taking a stand

Weiner supports co-locations, Catholic schools on first day out

220px-AnthonyweinerAnthony Weiner’s views on education policy became a little clearer on his first full day on the campaign trail, when he told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer that he supports letting charter schools use space in public school buildings.

The issue puts him at odds with several of his Democratic competitors for mayor, who have said they would impose a moratorium on the space-sharing arrangements. Co-location has induced tension in many school buildings, but it has also allowed the city’s charter school sector to thrive, and whether to continue the practice is a major decision facing the next mayor.

In fact, on the issue of school choice, Weiner suggested that his support extends well beyond the public school system. He proposed helping non-public schools — he cited cash-strapped Catholic schools in particular — with publicly funded support that they are already entitled to, including technology, health care and security. He first floated the idea in his 2009 policy book “Keys to the City,” which he re-released last month.

“We’ve made it much too difficult for parish schools in this city and they are an asset and we should all mourn when they disappear,” Weiner told Lehrer, in the former congressman’s first broadcast interview since he declared his candidacy for mayor. Weiner’s political career seemingly ended two years ago when he was lied about sending sexually explicit texts to women on Twitter.

Weiner said the city had been misguided in buying and renting space from Catholic schools that have closed, as dozens have done due to dwindling enrollment, instead of helping the schools stay open.

“Rather than try to help these Catholic schools, rather than see if we can help them in purely secular ways of trying to ease some of their burdens, and rather than saying to the folks at Tweed, ‘You know, let’s see what we can do with public dollars that they’re entitled to anyway — things like book money — and see if we can figure out ways to help,’ we’ve kind of swooped in and tried to make use of the property instead,” Weiner said.

After Lehrer asked whether the plan could violate the constitutional principle of separation of church and state, Weiner said his interest in seeing Catholic schools survive in New York City comes from support for choice.

“I just think we have to … see it as more of our mission to have education as more of a cornucopia of options rather than simply one,” Weiner said. But he said he would not support vouchers that would let families use public funds to pay private school tuition.

Not much is known about what kind of an education mayor Weiner would be. But that was one of the first topics that Lehrer pressed Weiner on after he once again apologized for the sexting scandal, which he characterized as “private behavior and things that I was doing in my private life.”

Weiner repeated a plea that, at the very least, New Yorkers listen to his ideas on how he would run the city if elected mayor. He began first with some praise for the Bloomberg administration, whose policies on education have become a daily punching bag for Weiner’s Democratic rivals.

“The way I look at the Bloomberg administration is that they did a laudable thing to begin with, and they said let’s get control of the system and lets put a lot more money into it. And it’s undeniable that, frankly, it’s the only part of the budget that is really growing a great deal,” Weiner said.

Under Bloomberg, city education spending has increased from $5.9 billion in 2002 to $13.7 billion for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

But Weiner then unleashed some anti-testing rhetoric that would fit right in with the other Democratic candidates.

“I think there are too many standardized tests,” Weiner said, a complaint that he might not have all that much control over as mayor, because federal law requires that states administer annual standardized testing.

But he said that the city relied too heavily on the state tests and suggested that a better way to gauge the city’s school system would be through national assessments.

“I think we have to take a look, not how we’re comparing the Bronx to Staten Island. We got to think about how we’re comparing to Pittsburgh,” Weiner said, citing as an example the midwestern city whose skyline for some reason appears on his own campaign’s website. “And I think that taking a snapshot of those national tests is as important as anything we’re doing locally.”

On the divisive issue of charter school co-locations, Weiner said he supported them as long as there is free space inside city school buildings.

“I don’t have an objection to co-locating charter schools and public schools where there is space,” said Weiner, who did not discuss whether he supported Bloomberg’s school closure policies, which have often freed up space for charter schools. Other Democratic candidates for mayor have said they thought the Bloomberg administration too often turned to closures instead of supporting low-performing schools.

Weiner’s early campaign strategy appears to try to, as the Times put it this morning, seize a “common-sense centrism” that the other Democrats have so far ignored. In dealing with growing mandated costs tied to the city’s municipal labor force, Weiner said he would want to see workers begin paying health insurance premiums, with higher rates for smokers.

The Bloomberg administration cited both proposals last month as crucial concessions needed to keep reduce healthcare costs, projected to increase by 30 percent in three years.

“So does this position indicate that you will not be competing for public sector union endorsements?” Lehrer asked Weiner.

Weiner said that the message he wants to send to public employees, with whom the next mayor will have to negotiate new contracts, is that money saved through higher health insurance premiums could end up back in their pockets another way.

“That is money we can’t use for raises,” said Weiner, referring to the $2.6 billion that the city’s annual bill for healthcare is projected to increase by over the next four years.

Lehrer asked specifically about the UFT endorsement, which is scheduled for June 19 and has been seen as one of the most crucial for the Democratic candidates.

“If I don’t get the UFT endorsement, that doesn’t mean I’m not going to try every single day to persuade every teacher and every supervisor and every staff member that I want their vote,” Weiner said.

temporary reprieve

Parents score a temporary victory in slowing the closure of a small Brooklyn elementary school

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Protesters gathered at the education department's headquarters to protest a recent set of closure plans.

A judge blocked the closure of a small Brooklyn elementary school Thursday — at least for now.

Three families from P.S. 25/the Eubie Blake School filed a lawsuit in March backed by the public interest group Advocates for Justice, arguing the city’s decision to close the school was illegal because the local elected parent council was not consulted.

Brooklyn Supreme Court judge Katherine Levine did not make a final ruling Thursday about whether the closure plan violated the law. But she issued a temporary order to keep the school open while the case moves forward.

It was not immediately clear when the case will be resolved or even if the school will remain open next year. “We are reviewing the stay and will determine an appropriate course of action once the judge makes a final decision on the case,” education department spokeswoman Toya Holness wrote in a statement.

The education department said the school has hemorrhaged students in recent years and is simply too small to be viable: P.S. 25 currently enrolls just 94 students in grades K-5.

“Because of extremely low enrollment, the school lacks the necessary resources to meet the needs of students,” Holness wrote. The city’s Panel for Educational Policy, a citywide oversight board that must sign off on all school closures, voted in February to close the school.

But the school’s supporters point out that despite low test scores in the past, P.S. 25 now ranks among the city’s top elementary schools, meaning that its closure would force students into lower-performing schools elsewhere.

“Why close a school that’s doing so well?” said Leonie Haimson, the executive director of Class Size Matters and one of the lawsuit’s supporters. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”

The lawsuit hinges on a state law that gives local education councils the authority to approve any changes to school zones. Since P.S. 25 is the only zoned elementary school for a swath of Bedford-Stuyvesant, the department’s plans would leave some families with no zoned elementary school dedicated to educating them, forcing students to attend other district schools or enter the admissions lottery for charter schools.

That amounts to “effectively attempting to change zoning lines” and “unlawfully usurping” the local education council’s authority to determine those zones, according to the lawsuit.

But even if the education department loses the lawsuit, the school’s fate would still be uncertain. The closure plan would theoretically be subject to a vote from the local education council, whose president supports shuttering the school.

Still, Haimson hopes the lawsuit ultimately persuades the education department to back away from closing the school in the long run.

“My goal would be to get the chancellor to change his mind,” Haimson said. “I don’t think the future is preordained.”

Future of Schools

Four school leaders hope to bring innovative ideas to Indianapolis education

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Brandon Brown introduces four new innovation school fellows.

Hoping to jumpstart innovation in Indianapolis education, four experienced educators will spend a year or more developing new models for schools.

The educators were chosen from among 39 applicants for fellowships from the Mind Trust, a nonprofit that supports district-charter partnerships. This is the fifth round of innovation fellowships, which give leaders one to two years to prepare to launch or takeover schools in Indianapolis Public Schools.

The fellowship includes an annual salary of about $100,000, benefits, and support for creating new schools, such as visits to other schools, training, and legal assistance. The package for each fellow is worth approximately $200,000 per year.

The city has 16 innovation schools, and they enroll about 20 percent of the students in Indianapolis Public Schools. They are under the umbrella of the district, but they are managed by outside charter operators or nonprofits, and most of the teachers are not employed by the district nor do they belong to the teachers union. The Mind Trust has been instrumental in the creation of innovation schools, and the vast majority of the schools were founded with support from the nonprofit.

The innovation fellowship winners include two people from Indianapolis and two recruits from other cities. But in a sign that the nonprofit’s leaders have become more cautious in their choices, all four have years of experience in education.

Brandon Brown, CEO of the Mind Trust, said that’s by design. About four early innovation fellows never ended up opening innovation schools. But all of the recent winners have either opened schools or are on track to open them, he said.

Candidates are much more likely to be successful, he said, if they have the entrepreneurial spirit to create their own nonprofits and win community support — and have experience in education.

“There’s this notion that if you’re a great entrepreneur, you don’t have to have the unique skill set to know education and [yet] you can go operate a school,” Brown said. “We’ve learned that that’s a very rare thing to see.”

While the winners have all worked in established schools, however, Brown said they are trying new models.

Tihesha Henderson, principal of School 99, won a fellowship to develop a school designed to meet the social and emotional needs of students. She will take a yearlong leave from her current job and hopes to return and transform School 99 into an innovation school.

Henderson envisions a school that adjusts to meet student needs, whether through therapy, small classes, or classroom redesign. School 99 already has significant flexibility, but as an innovation school, Henderson would be able to change the school calendar and set teacher pay, she said.

“We don’t have to be the status quo,” she said. “We can branch out and do some things differently, but it all comes back to — are we meeting out kids needs?”

The other fellows are Alicia Hervey, dean of student development for Christel House Academies; Kim Neal, managing director of secondary education for the charter school network KIPP DC; and Brandy Williams, an expert in special education from New Orleans.

Although innovation schools are considered part of Indianapolis Public Schools, they also often have charters through the office of Mayor Joe Hogsett. The collaborative nature of the schools was on display at the announcement Thursday, where Hogsett, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, and Brown all spoke.

The innovation schools, said Ferebee, are part of a broader district strategy to give principals more flexibility to run their schools.

“We hire great leaders, get out of their way and give them the space and agility to make decisions about academics [and] operations to better serve our students and our families,” he said.

The city’s reputation in the education community is helping it attract educators from across the country, said Hogsett.

“They know our city is one where they can make a difference,” he said. “Indianapolis welcomes their passion with open arms.”