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Support for a moratorium on school closures gains steam

After protesting in New York City for years, critics of school closures and co-locations are taking their fight to Albany.

Three mayoral candidates joined parents, advocates, and union representatives on the steps of City Hall today in calling for a moratorium on school closures and co-locations, centerpieces of the Bloomberg administration’s education policy.

The press conference was organized by New Yorkers for Great Public Schools, a group formed to oppose Mayor Bloomberg’s education policies in the lead-up to the mayoral election.

Earlier this month, State Sen. Tony Avella introduced a bill that would impose halt school closures until a state committee determines whether they benefit students.

Now advocates are looking for a sponsor in the Assembly as well, UFT President Michael Mulgrew said today. Hakeem Jeffries, the politician who sponsored a similar bill last year, has left the Assembly for the U.S. Congress. Asked who would sponsor a bill now, Mulgrew said, “There’s quite a few people who are looking at doing it.”

The Democratic mayoral candidates at the rally have opposed school closures in the past, but the stakes are higher now: The bill Avella proposed would prevent Bloomberg from setting in motion closures the next mayor would have to handle.

“School closing is not an educational strategy, and the Bloomberg administration has embraced it as such,” former comptroller Bill Thompson said. “They act as if school closings are real policy. They are not. If anything it’s an admission of failure.”

“It’s clear that the lights are out and no one is listening in the Tweed building or at City Hall,” Public Advocate Bill de Blasio said. “The only solution now is a moratorium.”

In between speeches, parents, advocates, and union representatives shouted, “Fix our schools, don’t just close them” and “Enough is enough.”

Candidates also echoed concerns expressed in a report critical of co-locations, released today by the community organization New York Communities Organizing Fund. The report reviews the effect of co-location on schools and urges the Department of Education to adopt a guidelines for future co-location decisions, designed to “increase the possibility that a co-location will be successful for all the parties involved.”

Several speakers said the time has passed for simply tweaking the process. “The DOE’s closure and co-location policies are so deeply flawed that they need to be completely re-evaluated before they can continue,” Comptroller John Liu said.

Avella thinks a moratorium has a good chance in Albany, even in the State Senate, which has historically been less friendly to policies set forth by critics of the Bloomberg administration. “I think [the bill] has possibilities because I think everybody recognizes, whether Republicans want to admit it or not, that the school closings are really a sham,” he said.

City Councilman Robert Jackson, who chairs the education committee, and several other speakers said school closures produce a domino effect, distributing students to other struggling schools that are not prepared to serve new students well.

In response to the press conference, advocates of charter schools said a moratorium is misguided. “A moratorium on co-locations—which would affect both charter and district schools—would prevent new, high quality public schools from opening while forcing countless students to remain in classrooms that haven’t worked well for generations. That’s not a policy for success, it’s a recipe for disaster,” Success Academy founder Eva Moskowitz said in a statement.

James Merriman of the New York City Charter School Center also characterized the moratorium as rash. “Instead of a real plan to improve parents’ choices, three of our Democratic mayoral candidates want to restrict them through a mindless ban,” he said in a statement. “Co-locating both district and charter schools…has expanded high quality options for tens of thousands of the city’s school children.”

The fourth Democratic mayoral candidate, Christine Quinn, did not appear at the rally. She has said in the past that school closures should be a last resort but that co-locations are necessary for the charter sector to survive.

Mulgrew stayed on message during the event, but his words took on new significance after last week’s failed teacher evaluation deal.

“Why are we here asking for a moratorium?” Mulgrew asked the crowd, then answered, “Because we’ve given up working with this administration. We’re giving up.”

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