My introduction to politics came through the public school system. All three of my daughters attended New York City public schools. When my first daughter entered kindergarten, her class was severely overcrowded and her school faced $200,000 in annual budget cuts. I knew from day one that I would have to be involved in a significant way.
As a working parent, I went from class mom, to PTA president, to member of the Community Education Council District 2. I raised over $3 million in funding for our public schools for school yard and bathroom renovations, science and computer labs, technology and a new library. To ease overcrowding, I organized a team of parents to canvass the neighborhood to find a new school site, which would eventually become PS 281 – The River School.
I am proud of the work I have done, but two decades later the problems public school children and parents face have only increased. Our schools are overcrowded, underfunded, and divided along race and class lines.
We must demand excellence and equity in our public schools. Our future depends on it. As City Council Member, I will fight for three major changes: (1) smaller class sizes, (2) more professional support for teachers and administrators, and (3) desegregating our public school system.
(1) SMALLER CLASS SIZES
New York City public school classes are overcrowded, and the problem is only getting worse. A record 670 schools have what labor contracts call “oversize classes,” up from 660 last year. In 2007,city officials followed state law in setting average class size goals of 19.9 students for K-3rd grade, 22.9 students for 4th-8th grade, and 24.5 students for 9th-12th grade. The Education Law Center’s recent report shows that 800,000 kids – representing nearly 80% of city students – were enrolled in classes that exceeded those limits in the past school year.
This crisis is unacceptable. Teachers cannot give students the time and attention they deserve when teaching in overcrowded classes, and students inevitably fall behind. Years ago, I organized parents to find a new school site to ease overcrowding. We did this because the Department of Education failed to lead. District 2 – and all New Yorkers – deserve a City Council Member who will step up, and take the initiative to find and build new school sites.
This problem has a clear solution, but City Hall lacks the political willpower and focus to get the job done. As the next City Council Member, I promise Council District 2 that this will always be a top priority for my office.
(2) PROFESSIONAL SUPPORT FOR TEACHERS AND ADMINISTRATORS
I believe that schools should be held accountable, but the city must provide the resources necessary for schools to succeed. While the city’s use of a data management system to track test scores, student progress, and graduation rates was well-intentioned, too much focus on test scores has limited real learning. The quality of our education should not be based on how students perform on standardized tests – it should be based on a quality educator’s evaluation of the student. Obsessive focus on test scores oversimplifies education and devalues the learning process.
Instead, we should invest in a strong support system for our teachers. If we are going to hold our teachers to the highest standards, then we should provide them with the necessary resources and professional development required to meet those standards.
I believe for the sake of our teachers and our children, we must fully implement the Contracts for Excellence (C4E). Current C4E funds support class size reduction efforts and other specific program initiatives, including “Time on Task” (programs focusing on students who may require additional or increased individualized attention), teacher and principal quality initiatives, middle and high school restructuring, full-day pre-K programs, and model programs for English language learners. Despite this funding, class sizes continue to rise. It is crucial that the Department of Education be held accountable and make sure that funding is allocated prudently and appropriately for class size reduction.
Most importantly, we have to involve our educators in the decision-making process and recognize that they are the field professionals – not our elected officials. We need input from our teachers to ensure that their voices are heard.
New York City prides itself on its diversity and progressive values, and yet we have one of the most deeply segregated school systems in the country. This is nothing short of moral failure on the part of our elected leaders.
Decades of academic research suggests that socio-economic integration is one of the most effective and inexpensive ways to improve academic achievement for low-income children and children of color. High-poverty schools tend to have fewer resources and more trouble attracting and retaining qualified teachers. Peer effects are important as well – including the educational benefits provided by a diverse student body, and political and financial resources provided by higher-income parents.
We need to focus on the socio-economic factors that are driving segregation. At the very least, public schools should reflect the socio-economic makeup of their own school district. Currently, the mayor and the Department of Education have not done enough to confront segregation in our schools, blaming the problem on housing distribution. As the next City Council Member, I will actively support efforts to rezone schools in order to make our public schools more equitable and to reflect the neighborhoods that they serve.
It is critical to communicate to public school parents that this is not a zero-sum game. It is in the interest of every child to integrate. We need leaders who are willing to challenge higher-income parents to believe in public schools and fight the legacy of racial segregation in our city.
Not all communities oppose integration. In fact, some have taken it upon themselves to address segregation. Community Education Council District 1 was awarded a Socioeconomic Integration Pilot Program grant in 2015 (the SIPP grant) “intended to promote socioeconomic diversity and avoid racial isolation in a way that is equitable and fair to all students and practicable to implement.” And yet, despite years of research and advocacy, the Department of Education has refused to implement the grant. Elected leaders need to stand with parents willing to challenge the status quo, and fight for the support and funding necessary to make a change.
There are also real hurdles to racial integration built into New York City public schools that could change. Screening tools used by public high schools to select “merit-based” candidates often inadvertently screen out children of color. These include standardized test scores, school work portfolios, and interviews. If our “merit-based” system is segregating our schools along racial lines, then we must reconsider the evaluation tools used. As long as our schools are unequal, there is no true meritocracy in the system.