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30th October
2006

First Published in The New York Sun, October 30, 2006

By Andrew Wolf

The mayor’s path to education reform has hit a speed bump.

Despite mixed results on standardized test scores, many among the city’s elite, including the editorial boards of many newspapers and top business leaders, have accepted the Bloomberg/Klein education reforms as largely successful.

But one important group has suddenly emerged as a key threat to the mayor’s hegemony over education — the city’s public school parents. If history offers any lessons, parents more often than not seem to win political battles over the schools.

An ugly dust-up occurred Thursday during a parents association meeting at a high-profile public school on the Lower East Side, the NEST+m School. Police were called by the principal, Olga Livanis, to eject 300 parents after Ms. Livanis charged the meeting had become “physical.” Ms. Livanis was recently named to her post, replacing the school’s founding leader, Celenia Chevere. This is the school whose parents successfully sued Chancellor Joel Klein, preventing him from giving over part of their building to the Ross Global Charter School.

Parents now charge that the chancellor is getting even. “We won our lawsuit,” they asserted in a statement, “and in retaliation the DOE is dismantling NEST+m before our very eyes. Chancellor Joel Klein has made it his personal mission to destroy one of New York City’s most successful schools. Evidently, there is no role for this kind of educational success or our level of parent involvement in Chancellor Klein’s agenda.”

The parents resigned their posts on the executive committee of the NEST+m parents association to protest what they termed the abandonment of the “clear mission and vision” of the school, “one that rejected the mediocre status quo of the Department of Education.”

The night before, a Staten Island education group, 31 IDEAL, hosted an education historian who is a frequent critic of the Bloomberg/Klein education agenda, Diane Ravitch. According to the Staten Island Advance, Ms. Ravitch was introduced as a “rock star” of education. She modestly backs away from that characterization, but confirms that she found a receptive audience. She reports that parents, teachers, and principals attending the forum were “filled with rage” over their treatment by the Department of Education.

The Advance quoted Joan McKeever-Thomas, a member of the 31 IDEAL board, as saying that despite the glowing accounts found in the press, “There are very real problems in the system.” She urged that parents once again be “let into” the city schools.

Over the past few months, I have frequently reported about the distress of parents over new rules to place academically advanced children in gifted and talented programs. This concern is now spreading.

Jeffrey Dinowitz, a popular Assemblyman who represents the Riverdale community, is actively organizing parents to reject a gifted and talented program the Department of Education plans to begin in his district. “I am sick of having programs imposed on us from above without any consultation. I frankly can’t wait until the issue of mayoral control comes back to the Legislature in 2009. There must be changes made.”The legislation that gives the mayor control of the schools was passed in 2002 and sunsets in 2009. If nothing is done, control of the schools will revert back to the old system.

The mayor benefited from parental support when he won control of the schools, but that support is now slipping away.

Upon assuming that control, the mayor and chancellor moved quickly to win over the school system’s parental establishment the old-fashioned way — by giving out jobs.

At a May 9, 2003, press conference organized by the Department of Education, the president of the United Parents Association, Ernest Clayton, praised Mr. Klein’s plans to hire parent coordinators in each school, stating that “this is the first time we’ve had a chancellor willing to make a substantial investment in parent involvement.” Mr. Clayton, who led an umbrella organization of more than 200 individual school parent associations, was perhaps the city’s best-known parent advocate.

By July, Mr. Clayton had given up his post to take a $60,000-a-year administration job: parent support officer in Division 3 in Northeast Queens.

In fact, many of the more than 1,200 people initially hired as parent coordinators and citywide and regional support staff came right out of the leadership of the parent groups and parent associations, effectively co-opting a key source of potential opposition.

But with a new generation of parent leaders now emergent, the word now is that the once-mandatory parent coordinator in every school may be dispensed with at the discretion of the principal, under the chancellor’s new “empowerment”initiative. If hundreds of these former activists find themselves unemployed, the question is how this could play out.

Other activists were bought off by having their agendas accepted by the Department of Education. The much-maligned new admissions policy for the gifted programs is a case in point. It was adopted to placate a radical organizing group, the Center for Immigrant Families, which had threatened a lawsuit.

How has this group responded to the adoption of its agenda, and all of the problems that it has brought to Mr. Klein? On Thursday, it issued a statement charging that “since the Mayor has imposed his control of the school system,” parents’ “voices and opinions have been intentionally excluded from the decision-making process at every level … the Mayor’s policies have been disastrous for our city’s children and are a reflection of a system that has systematically denigrated parents.”

© 2006 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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