the road to city hall

Mayoral hopefuls stump before anti-Bloomberg education group

Comptroller John Liu was one of four likely mayoral candidates to speak at an event in Harlem hosted by a group that opposes the Bloomberg administration’s school policies.

In a series of short stump speeches last night to a group fiercely opposed Mayor Bloomberg, four Democratic mayoral contenders delivered abbreviated versions of their visions for the future of education in New York City.

Given just five minutes to speak, the candidates didn’t have much time to get into specifics — something that, 10 months before the primary election, most are being careful about doing.

If anything, the night was an opportunity to make a good first impression for New Yorkers for Great Public Schools, the group formed by union and progressive community leaders to oppose the Bloomberg administration’s schools policies in the mayoral election. Interspersed among the candidates’ speeches, parents and religious leaders criticized the co-locations, budget cuts, and school closures that have taken place under Mayor Bloomberg.

The appearance was also an important one to make for candidates who hope their path to victory includes a coveted endorsement from the teachers union.

As each candidate was being introduced, he or she took a seat next to United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew in the front pew. Then each candidate had five minutes — which sometimes stretched closer to 10 — to make his or her case to the audience of more than 1,000 parents, community leaders, and activists who had crowded into Harlem’s First Corinthian Baptist Church.

The first candidate to speak was Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, who criticized the Bloomberg administration’s handling of school closures and co-locations.

“Are we actually trying to save schools, or are we taking the cheap way out and closing schools that could be saved?” de Blasio asked. (De Blasio has previously said he supports school co-locations, though not in the way Bloomberg has handled them.)

But de Blasio did not go as far as two other contenders, Bill Thompson and Comptroller John Liu. Both said they would put an immediate end to closures, while Liu called for a moratorium on co-locations as well, promises that went over well with the spirited crowd.

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, an early favorite in polls who is seen as Bloomberg’s closest ally, received the chilliest reception of the night. Her stump speech drew booing, led by Donny Moss, an activist who is one of Quinn’s fiercest detractors, not normally on education issues.

Quinn focused her speech on making kindergarten mandatory, something she encouraged legislators to do this year, and on the council’s efforts to boost middle school quality. She did not speak about school closures or co-locations, both of which she has said before that she supports.

“Quinn was dragging around the ball and chain of Michael Bloomberg, which will help her with some audiences, but clearly didn’t help her with this one,” said David Bloomfield, a professor of education at Brooklyn College who attended the event.

Organizers said after the event that they had come away optimistic that all of the candidates would represent a change from the status quo.

“All of the candidates started spelling out ways they will take the schools in a new direction by unifying New Yorkers around a positive agenda for reform,” said Zakiyah Ansari, a parent activist who is part of New Yorkers for Great Public Schools. “Each in their own way focused on supporting neighborhood schools which offers a clear difference from the divisive assault on communities of forced school closings.”

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.