Round 2

A tour reignites a feud, and sheds light on Harlem space wars

     Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer reflects on his tour of P.S. 123 today.
Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer reflects on his tour of P.S. 123 today.

Scott Stringer and Eva Moskowitz are fighting again, not over an elected office this time, but over school space.

Stringer, who defeated Moskowitz in a fierce borough presidency race in 2005, reignited the flames by taking a tour of a Harlem elementary school today. The school, P.S. 123, shares space with Harlem Success Academy 2, one of Moskowitz’s four charter schools. Charter schools are public schools that are privately operated.

Stringer’s visit, guided by P.S. 123 parents, teachers, and members of the activist group ACORN, was the latest attempt by supporters of the school to try to stop Harlem Success from expanding into its classrooms as the charter school adds a first grade. (An earlier scuffle between the two schools ended with police intervention.)

The building tour provided a rare on-the-ground view of the space wars that have accelerated as more and more school buildings house multiple schools.

Piles of furniture and boxes of supplies cluttered a third floor hallway, the detritus of Harlem Success’ move last week, P.S. 123 parents and teachers explained. School supporters also pointed to spaces they fear they will lose to the charter school, including a gym that Harlem Success has proposed splitting in half by partition so that both schools could use it at once. They said they also worry their library will be converted into a classroom.

John White, the city Department of Education’s chief portfolio officer, later told me that neither possibility is set in stone. The library will remain as it is, and will be shared by both schools, under a formal space-sharing agreement school leaders will craft, White said. And while it’s true that Harlem Success proposed splitting the gym, nothing will be settled until the principals meet and agree on a final plan, White said.

The tour made its way down to the basement, where everyone filed into a room that is used for after-school activities and GED classes and felt stuffy. The DOE has designated the room as classroom space for P.S. 123 next year, but teachers said there is little ventilation and the room easily overheats, making it unusable.

In our interview, White suggested that the school move its administrative offices there, noting that while the DOE apportions each principal a set number of classrooms, it does not tell them how to use the space.

According to White, each school was assigned a number of classrooms based on the size of its student body. In the next year, the DOE predicts that the schools will have a combined population of 950 students, with roughly 650 at P.S. 123 and 300 at the Academy. The building’s capacity is 1,034.

“This building used to have a thousand kids, and now they’re saying that there’s no space,” White said, “When parent demand changes, space usage has to change.”

But the two schools have been squabbling over how to divvy up the space for months since they first sat down to write a formal space-sharing agreement in May. Most recently, police were called to break up an argument when, without warning, Harlem Success movers began hauling boxes into additional classrooms and P.S. 123 teachers tried to stop them. Moskowitz said in a statement that the DOE had turned over the rooms to her on July 1, but the DOE says she had not been given the go-ahead to actually move into them.

The fight also led to a protest outside one of the charter school’s classrooms in which opponents changed “HSA go away,” Harlem Success officials said in a statement today.

At the end of the tour, Stringer called on the DOE to suspend HSA’s expansion until both principals had met and resolved the space issues — what he described as a “cooling out” period. Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott, who is also the president of the new Board of Education, denied the request in a letter today.

“The implementation of this plan has been delayed due to the adjustment process, for some time, already jeopardizing the ability of schools to re-open in August,” Walcott wrote.

Moskowitz used the tour and Stringer’s comments as an opportunity to fire back. She issued a press release calling the borough president and ACORN organizers “union hacks.” Both Stringer and ACORN are close allies of the city teachers union, whose strenuous campaigning helped Stringer defeat Moskowitz in 2005.

The press release also accused teachers at P.S. 123 of being concerned only about their teachers lounge, which will likely be converted into a classroom. Among the many concerns they listed on the tour, teachers never mentioned a lounge.

after douglas

Betsy DeVos avoids questions on discrimination as school safety debates reach Congress

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos prepares to testify at a House Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing in Rayburn Building on the department's FY2019 budget on March 20, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos fielded some hostile questions on school safety and racial discrimination as she defended the Trump administration’s budget proposal in a House committee hearing on Tuesday.

The tone for the hearing was set early by ranking Democrat Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who called aspects DeVos’s prepared remarks “misleading and cynical” before the secretary had spoken. Even the Republican subcommittee chair, Rep. Tom Cole, expressed some skepticism, saying he was “concerned about the administration continuing to request cuts that Congress has rejected.”

During nearly two hours of questioning, DeVos stuck to familiar talking points and largely side-stepped the tougher queries from Democrats, even as many interrupted her.

For instance, when Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from Texas, complained about proposed spending cuts and asked, “Isn’t it your job to ensure that schools aren’t executing harsher punishments for the same behavior because [students] are black or brown?” DeVos responded by saying that students of color would benefit from expanded school choice programs.

Lee responded: “You still haven’t talked about the issue in public schools as it relates to black and brown students and the high disparity rates as it relates to suspensions and expulsions. Is race a factor? Do you believe that or not?” (Recent research in Louisiana found that black students receive longer suspensions than white students involved in the same fights, though the difference was very small.)

Again, DeVos did not reply directly.

“There is no place for discrimination and there is no tolerance for discrimination, and we will continue to uphold that,” she said. “I’m very proud of the record of the Office of Civil Rights in continuing to address issues that arise to that level.”

Lee responded that the administration has proposed cuts to that office; DeVos said the reduction was modest — less than 1 percent — and that “they are able to do more with less.”

The specific policy decision that DeVos faces is the future of a directive issued in 2014 by the Obama administration designed to push school districts to reduce racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions. Conservatives and some teachers have pushed DeVos to rescind this guidance, while civil rights groups have said it is crucial for ensuring black and Hispanic students are not discriminated against.

That was a focus of another hearing in the House on Tuesday precipitated by the shooting last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, falsely claimed in his opening statement that Broward County Public Schools rewrote its discipline policy based on the federal guidance — an idea that has percolated through conservative media for weeks and been promoted by other lawmakers, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Utah Sen. Mike Lee. In fact, the Broward County rules were put into place in 2013, before the Obama administration guidance was issued.

The Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden, a leading critic of Obama administration’s guidance, acknowledged in his own testimony that the Broward policy predated these rules. But he suggested that policies like Broward’s and the Obama administration’s guidance have made schools less safe.

“Faced with pressure to get the numbers down, the easiest path is to simply not address, or to not record, troubling, even violent, behavior,” he said.

Kristen Harper, a director with research group Child Trends and a former Obama administration official, disagreed. “To put it simply, neither the purpose nor the letter of the federal school discipline guidance restrict the authority of school personnel to remove a child who is threatening student safety,” she said.

There is little, if any, specific evidence linking Broward County’s policies to how Stoneman Douglas shooter Nicholas Cruz was dealt with. There’s also limited evidence about whether reducing suspensions makes schools less safe.

Eden pointed to a study in Philadelphia showing that the city’s ban on suspensions coincided with a drop in test scores and attendance in some schools. But those results are difficult to interpret because the prohibition was not fully implemented in many schools. He also cited surveys of teachers expressing concerns about safety in the classroom including in Oklahoma CityFresno, California; and Buffalo, New York.

On the other hand, a recent study found that after Chicago modestly reduced suspensions for the most severe behaviors, student test scores and attendance jumped without any decline in how safe students felt.

DeVos is now set to consider the repeal of those policies on the Trump administration’s school safety committee, which she will chair.

On Tuesday, DeVos said the committee’s first meeting would take place “within the next few weeks.” Its members will be four Cabinet secretaries: DeVos herself, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.

on the run

‘Sex and the City’ star and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon launches bid for N.Y. governor

Cynthia Nixon on Monday announced her long-anticipated run for New York governor.

Actress and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon announced Monday that she’s running for governor of New York, ending months of speculation and launching a campaign that will likely spotlight education.

Nixon, who starred as Miranda in the TV series “Sex and the City,” will face New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in September’s Democratic primary.

Nixon has been active in New York education circles for more than a decade. She served as a  longtime spokeswoman for the Alliance for Quality Education, a union-backed advocacy organization. Though Nixon will step down from that role, according to a campaign spokeswoman, education promises to be a centerpiece of her campaign.

In a campaign kickoff video posted to Twitter, Nixon calls herself “a proud public school graduate, and a prouder public school parent.” Nixon has three children.

“I was given chances I just don’t see for most of New York’s kids today,” she says.

Nixon’s advocacy began when her oldest child started school, which was around the same time the recession wreaked havoc on education budgets. She has slammed Gov. Cuomo for his spending on education during his two terms in office, and she has campaigned for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

In 2008, she stepped into an emotional fight on the Upper West Side over a plan to deal with overcrowding and segregation that would have impacted her daughter’s school. In a video of brief remarks during a public meeting where the plan was discussed, Nixon is shouted down as she claims the proposal would lead to a “de facto segregated” school building.

Nixon faces steep competition in her first run for office. She is up against an incumbent governor who has amassed a $30 million war chest, according to the New York Times. If elected, she would be the first woman and the first openly gay governor in the state.