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15th June

First Published in The New York Sun, June 15, 2004

By Andrew Wolf

The City Council Education Committee will hold hearings tomorrow on the burgeoning smallschool movement that has been gaining ground at the Department of Education.

This movement, driven by foundation dollars, promises — some say threatens — to transform the school system. The committee will look into whether that is a good thing. 
The hearings underscore an important development in the years of school reform under Mayor Bloomberg. In the absence of an independent Board of Education, Council Member Eva Moskowitz’s committee has emerged as the only game in town when it comes to governmental oversight of public schools.

That this subject could even be discussed and debated is stirring concern in educational circles. Supporters say small schools make education more personal and nurturing; critics say they are too expensive, unproven, and promote a liberal agenda.

This hearing comes nearly two years after I first wrote about New York’s “University Institutional Complex.” These are the foundations, schools of education, and consultants that control the city’s public schools. Chancellors, school boards, even mayors come and go. You may think Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein are in charge of the schools. More important is a fellow you probably have never heard of, Robert Hughes.

Mr. Hughes is the president of New Visions for Public Schools, a group whose ideas have long driven the system that Mr. Bloomberg contended was so dysfunctional only he could save it. Yet the mayor has not seized control from New Visions, but rather has ceded it greater control.

Founded in 1989 by lawyer Richard Beattie, it is involved with about 70 small public schools in the city and may soon double or even triple that number. It has worked to raise private money for the schools but is equally active in accepting contracts from the school system to help administer its programs. According to its Web site, “New Visions plays many roles: broker, convener, facilitator, incubator, advocate for policy change, and resource provider.”

To no one’s surprise, New Visions had encouraged thousands of students and teachers to take the day off from classes to come down and “fill the room” at tomorrow’s hearing.

New Visions’ small schools initiative promises to bring in tens of millions, perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars, in contracts and fees in coming years. A few years ago, its cause was “school leadership teams.” It leveraged as much as $200 million in taxpayer dollars over the years into this program. Millions of dollars went back to New Visions for training teams members and other work.

You don’t hear much anymore about the teams, but old ideas die hard. Perhaps 15,000 team members — principals, teachers, and parents — each received a $300 check this month, their annual stipend for participating.

New Visions is concerned about Ms. Moskowitz’s hearing. The last thing it wants is a debate about its programs.

Last week, an e-mail went out from Anjeanette Allen, the “Community Engagement Program Officer” of New Visions’ “New Century High Schools Initiative,” to a long list of supporters, including dozens of principals and directors at the scores of public schools it has “created.”

Ms. Allen noted that Mr. Hughes would testify at the hearing as would Mr. Klein’s senior policy advisor, Michelle Cahill, and representatives of the Annenberg Institute.

There would also be a panel to critique the small schools, a dialogue that doesn’t fit into New Visions’ concept of diversity in everything but opinion. So it asked its supporters in their schools to lay down their pencils and paper, play hooky, and head down to City Hall to create a “visual display” of support at the hearing.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Education, Margie Feinberg, said department officials were “unaware” of the e-mail from New Visions to the schools and noted,“The chancellor does not approve of teachers and students leaving their school and missing instruction.We are writing to the schools telling them that students and teachers shouldn’t leave to attend this hearing.”

A spokesman for New Visions, George Arzt, conceded the e-mail went out but insisted it was “an error.” He said it was corrected the next day when a second email was sent out omitting the suggested participation of students and teachers.

If Ms. Moskowitz can really examine this movement, stressing the public policy questions the small schools raise, she will be performing a muchneeded public service.

On the surface, the schools already established or in the pipeline seem troublesome. If a school has the words peace, justice, community, leadership, or diversity in its name, it is probably a New Vision School.
Heather MacDonald’s essay, “An F for Hip-Hop 101,”is a description of the goings-on at one New Visions School, the El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice. It will make you laugh — and then cry.

One thing is certain.You will not find a “Ronald Reagan School of Free Enterprise Studies” among the New Vision school offerings.

In the world of New Visions, the El Puente Academy is a shining star of success. Tweed seconds that endorsement, which exempted the school from the mandated citywide curriculum. Only 31% of eligible students at the school took the Scholastic Aptitude Tests.

They scored an average of 359 in verbal and 351 in math, lower than similar schools and much lower than the public school average.

If Messrs. Bloomberg and Klein really want to demonstrate that they have taken charge of school reform, posting truant officers at City Hall tomorrow morning might be a good start. Let Ms. Moskowitz hold her hearings unimpeded.Another wise move would be to halt the creation of new small schools until the schools New Visions has already set up can be evaluated and, where necessary, repaired.

As for New Visions, like all permanent fixtures on the public landscape, it is far along on plans for the post-Bloomberg era: It has already hired the brains behind Fernando Ferrer’s mayoral campaign, Roberto Ramirez and his Mirram Group, as a lobbyist.

© 2004 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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