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Parents rally at City Hall, but their protest is directed elsewhere

The scene was familiar, but the rallying cries and signs were a departure.

More than 100 parents and organizers from StudentsFirstNY filled the steps of City Hall on Saturday to demand that the teachers union cooperate with the city on an evaluation deal before a deadline that could cost the city $300 million in state aid.

“What do we want?” shouted Darlene Boston, who has been working to organize parents in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn to support StudentsFirstNY’s policy agenda. “Great teachers!” they replied.

“When do we want them?” Boston shouted back. “Now!” they said.

When education advocates protest outside City Hall, it is usually with an ensemble of union leaders, City Council members, and other elected officials. And more often than not, they are criticizing policies favored by Mayor Bloomberg, the man who governs the city from the building behind them.

But no elected officials showed up at Saturday’s rally — and organizers said none was invited. Parents came mostly from neighborhoods in Central Brooklyn and Harlem, areas where StudentsFirstNY is trying to build a base. And while the mayor’s name was not uttered, it was clear that he was not the target of their protest.

The target was the continuing lack of new teacher evaluations in New York City, which StudentsFirstNY and Bloomberg have blamed on the United Federation of Teachers.

While hundreds of districts across New York have submitted locally negotiated deals to the State Education Department for approval in recent months, the city and the union still have not, although union leaders and city officials have said they are “optimistic” about reaching an agreement. The city has until Jan. 17 to have an evaluation system approved, or else it risks forgoing a 4 percent increase in state funding — about $300 million this year.

Last year, negotiations to implement new evaluations in a small subset of schools fell apart just before a different state deadline.

Getting new teacher evaluations implemented is a cornerstone issue of StudentsFirstNY’s teacher quality agenda. The group has used the issue to recruit parents, sending a message that evaluations are the fastest way to bolster their children’s education.

Keoni Wright, an East New York parent who spoke at the rally, said he was troubled by how much better one of his twin daughters was reading in kindergarten than the other, who has a different teacher. He said one daughter received lots of homework during the five days that schools were closed due to Hurricane Sandy, while the other one didn’t hear from her teacher once.

“I can see just from those two children that the reading level is totally different,” said Wright, whose daughters attend P.S. 158. “So I’m pushing for this evaluation.”

The rally was the first public display hosted by the advocacy group, whose executive director, Micah Lasher, is a former top Bloomberg aide. Lasher founded the group to ensure that many of Bloomberg’s policies survive the 2013 mayoral election and beyond. He has said he will try to raise $10 million annually for the next five years to accomplish that goal.

Many labor leaders and education advocates in New York City would like to see Bloomberg’s cornerstone policies change after he leaves office and they have created their own group, New Yorkers for Great Public Schools, in response to the criticism lodged by StudentsFirstNY. StudentsFirstNY, whose national organization was founded by former Washington, D.C., schools chief Michelle Rhee, has drawn fire from these progressive groups because some of its funding comes from Republicans who publicly backed Mitt Romney for president.

Zakiyah Ansari, a longtime parent organizer who works for the Alliance for Quality Education, a group funded in part by the the state teachers union, characterized the size of the rally as “small” and said it did not represent the views of most families in New York City.

“Parents know StudentsFirstNY is defending Bloomberg’s failed education record and expensive gimmicks on behalf of wealthy special interests,” said Ansari, who said she was speaking as a spokeswoman for New Yorkers for Great Public Schools. She said her opposition to the state’s evaluation requirements is that “value-added” measures based on standardized test scores are not reliable measures of teacher quality.

Charter school parents have emerged as a potent force in political action, and last year, a rally to support charter schools drew thousands of parents to the street outside City Hall. But organizers for StudentsFirstNY said they have not sought to involve parents from charter schools, which are not required to implement teacher evaluations.

Instead, the group has been recruiting district parents to join. To organize them, it is also paying people to attend month-long training academies, then hiring some of those attendees to build up its organizing infrastructure. The majority of those who complete the $2,000 academy come from political campaigns or other organizing backgrounds. Boston is the exception as the only public school parent to be hired as an organizer.

After the rally, Shawnette Facey, whose fourth-grader attends P.S. 202 in East New York, said she attended because of issues that her son was having at school that she thought could have been related to his teacher. Lately, he’d been coming came home from school disinterested.

“In the beginning of the school year, that’s when you catch them. But if not, you lose them and they go astray,” Facey said.

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