoral control of the public schools has been a lack of parent involvement. The president of Manhattan, Scott Stringer, this week issued a proposal that lays out a roadmap he argues would change that.

Rather than re-thinking the citywide education board, as other advocates have done, Stringer’s proposal targets the elected parent councils that already exist. His idea is to inject gravity and authority into the councils, which are now beset by pitifully low participation rates and a reputation for powerlessness, by taking a hint from the real-estate and development world.

In that world, groups of citizen volunteers called community boards work together to develop responses to proposals from developers and policy makers on everything from whether to tear down a building to concerns about dog excrement. City Hall can’t make a decision without at least collecting a board’s formal response.

The idea is gaining some headway; Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz of Brooklyn intends to introduce a bill that would formally propose the idea to the legislature in the next few days.

Making community education councils, or CEC’s, more like community boards would require the groups to get their support (adminstrative staff, office space, training) not from the Department of Education, but from the five borough presidents. Stringer’s report argues that the change would be an obvious way to separate powers:

Even assuming the best of intentions, it is unreasonable to expect a City agency to be sufficiently motivated to effectively promote independent criticism of its own proposals. … To be effective, review and input processes require institutional checks and balances by autonomous entities.

The CEC’s of the future that the report envisions would also be boosted by formal procedures for exactly how to operate. Right now, though state law seems to suggest that the Department of Education has to “consult” with the councils before making decisions like closing schools, the law is hazy, and there’s no single prescribed way for consulting to happen.

Stringer lays out a detailed process that the DOE and CEC’s would have to follow, including certain windows of time during which the department must wait for a response from the CEC before moving forward. In order for the Panel for Educational Policy to sign off on any change, for instance, it would first have to wait for a formal reaction from new borough-wide CEC’s. Only after reading and collecting the reports could the Panel for Educational Policy make a decision.

Read Stringer’s full report below the jump.
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