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Know Your Rights
Source: The New York Sun
Subject: Education Justice
Type: Media Coverage

Schools Backlash Gathers

The Bloomberg administration’s plan to overhaul the city’s schools has provoked a backlash among parents and elected officials that could threaten mayoral control when it comes up for reauthorization in 2009. 

The Working Families Party and the teachers union president, Randi Weingarten, a powerful influence in Albany, have formed a coalition of local elected officials —including Comptroller William Thompson Jr., a possible 2009 mayoral hopeful, and a bevy of City Council members — that is calling for an education overhaul of its own making. Although not all in the group are seeking a complete rollback of mayoral control, many say the system needs to change drastically. 

“I supported mayoral control but don’t think the promise has been realized,” Council Member John Liu said after attending a rally last night during which more than 1,000 teachers, parents, and civic groups crammed into the ballroom of the St. Vartan’s Cathedral in Murray Hill to protest the Bloomberg administration’s handling of the schools. 

Others have avoided criticizing mayoral control, including Rep. Anthony Weiner, another 2009 mayoral candidate who did not attend the rally. 

“I have considerable questions about what the mayor has done, but completely support giving New York City’s officials control over the fate of New York City’s kids,” he said in a statement. 

One of the main complaints made by Mr. Bloomberg’s critics is that he has left them out of the loop on major decisions, and they said they were not satisfied by the mayor’s announcement yesterday of his choice for a new chief family engagement officer to oversee public school parent concerns. Although they said they applauded the creation of the parent position, organizers of the protest said they were not consulted on the choice of Martine Guerrier, a member of the Panel for Education Policy, which replaced the Board of Education after the mayor abolished it. 

“It unfortunately is another example of what the system’s stakeholders are angry about, which is lack of consultation before new initiatives are announced,” the co-chairwoman of the Working Families Party, Bertha Lewis, said in a statement. 

Ms. Guerrier, who previously served as an elected community school board member, will earn a salary of $150,000 and report directly to the schools chancellor. Her primary duties include overseeing the Office of Parent Engagement’s 1,500 employees, improving avenues of communication between the Department of Education and parents, and representing parental views in department decision-making. She said she would begin her new job on March 12 with a listening tour of parent groups around the city and indicated that she planned on being more than a figurehead, telling reporters that she recognized that many parents are concerned about some of the changes taking place. 

“I value her independence and candor,” Mr. Bloomberg said. “I have never tried to hire only people that agree with me.” 

The Bloomberg administration, which was been criticized for allowing private for-profit groups to influence decision-making and which has often described educators’ roles using corporate terms, had originally planned on calling the new position the “CEO of Parent Engagement.” Department officials decided the term “Chief Family Engagement Officer” would be more appropriate, Chancellor Joel Klein said yesterday. 

“It’s about the person, it’s not about the title,” he said. 

The rumble of criticism against the mayor’s education policies reached Albany this week at a joint Senate-Assembly budget hearing where Mr. Klein and Ms. Weingarten testified. During the testimony, some Assembly members who had originally voted to grant the mayor control of the schools said they have changed their minds, a source said. 

Still, the coalition frayed somewhat yesterday at Mayor Bloomberg’s announcement that he was appointing Ms. Guerrier. Two civic leaders who appeared at the protest also were alongside the mayor at a press conference during which he made the announcement. Another mayoral hopeful, the president of the Bronx, Adolfo Carrion, who had appeared on the coalition’s list of leaders expected to attend the protest, did not do so. A spokesman, Michael Murphy, said Mr. Carrion had never agreed to attend. 

Despite the defections, a spokeswoman for the coalition, Molly Watkins, said several other members of the protest group had also been asked to attend the mayor’s announcement of his new parent tsar but had turned down the invitation. 

Mr. Bloomberg responded to the group’s criticism by saying he could not invite everyone involved in city education to the press conference where he announced the appointment. “You want to make sure everybody’s included, but you cannot run a $15.5 billion organization that serves 1.1 million kids by putting everything up for a referendum,” he said.