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Democracy And Reform: A View From A PEP Newbie

I remember the feeling of anticipation that accompanied the subway ride to my first Panel for Educational Policy meeting Jan. 19. The panel meetings are places for public comment on the Department of Education’s proposals for significant change in school utilization, and they conclude with a vote on the proposals. I was in the heat of my first very active “school closing season” (as a member of the Grassroots Education Movement calls it) and I was feeling invigorated. GEM had been planning for the meetings, and we had a theme for the evening, fliers for the rally to stop school closings we were planning, and a plan of action for when we got to the microphone.

I knew what people said about the panel, that it is just a rubber stamp for the mayor’s policies and that its members wouldn’t vote against a proposal to close a school or colocate a charter school no matter the arguments or evidence presented. Nonetheless, I felt hopeful and optimistic that panel members would truly listen and might be convinced to seriously reconsider the options placed before them.

The major reason for this optimism was that I had attended a hearing a few days before at John Jay High School campus about the proposed co-location of Millennium II High School, which the PEP would be voting on that night. The hearing had been incredible; it was a Regents exam day so most students did not have to attend school, yet they came out in great numbers to protest the colocation, arguing that it would create separate and unequal conditions for students in their building, which already housed four schools. Park Slope parents had been asking politicians for “more options” for their neighborhood, and Millennium II is what the DOE offered. But the original Millennium High School, in Lower Manhattan, has a much whiter student body than the current John Jay student body and Millennium II would receive more per-pupil funding for various reasons, the students argued. At the hearing, principals and students spoke passionately about the impact of housing a “have school” with four “have not” schools. They told of repeated, longstanding requests for support from the DOE to make the schools more attractive to all parents and students by making capital improvements to the school building, providing funding for advanced courses, allowing the building to change its name, and removing the metal detectors —  requests that they said the DOE repeatedly ignored.

Students, teachers, and administrators whom I had seen speak at John Jay were already at the mic when I arrived at the PEP meeting. The arguments and speeches that had been made at the hearing, backed up with data and historically relevant examples, were now being made in two-minute mini-versions in a room of hundreds, with the majority-Bloomberg-appointed panel members at a long table on the stage. I joined GEM at the mic to offer a vision of what real reform in New York could look like and listened to speeches for as long as I could, but left relatively early because I had to teach the next day.

I left feeling both inspired and saddened by what I had heard and pondered the possibility that the panel would be similarly moved to consider the alternative to colocation: supporting the schools already in the John Jay campus in a way that would help to make them more diverse and appealing to the Park Slope community and, more importantly, provide an equitable education to the existing students who already called that building home. Because I had heard the convincing and passionate arguments against co-location that came from the John Jay campus community, I thought that perhaps the panelists would listen and vote against the proposal.

I woke up in the morning to the bad news.

And that was the way of it with the turnout and the votes at the next two PEP meetings, which focused more heavily on closings and the colocation of charter schools. Students, parents, teachers, and politicians made speeches that cut to the bone of the issues their communities were facing. They spoke of the damage that school closures would have on their community, of the inaccuracies they saw in the DOE’s reports that justified closing their schools or moving charters in, and of the need for support as opposed to shuttering or turning school space over to private administrators. At the February 1st meeting parent activist Leonie Haimson made a strong argument for rethinking the idea of choice: “Choice is not real choice if you are closing schools against their will. … You are undermining choices for all parents and imposing your own will on a community.” At the February 3rd PEP hearing a student from a school slated for closure expressed to the panel the anguish it was causing her; while the crowd chanted “Save our Schools,” she asked, “Do you like to watch us suffer? Don’t you care about the people? Don’t you care about what we’re saying?” In every instance, the panel voted with the DOE’s proposals and against the wishes of the majority of community members who spoke before them.

I felt overwhelmed by the hollowness of it — the panel meetings were supposedly a place for public comment where concerns raised would be considered by the members and where actual decisions would be made. But no decisions were being made that night because decisions had already been made. This was a formality, an anti-democracy, a false democracy. And at each meeting Cathie Black sat in the center of the long table of panel members looking apathetic and bored. Except, of course, when she mocked the crowd.

Some people might say that because Mayor Bloomberg was reelected in 2009 that his actions on education in New York is democracy in action. But receiving 50.7 percent of the vote does not give the mayor a mandate to ignore the voices of the people who are most affected by the critical decisions he is making about their communities. Democracy means that our leaders, who are selected from and by the people, must be responsive to the people they serve. Democracy does not just happen on Election Day, and our voice and elected officials’ responsiveness to it does not die when we cast our vote.

The dictator analogy is one that can seem a bit hyperbolic, but sitting in that room at my third PEP meeting I couldn’t help but be furious at the complete disenfranchisement of the students, parents, and teachers present. In fact, those sitting on the stage were just as disenfranchised: The mayor has always controlled the board’s majority, and if they voted against his wishes he could always pull them the way he did in 2004 when some threatened to vote against his social promotion plan. This is not a system of experts, community members, students, parents, and elected officials coming together to find ways to make the school system better, which is what real democratic change could look like in our schools and in our school system. This is one powerful individual making decisions without concern for the voices and the input of those who will be most affected by them. We do not live in a plutocracy or an oligarchy where the privileged few get to make decisions for the rest of us. Our democracy demands much more and our children deserve more.

The voices echoing through Brooklyn Tech’s auditorium this January through March ranged from passionate and optimistic to angry and even pleading, but none of it mattered. Allowing those sham spectacles to proceed, giving people hope when there was none, making people believe that their words were being considered when they were not — that was cruel in my mind. Even though the votes have been cast, GEM is working on a plan to continue to fight the closings and co-locations. Despite the long odds placed before us by the PEP I am hopeful that with enough community response, coalition building and citywide action we can move towards the truly democratic school governance structure and public education system we should all be striving for.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.