wait and see

Political support for co-location lawsuit now shaky

The lawsuit that challenges a group of school co-locations could soon lose much of its political firepower.

The lawsuit, filed last December by then-Public Advocate-elect Letitia James, City Council members, and parent advocacy organizations, charged that the city had violated state education law by approving more than 40 school co-locations in October.

But that political support is in jeopardy after Chancellor Carmen Fariña scrapped a handful of those plans and amended others yesterday. James, now the Public Advocate, and Melissa Mark-Viverito, now the City Council speaker, haven’t said yet whether they will abandon the suit, but are both close de Blasio allies unlikely to want a drawn-out legal fight with the mayor.

For other Council members, Fariña’s changes may have been enough, which would leave the parent advocacy organizations to lead the fight.

“Politics is politics is politics,” New York City Parents Union president Mona Davids said. “We do not expect the elected officials like Tish [James] to continue with the lawsuit.”

City Council members Margaret Chin, Jumaane Williams, and Ruben Wills joined James and Mark-Viverito in filing the lawsuit last year. Of the five politicians, only Wills has publicly expressed his continued support.

“We’re going to go ahead,” Wills said. “The other co-locations still make no sense.”

A spokeswoman for Chin said she was happy with yesterday’s news that two co-locations were canceled in her district, and did not know yet what Chin’s stance was on the lawsuit. (Two new high school co-locations are still moving forward in Murry Bergtraum High School in Chin’s district.)

Public Advocate James has made opposition to co-locations a key issue and frequently testified in opposition to the plans. She said in a November interview that people should see her “as a partner in ensuring that the mayor of the city of New York honors his commitment to reform the school system as we know it.”

On Friday, Aja Worthy-Davis, a spokeswoman for James, said she was still “reviewing options” in communication with the de Blasio administration. Mark-Viverito and Williams did not respond to requests for comment on Friday.

Altogether, the signs aren’t promising to Arthur Schwartz, the lawyer who filed the suit.

“I’m not sure they want to cross swords with the mayor in court,” Schwartz said of de Blasio allies Mark-Viverito and James, whose statements in response to yesterday’s decisions were cautious but supportive.

As for the rest of the Council members, “I sent them emails saying, ‘Where do you want to go?’ I haven’t gotten their responses yet,” Schwartz said.

The suit was also filed by three parent advocacy organizations, the New York City Parents Union, Class Size Matters, and New York Communities for Change, which Schwartz said will keep the suit alive.

“Eva [Moskowitz] got 65 percent of what she wanted, we got 15 percent of what we wanted—and she’s going to be in court,” Schwartz said, referring to the widely-held expectation that Moskowitz will sue the city after three of her school’s plans were nixed. “So we might end up being in court together.”

That’s a different stance than the coalition took in January, when they agreed to pause the legal action until the Department of Education had completed its review of the co-location plans.

For some parents disappointed that Fariña did not go far enough in rolling back those plans, support for the lawsuit will signal whether their cause is still politically powerful.

David Kroening, a parent of twins at J.H.S. 78, where over 700 parents attended a meeting in opposition to a Success Academy co-location that got the green light yesterday, is one of them.

“Letitia James came to one of our meetings, and spoke very passionately about it,” he said. His message to the public advocate: “I understand you wanted to give her [Fariña] time, but let’s see what your commitment is.”

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.