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New York City

After Mayor Michael Bloomberg wrested total control over NY City Schools in 2002, he appointed Joel Klein his first Chancellor. Over the next 8 years the Klein administration became known for dramatic reforms that had three primary components:
•    Empowering school principals, holding them and teachers accountable, and firing low performing teachers and principals;
•    re-organizing the accountability structure of the system again, and
•    turning over space in public school buildings to charter schools.

There were no fewer than five total system reorganizations in six years: When Bloomberg took over, the massive system was divided into 32 smaller districts.  Then those were dissolved and replaced by 10 “regions.”  Next, “Integrated Service Centers” were created.  Then the Chancellor announced a return to small districts. Parent activists felt marginalized, whether by design or simply as an unintended consequence.

“Parents had no idea where to go anymore with all the re-organizations,” said Zakiyah Ansari, an organizer with the Coalition for Education Justice.  “We started to see parents check-out – a real decline in parent involvement.”

The message from downtown to schools was “sink or swim.” When schools have low test score results, they are put on the list for “phase out” to closure or downsizing and co-location with charter schools. In 2010, 19 high schools were closed.  In 2011, 22 elementary and middle schools begin the process of grade-by-grade “phase out” to closure. This is as coherent a statement of the Klein/Bloomberg vision as there is: if it’s not working, close it.

At the same time, the number of charter schools has expanded, and co-location of charters in regular school buildings mushroomed – with very unequal resources and services. Limitations on private, entrepreneurial efforts were swept away and private investment in public charter schools became the new hedge-fund manager investment opportunity.  Through the complicated use of federal tax breaks, hedge fund managers could “invest” in charter school buildings and double their money in seven years.

All told, since 2000, 91 schools have been closed, 34 high schools and 57 elementary and middle schools. Virtually all of them served predominantly Black and Latino students.  In a recent study released by the Urban Youth Collaborative, an organizing collaborative in the City, 33,000 students have been affected by the closures.  Nearly half of those students have since dropped out, or been discharged (not graduated) from the schools.

The parent and community fight-back began in 2000 through the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, a statewide campaign for adequate funding for high-need, low-resourced districts, including NY City. By 2006 the courts had been forced to add $5.5 billion statewide over four years, the lion’s share of it going to NYC, reversing budget cuts and restoring billions of dollars in state funding.


-Zakiyah Ansari, Coalition for Educational Justice:

“As a parent I realized that art and music wasn’t happening with my kids.”  What CEJ does is invest in Parents.  People say that Black and Latino parents don’t care but it isn’t true.  It’s about investment.  Right now the vision is about closing schools and that’s about it.  Our vision is about expanded learning time, a Rigorous curriculum, etc.  We had to escalate our tactics. We got arrested and it was the most empowering thing I’ve ever done.  We will not allow our children to be collateral damage anymore.”

In January 2011 two hundred parents and students protested in front of the Tweed building that houses the Board of Education. Twenty four protesters were arrested in acts of civil disobedience over the emphasis on school closures and test-driven reforms.  In February 2011, 1,400 students citywide, led by the Urban Youth Collaborative, engaged in a walkout.

Meanwhile over the past 3 or 4 years a “Coalition for Better Schools” had emerged focused on an alternative reform vision to that being promoted by the Klein/Bloomberg administration. Parents, students and educators were concerned about inequities, the effects of test driven reforms, and how the curriculum had been narrowed in low-income communities. The Alliance for Quality Education and other groups spearheaded the Campaign for Better Schools which challenged the top-down reform agenda and developed a proposal for a Transformation Zone within which there would be extended learning time for students. Parents realized that their concerns about the lack of music, PE, and the arts, the lack of professional development and other supports for teachers and the lack of a curriculum could all be addressed through school reorganizations and expanded learning time. In 2010 the proposal was brought forward to the City Council and passed unanimously. But when the groups met with Klein and his successors they were told that the Transformation Zone idea was dead on arrival at the Department of Education.
By the start of the 2010-2011 school year, the story of Bloomberg’s claims of success were starting to unravel. When New York’s Board of Regents re-calibrated the standardized test score results, the student achievement gains the Klein administration had claimed were non-existent.  The NAEP scores that had shown flat results were right after all. What’s more, the achievement gap based on race and class turned out to be as wide as ever.  To make matters worse, the State decided to raise the graduation requirements, and it looks like a New York City diploma is not going to count for much beginning next year.
“We learned from students who went through closings in the past. We identified schools where the community wasn’t fighting back, and organized them. We’re not going to be part of this sham that doesn’t take input from the community. At the protest we walked around the whole building twice chanting “Fix the schools, don’t close them!”  We knew that Bloomberg had a plan and that the closings were just going to continue.  We also needed a push on the national level and so helped to form the Alliance for Educational Justice.”

– Jaritza Giege, Urban Youth Collaborative:

“We learned from students who went through closings in the past. We identified schools where the community wasn’t fighting back, and organized them. We’re not going to be part of this sham that doesn’t take input from the community. At the protest we walked around the whole building twice chanting “Fix the schools, don’t close them!”  We knew that Bloomberg had a plan and that the closings were just going to continue.  We also needed a push on the national level and so helped to form the Alliance for Educational Justice.”

Bloomberg, too, blamed the parents. In an interview on WOR, Bloomberg complained, “Unfortunately, there are some parents who…never had a formal education and they don’t understand the value of an education. Many of our kids come from [such] families—the old Norman Rockwell family is gone” (New York Times, May 21)

“How dare he try to blame parents!” said Zakiyah Ansari. “Parents just want to be at the table.”

New Yorkers seem now to have grown tired of both the style and the substance of Bloomberg’s control of the schools. Surveyed this spring, 2011, by a whopping 64 to 25 percent, voters disapproved of Bloomberg’s management of the schools.  Among parents, only 20 percent approve, while 78 percent disapprove.
The struggle shifted in 2010 to the requirement that school closures and co-location be justified with an “educational impact statement.”  Several organizations, including Advocates for Children, the Alliance for Quality Education, the NAACP, CEJ and others began to challenge the accuracy of the educational impact statements, exposing questionable claims about building utilization and other things. This effort has continued, and has been strengthened as elected officials have joined in objecting to the co-location of charter schools in traditional public school buildings. When charter “edupreneur” and Harlem Success Academy founder Eva Moskowitz recruited her own students and parents to picket groups like the NAACP who had challenged the educational impact statements of school closures and colocations it made national news. The organized community fight-back is beginning to have an impact.

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