Testimony on New York City public school governance

Testimony of Randi Weingarten, before New York State Assembly Education Committee

Good morning. My name is Randi Weingarten and I am the President of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT). On behalf of my members, I want to thank Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan and the distinguished members of this committee for giving me the opportunity to share our views on the school governance law.

First and foremost, I think our most important purpose is to help improve outcomes of students. Our collective mission is to help all kids reach their god-given potential. The key word in that is ‘collective’. Our schools are public institutions and they belong to the public; they are not the exclusive province of any one person and can’t be viewed through that lens. They serve students, their families and the larger community; and ultimately the very future of New York City depends on their success. Our schools are vital both to the promotion of the common good and to individual economic opportunity.

We therefore must insist on high standards for our school governance structure. It is essential that whatever governance model we have going forward actively promotes engagement and voice from core constituencies – not a veto – and incorporates meaningful checks and balances.

There is a tremendous amount being said these days about the school governance law. For example, some people believe that the state legislature should simply allow the law to sunset — to expire in June of this year. Others believe the law should be continued exactly as it is.

This week, thanks to two years of hard work by our union’s multi-partisan School Governance, the UFT formally began advocating for a third scenario – amending the current law with a series of modifications that would maintain operational mayoral control, but establish institutional checks and balances, particularly on educational policy, and more voice for the people closest to the kids – their parents and their educators. Their report is focuses squarely on ensuring a good governance model that benefits the students.

Before I talk about the specifics of our recommendations, I want to talk about the context in which we make them. In some respects, mayoral control has been a great asset for our public schools. It has meant having a mayor who was willing to take responsibility for what goes on in schools and make education a priority in this city. Under mayoral control, we have also witnessed an unprecedented infusion of city budget dollars and private investment targeted to education. Other mayors starved the schools and then said it wasn’t their problem, but in the last seven years, billions more dollars poured into our classrooms. Teacher salaries have also increased, thus improving recruitment and retention efforts, and forward-thinking measures such as Lead Teachers and the schoolwide bonus program have became realities. These breakthroughs all came under mayoral control, and they all have been great for our kids.

On the flip side of the coin, we know the changes of the last seven years have been chaotic and at times difficult for our members and for parents. For example, the several reorganizations that took place were not developed openly or collaboratively, nor was the Department of Education required to provide evidence as to what they were basing their decisions on. Some of that money I just mentioned was not spent wisely either, but there was little that any of us outside of the Department of Education could do about it. In fact, the lack of transparency, collaboration and checks and balances have led to many high-profile controversies – from the arbitrary removal of central board members to the lack of public discussion about how to increase student success; from graduation rates to school capacity; from career and technical education to gifted and talented; from policies concerning testing, school closings and changing bus routes mid-year to the many no-bid contracts that cost the city millions – and worse, the disregard for education laws deemed inconvenient.

We also know that Community Education Councils, which replaced the local Community School Boards, are advisory at best, and School Leadership teams have not been faithfully implemented. This of course is not news to you, Assemblywoman Nolan, as you joined the parents’ class action complaint petitioning Education Commissioner Mills on behalf of the School Leadership Teams.

Armed with the knowledge and experience gained since 2002, it makes sense that we try to keep the best aspects of mayoral control intact while trying to fix its shortcomings. The sunset of the law gives us an invaluable opportunity to do so.

In April of 2007, the UFT initiated a member-driven task force. Representing diverse opinions, the group set out to evaluate the present school governance system and develop a set of recommendations for a governance structure that would best serve the educational needs of our students. This was a real grassroots effort, one that we are very proud of. Let me underscore in our heart of hearts, the dozens of members who committed countless hours to this effort commenced with the understanding that we would view all elements of the system through a lens of what would be best for kids. The discussions were spirited and the passion was remarkable.

The task force determined the best way to fulfill its mission was two-fold: (1) to engage the public, listen to their stories and gain their insights and (2) to study the law in-depth and how it’s been implemented and come up with ways that would ensure an effective and democratic school governance framework. The group initiated a series of six public forums across the five boroughs in early 2008, drawing more than 1,200 classroom educators, parents, community group members and legislators.

We know from listening to the compelling testimony in every borough of our city and from our experiences in the classroom, that schools which foster collaboration and reflect and value the true voice of the staff and parents are inherently stronger and have better student outcomes. It’s that voice, that engagement and participation at all levels of the school system that have been missing from the current governance model and what needs to be institutionalized going forward.

During the course of its work, the task force settled on six core principles. An effective governance system should:

  • Ensure accountability and transparency with checks and balances at all levels
  • Encourage public involvement in decision making
  • Provide clear lines of communication and responsibility to solve problems
  • Comply fully with state laws
  • Support teamwork and collaboration focused on achievement
  • Ensure the stability and oversight of resources that schools depend on

From there, the task force developed a set of recommendations that were overwhelmingly approved this week by both the UFT Executive Board and Delegate Assembly. You have read about some of these recommendations in the press, most prominently our call to reconfigure the Panel for Education Policy.

We have taken this controversial and difficult stance because the system needs an independent voice that will champion kids. The Panel for Education Policy was intended as a mechanism to review and approve major policy changes the mayor and chancellor propose for the system, but it has been turned into little more than an advisory panel. Effectively, there is no vehicle in this current governance structure where the voices of educators or parents can be heard, and where proper debate can take place. For the last seven years, the only two methods of getting your views heard were through lawsuits or by taking to the streets in protest.

We propose that the Panel for Education Policy be reconfigured, significantly stronger and more independent. In our recommendations, five of the thirteen members would be appointed by the mayor, one each would be appointed by the public advocate, the comptroller, the city council speaker and the remaining five by each of the five borough presidents. The Chancellor would be an ex-officio member rather than a voting member. We are also recommending fixed terms for appointees, so they can only be removed for cause, and allowing the panel to pick its own chair. In the spirit of a new beginning, we even suggest changing the name to the Central Education Policy Council.

By opening the panel up to broader representation, the Governor and Legislature would give voice to the officials who are elected to do the people’s business, and thereby create an institutional voice for parents, students and teachers who rely on and work within the system every day.

Under our plan, the mayor would need to sway two of the eight votes that are not under his control in order to make major changes in public school policy. Why did we propose this? Because we believe in independence and responsibility balanced with accountability – a check and balance that will ensure proper debate, problem-solving and more timely decisions. This week is a perfect case in point – where is the independent voice championing students’ needs in the wake of this budgetary nightmare? An independent board would have no doubt expressed outrage over how teachers have been used as pawns in the fight for state and federal money. An independent board would speak out against the possibility of 15,000 teacher layoffs, because that scenario would mean a huge direct service cut to kids.

The principle behind adding this institutional voice is not simply about democracy; it grows right from school success. Schools are not private corporations, nor should they be treated in the same manner. After all, the excesses, and fiscal collapse this fall has persuaded many that Wall Street, big business and the unregulated private market is not the great model of efficiency, fairness or results.

Again, the issue really comes down to improving outcomes for kids. When you look at great schools, you see several things. Most notably, you see parental and teacher engagement that is both collaborative and meaningful. Schools where parents choose to be involved are inherently stronger. Schools that foster collaboration and reflect the true voice of the staff can point to better student outcomes. Earlier this year, we celebrated when dozens of schools that participated in our school-wide bonus program were able to advance student achievement. In those schools, educators worked together, shared ideas and bolstered one another to achieve positive results. Similarly, when organized groups of parents get involved with schools, good things tend to happen. We saw this with Community Collaborative 9 (CC9), a partnership between parents and teachers in District 9 in the Bronx where the idea for lead teachers developed and helped low-performing schools with novice staffs improve quickly. And it was the parent group, Advocates for Children, that called attention to the unmet needs of special education students and won needed resources for those students.

In keeping with the six principles developed by our task force, our recommendations also include:

  • A renewed commitment to and the strengthening of School Leadership Teams.
  • A recasting of the Community Education Councils in each district, with a broader selection process for panel members and additional powers and duties to ensure community access and voice. That includes the authority to hold public hearings and submit recommendations on proposed school openings and closings.
  • Enabling community superintendents to perform the significant powers and duties given them under existing state law and who can help bridge the gap for parents and schools who need more information & assistance.

And on this point, I want to provide you with an example of the kind of problem that an empowered community superintendent could readily address. Highlighted in Wednesday’s Daily News, there are two elementary schools in Corona, Queens – directly across the street from one another – with PS 307 at just 20% capacity, while neighboring PS 19 has 800 children over capacity. For PS. 19, this translates into trailers for classrooms, no room for science labs, computer classrooms or a gym. District 24 Community Education Council President, Marge Kolb, according to the report, has hit a brick wall with Department of Education (DoE) officials. The Department of Education has refused to put kids in the underutilized school, saying it will grow over time.

Superintendents can and should play an important role in their districts. Superintendents are responsible for making certain that all children in their district are achieving at high levels and all schools are being properly resourced and supported. We do need somebody in charge who knows the schools, the neighborhoods and their needs. Superintendents are also a great conduit of information for the community and can be a resource for parents who need their concerns heard and decisions made if an issue cannot be resolved on the school level.

To continue with our recommendations, we propose:

  • Creating nine member High School District Councils (HSDCs) to represent each of the six high school districts (Alternative HS, Bronx HS, Queens HS, Manhattan HS, Brooklyn HS, and Brooklyn and Staten Island HS).
  • Allowing for input by the newly reconfigured Citywide Education Policy Council in our plan, if a mayor’s choice for chancellor requires a waiver.
  • 360 degree evaluations for principals and the chancellor to compile feedback on their performance from a broad cross-section of people and obtain a comprehensive view of their performance.
  • A legal accountability measure that would allow for complaints to be filed with the state education commissioner and subsequent court proceedings if the DoE does not comply with the law.
  • Another six-year sunset of the law.

The UFT school governance task force report is also very clear in what it does not do – It rejects returning to the former school boards and other unneeded bureaucracy. Let’s be clear – there were no good old days to hearken back to. Before the governance law was changed in 2002, we had dysfunctional boards and dysfunctional politics.

The report can be downloaded and read in its entirety from our union’s Web site, www.uft.org, and I encourage everyone to review it.

It’s worth noting that the debate over our report was vigorous among UFT members, as it should be when you are wrestling with important issues. Discussion and debate are healthy and democratic, but unfortunately they are a large part what has been missing from the current governance model.

In its current iteration, many people believe mayoral control has been beset with controversies, reorganizations and a retreat from any meaningful democratic process. The system in many ways frustrates parents, impedes educators and hampers opportunities for our kids.

We believe our recommendations are a responsible, thoughtful and reasonable approach to the problems in the current model. Providing students an opportunity for success is always the goal of public school educators and our task force wrestled for a long time with what governance system could help our public schools achieve this goal. There is a lot of room for improvement when it comes to transparency, accountability and collaboration. Let’s not simply keep the status quo. Let’s improve what we have.

Thank you.

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