Public education has been a hot-button issue for many years in New York City. Teachers, parents, school administrators and the government itself are at odds over how to improve the education received in city schools.
On the heels of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s appeal to Albany for control or “governance” of the public school system, the annual Carol Gresser Forum on Issues in Education convened at St. John’s on March 5 to discuss “Whither the Board of Education.”
“The forum is a natural outgrowth of the many programs run collaboratively by the faculty of the schools and teachers, administrators and parents of the children, from kindergarten through 12th grade,” said Jerrold Ross, dean of the St. John’s School of Education.
“The issue that we are talking about tonight is one that generates a lot of enthusiasm, shall we say…These forums are designed to generate light, not heat.”
Panelists included Dennis Walcott, deputy mayor for education; Jill Levy, president of the Council of Supervisors and Administrators; Elizabeth Langiulli, special assistant to United Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, who was called to thestatehouse for a meeting; as well as Ross and moderator Carol Gresser.
Langiulli said governance is “not an end in itself” and that more work needs to be done to increase the quality of the education system.
“Frankly, I am very concerned that the debate going on over governance will lull us into thinking that if we accomplish changes in governance, we are doing all we need to do to improve education.”
Langiulli called for a balance to be struck between the mayor, the public and the parents via a board of education.
“Governance changes can alleviate the blame game,” she said. “But the current setup has allowed whoever is in office to throw up his hands and say, ‘What can I do? I’m not in charge of the school system.'”
Langiulli said that for governance changes to succeed, they must entail five things: restoration of public credibility, the mayor should have ultimate but not exclusive responsibility, encouragement of public debate, resistance to political whims and not become an excuse to divert public resources to other agencies.
“What is important is to get this done,” she said. “When it comes to educating children, as Randi Weingarten has said, ‘it’s the classroom, not the boardroom that matters,'” she said.
Levy said that the Board of Education should remain intact but be revamped into an independent elected board of education with an independent funding stream.
“We have a real problem with the word control,” said Levy on behalf of the CSA.
“Governance is important to us, but not as important as what happens in the school. Give us democracy, give us the right to vote, give us the right to have funds that we can raise or not raise, give us the right to have public input into the process of public education rather than tell us that we need to have control.
“The ball is rolling and it is rolling down the hill at a very fast rate. We’re at the point now where it is going very, very quickly and I don’t know who is going to stop it.”
Walcott said that ridding the city of the Board of Education, which was established in 1969, and giving control to the mayor is the appropriate course of action.
“Strictly from a time management point of view, the Board of Education is an inefficient operation,” he said.
Walcott also said that giving accountability to the mayor will empower the parents of school children and encourage them to choose who they want in control of the schools.
Other issues addressed in the panel discussion involved funding, allocation of resources, standardized testing and parental involvement in public schools.
“We’re going to see a big change,” Gresser said. “And hopefully it will improve education for our children.”
Gresser has been involved in education for more than 30 years, as a teacher, volunteer, PTA president and Board of Education member. In 1998, Gresser was the only school board member in the nation invited to Washington, D.C., to participate in a conference discussing the relationship between the physical school environment and educational outcomes which was held at the National Academy of Sciences. Gresser has also appeared as a guest lecturer at more than 20 national universities and organizations.
Walcott currently oversees the policies of the Board of Education, the City University of New York, the Health and Hospitals Corporation as well as several other city agencies. He is a strong proponent of educational standards and is advocate for the fairness in the allocation of educational resources to the public schools.
Levy, a strong advocate for children and adults with disabilities, coordinated the Supervisory Support Program, a collaborative effort between the Board of Education and the CSA. She is also the vice president of the American Federation of School Administrators, an executive board member of the New York State Federation of School Administrators and is a member of the President’s Commission on the Employment of People with Disabilities Labor Sub-Committee.
New York City Board of Education President Ninfa Segarra was scheduled to attend but canceled due to illness.