An elective despotism was not the government we fought for, but one which should not only be founded on free principles but in which the powers of government should be so divided and balanced among several bodies of magistracy, as that no one could transcend their legal limits, without being effectively checked and restrained by the others…. The public money and public liberty, intended to have been deposited with three branches of magistracy, but found inadvertently to be in the hands of one only, will soon be discovered to be sources of wealth and dominion to those who hold them …The time to guard against corruption and tyranny, is before they should gotten hold of us. It is better to keep the wolf out of the fold, than to trust his teeth and talons after he shall have entered.
Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 1787.
Forty years ago, in the wake of a devastating, lengthy strike, a republican mayor with presidential ambitions fought to reconstruct the governance of the New York City school system. In the Spring, 1967 the NYS Legislature authorized the appointment of a panel, that, in November, 1967 issued their report entitled, Reconnection for Learning: A Community School System for New York City. The report proffers,
No school system is free of shortcoming, but in New York the malaise of parents is heightened by their inability to obtain redress or response to concerns. Teachers and administrators are caught in a system that has grown so complex and stiff as to overwhelm its human and social purpose. (Report, p 2)
After a bruising battle much of the report was accepted and a decentralized school system was created. Mayor Lindsay and the liberal establishment lauded their efforts.
Once again, in 2009, the legislature is debating changing the face of education for children, parents and teachers. Unfortunately the Klein regency is as tone deaf to parents as was the central administration of the sixties.
The recent affaire 278 is a classic example. The Department was seeking space for the Hebrew Language Charter School in the Marine Park/Mill Basin area of Brooklyn, for two years, until permanent space can be constructed. A young and inexperienced Tweed staffer mishandled the discussions and the mandated public hearing on the placement of the school was a disaster. The overt anti-Semitic comments are disturbing, the elected officials “playing to the crowd,” the all white audience/mob in a school that is sixty percent Afro-American and Hispanic, all captured on video.
In the seventies the District 22 School Board, after months of consultations with parents, community leaders and electeds approved a busing program in which Afro-American students from overcrowded schools in the northern end of the district were bused to fourteen underutilized all white schools in the southern end. At the time it was, I believe, the largest voluntary busing program in the nation.
Top down, clumsy actions by an autocratic, insensitive bureaucracy antagonizes and frustrates local communities. Bottom up plans created by parents and elected school boards were able to implant highly controversial initiatives, that benefited all.
While the structure of the Panel for Education Policy (PEP), fma, the Central Board, has dominated the conversation the role of communities is a vital element in the Albany discussions. How do you frame a meaningful role for parents and their communities?
Manhattan Boro President Scott Stringer supports a bill that would create independent Community Engagement Panels based on the Community Planning Board model. The Parent Commission on School Governance and Mayoral Control would delegate specific, enumerated powers to the District Community Education Councils.
Although the Klein lead Department announced a 3.7% budget cut across the system at the school level the cuts are more in 5-10% range. The City Council is on the verge of reaching a budget agreement with the Mayor. Next year we may very well see another around of cuts, and, the stimulus dollars are exhausted after two years.
What is the role of parents and their communities in creating policies to respond to these dire cuts?
The claims of success coming out of Tweed, and the Bloomberg supported press are rebuked in a new book featuring critical essays by a range of scholars and reporters.
The legislature is scheduled to adjourn on June 22nd, and, while a total overhaul is unlikely, the members of the legislature, the folks who face parents, their constituents, will have the opportunity to demand changes that will give parents and communities a significant role.
Will the legislators, to quote Jefferson, … keep the wolf out of the fold, or, will we continue to, trust his teeth and talons …