who should rule the schools

Randi Weingarten under fire for mayoral control position

Randi Weingarten testifying at a mayoral control hearing in February.
Randi Weingarten testifying at a mayoral control hearing in February. (<em>GothamSchools</em>)

A group of parent activists and union members is expressing anger with teachers union leader Randi Weingarten, telling her that she has dropped the ball in fighting for checks to the mayor’s power over schools.

The frustration began with a May 21 New York Post column, in which Weingarten indicated that she is open to allowing the mayor to continue appointing a majority of members to the citywide school board. A union task force recommended in February that the state legislature reverse that majority as a way to strengthen the board, known as the Panel for Education Policy or PEP.

Weingarten’s Post op/ed dismayed some members of her own union. “I was quite disappointed and angry, actually,” said Lisa North, a teacher who sat on the union’s task force to consider revisions to mayoral control.

North said the task force never seriously considered recommending that the mayor keep his majority of appointments, and so when union delegates ratified the committee’s final recommendations, she expected Weingarten to promote them. “The delegate assembly is supposed to be the highest authority of the union, and it voted for it,” she said.

In an interview today, Weingarten acknowledged that people have reached out to her with concerns about her position, including her own union members. “I did get a couple of e-mails from members saying, ‘Why are you doing what you’re doing?'” she said. She said that she empathizes with those concerns. “I totally and completely understand and concur with the frustrations that many have that this mayor and this chancellor have not listened to and respected enough the voices of those who go to our schools, their parents, and those who teach them,” she said.

But she also said that she has to weigh concerns about checking the mayor’s power against the reasons she supported giving the mayor control in 2002. “It’s always been a balance of stability, cohesion, and responsibility, which is what mayoral control brought us, and modifying it to create sufficient checks and balances and transparency,” Weingarten said.

Parent leaders, who had hoped to ally with the United Federation of Teachers to lobby in Albany, also say they feel alienated by Weingarten. Lisa Donlan, a Manhattan parent who is part of the Parent Commission on School Governance, which is calling for significant changes to mayoral control, said the Post column ended discussions between the union and parent leaders who are strategizing about how to lobby lawmakers. Donlan said the Parent Commission had been trying to identify areas of agreement among all of the groups who have suggested revisions to mayoral control so that it could present a unified slate of recommendations in Albany.

“We felt very comfortable going into that conversation [with the UFT] that we all believe that the mayor should not have control of the central board,” Donlan told me.

The confidence disappeared with the Post article, Donlan said. “That conversation did stop when [Weingarten] pulled back on the composition of the PEP,” she said. “We feel very disappointed that we don’t have the UFT advocating any more for that shift at the central level, where policy is made.”

Activists within the teachers’ union are also showing their concern. “The idea that [Weingarten] would have a task force that spent a year studying the issue and then on her own, say something different … This is a betrayal of the task force concept,” said union activist Norm Scott.

“I do feel betrayed,” said Michael Fiorillo, another chapter leader who sat on the union’s task force. “I just wish I could say I felt surprised.” He said Weingarten has veered away from members’ consensus on other topics in the past, and so he had early doubts that she would hold firm on the task force’s recommendations. (Fiorillo ultimately voted against the recommendations, saying they weren’t aggressive enough curbs on mayoral control.)

“My guess would be the sense of betrayal would be stronger among people outside the union,” Fiorillo said, noting that union members were accustomed to watching Weingarten change her mind.

In the interview, Weingarten emphasized two checks to the mayor’s power that do not involve the school board: empowering district superintendents and parent councils to have more decision-making power. “There’s different kinds of ways to get to the standards I just set out,” she said, referring to her commitment to ensuring “checks and balances” and “transparency.”

Weingarten’s critics say that checks and balances are insufficient in a system that is fundamentally flawed. “From the Parent Commission’s point of view, unless we change the balance of power, all of the minor adjustments to the system would be severely handicapped,” Donlan said.

that was weird

The D.C. school system had a pitch-perfect response after John Oliver made #DCPublicSchools trend on Twitter

Public education got some unexpected attention Sunday night when John Oliver asked viewers watching the Emmys to make #DCPublicSchools trend on Twitter.

Oliver had been inspired by comedian Dave Chappelle, who shouted out the school system he attended before he announced an award winner. Within a minute of Oliver’s request, the hashtag was officially trending.

Most of the tweets had nothing to do with schools in Washington, D.C.

Here are a few that did, starting with this pitch-perfect one from the official D.C. Public Schools account:

Oliver’s surreal challenge was far from the first time that the late-show host has made education a centerpiece of his comedy — over time, he has pilloried standardized testing, school segregation, and charter schools.

Nor was it the first education hashtag to take center stage at an awards show: #PublicSchoolProud, which emerged as a response to new U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, got a shoutout during the Oscars in February.

And it also is not the first time this year that D.C. schools have gotten a surprise burst of attention. The Oscars were just a week after DeVos drew fire for criticizing the teachers she met during her first school visit as secretary — to a D.C. public school.

Startup Support

Diverse charter schools in New York City to get boost from Walton money

PHOTO: John Bartelstone
Students at Brooklyn Prospect Charter School in 2012. The school is one of several New York City charters that aim to enroll diverse student bodies.

The Walton Family Foundation, the philanthropy governed by the family behind Walmart, pledged Tuesday to invest $2.2 million over the next two years in new charter schools in New York City that aim to be socioeconomically diverse.

Officials from the foundation expect the initiative to support the start of about seven mixed-income charter schools, which will be able to use the money to pay for anything from building space to teachers to technology.

The effort reflects a growing interest in New York and beyond in establishing charter schools that enroll students from a mix of backgrounds, which research suggests can benefit students and is considered one remedy to school segregation.

“We are excited to help educators and leaders on the front lines of solving one of today’s most pressing education challenges,” Marc Sternberg, the foundation’s K-12 education director and a former New York City education department official, said in a statement.

Walton has been a major charter school backer, pouring more than $407 million into hundreds of those schools over the past two decades. In New York, the foundation has helped fund more than 100 new charter schools. (Walton also supports Chalkbeat; read about our funding here.)

Some studies have found that black and Hispanic students in charter schools are more likely to attend predominantly nonwhite schools than their peers in traditional schools, partly because charter schools tend to be located in urban areas and are often established specifically to serve low-income students of color. In New York City, one report found that 90 percent of charter schools in 2010 were “intensely segregated,” meaning fewer than 10 percent of their students were white.

However, more recently, a small but rising number of charter schools has started to take steps to recruit and enroll a more diverse student body. Often, they do this by drawing in applicants from larger geographic areas than traditional schools can and by adjusting their admissions lotteries to reserve seats for particular groups, such as low-income students or residents of nearby housing projects.

Founded in 2014, the national Diverse Charter Schools Coalition now includes more than 100 schools in more than a dozen states. Nine New York City charter groups are part of the coalition, ranging from individual schools like Community Roots Charter School in Brooklyn to larger networks, including six Success Academy schools.

“There’s been a real shift in the charter school movement to think about how they address the issue of segregation,” said Halley Potter, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a think tank that promotes socioeconomic diversity.

The Century Foundation and researchers at Teachers College at Columbia University and Temple University will receive additional funding from Walton to study diverse charter schools, with the universities’ researchers conducting what Walton says is the first peer-reviewed study of those schools’ impact on student learning.