Shhhh! Don’t tell anyone! There was an election just a few weeks ago. I bet you didn’t vote, did you? That’s OK. Mayor Bloomberg didn’t want you to, anyway! After all, the election was about public schools and this Mayor is not really interested in what anyone else thinks about the schools.
Actually, the public schools are governed in small part by entities called Community Education Councils a/k/a CECs. It was the election of CEC members – a complicated process – that was taking place from January through this month and, unfortunately, was stricken by controversy. The damning statistic is the number of eligible voters – in this case public school parents – who participated in the 2011 CEC elections, a measly 2,800. Compare that to the 25,000 parents who voted in the 2009 CEC elections. Obviously someone does not want you to vote.
What happened? How did we get here?
Before Community Education Councils, there were Community School Boards. When the education law in New York State was amended to allow for Mayoral control of the public education system in New York City, one key question was that of “community control.” Born of the battle over education issues that started in Brooklyn’s Ocean Hill-Brownsville in 1969, the 32 community school districts within New York City and their governing Community School Boards had become the focus of a 1990s media frenzy.
A few Boards regularly or occasionally engaged in corrupt or questionable practices. In addition, the selection of Superintendents in each district, as well as the hiring and firing of other personnel and certain budget matters, were in the hands of the Boards — which frustrated some “reform” efforts. Because of these problems, democratically-elected community school boards were eliminated and relatively powerless substitutes were created in 2002 — the Community Education Councils.
The Community Education Councils of today consist of some members appointed by Borough Presidents and others who are, technically, elected by designated “selectors” from the various schools within each district. (Of course, under the “new” Department of Education, school districts don’t mean much anymore.) The selectors are designated officers within each Parent Association. Please note, however, that there is little that is truly “democratic” about this process.
The CEC election rules give eligible parents the right and opportunity to vote — now online — for candidates who meet certain qualification criteria. This is the parents’ only opportunity to have a direct voice in education governance. But, guess what? This vote is not binding — it is merely advisory. The designated selectors may totally ignore the outcome of the advisory elections — and many do.
The recent big deal was about the advisory elections — the confusion around their scheduling and candidate eligibility, the lack of proper notice, and the lack of internet access for parents were all issues. Acting on behalf of the newly formed New York City Parents Union and several individual public school parents, Advocates for Justice – a public interest law firm — threatened to commence a lawsuit to stop all of the elections. As a result of this threat, the City of New York and its Department of Education agreed to re-run the advisory elections and review certain issues on a case-by-case basis. Their goal was to seat the new Community Education Councils by July 1. The new Chancellor did not want an embarrassing situation. Since promises were made, the lawsuit was never filed.
Advocates for Justice now believes that this outcome, frankly, was not optimal. In fact, there were numerous problems with the DOE’s implementation of this year’s CEC elections that were never addressed and the lawsuit should have been filed to stop the whole thing. Unfortunately, the spotlight on potential problems should have been turned on in January, when the selection/election process started — and neither incumbent nor challenger candidates were thinking “lawsuit” at the time. A foundation may still have been laid, however, for the necessary reformation of these elections.
In retrospect, it is clear that the entire CEC election process — enshrined in state education law and DOE regulations — is a joke and requires significant improvement. One possibility is taking the administration of the CEC elections away from the DOE and giving an independent government actor the necessary oversight and authority.
But the biggest joke, unfortunately, is the existence of the CECs themselves. Well-meaning and hardworking people sit on these Councils … and their wishes are regularly ignored. And one disturbing reality also became clear during this election. Forces supportive of co-locating charter schools in public school buildings were attempting to mobilize sympathetic candidates. Just as with Mayoral control, corporate power was finding another way to manifest itself in public sector governance.
So what do we do between now and the next CEC elections in 2013?
First, it is important that parents take advantage of every opportunity available to influence education decisions in New York City. Despite the lip service, the Department of Education is not on their side. The DOE is a large bureaucracy whose first job is to sustain and protect itself – along with a top-down corporatized vision of education that is being proven to be ineffective. If you think something is not going right, then collect your evidence, stay calm and focused, and speak up and act up by every means available. We need to use the internet, in particular, to organize and mobilize the power of parents.
Second, Community Education Councils should be closely watched and held accountable for their decisions, even though most will be advisory. Get to know the Council’s role and its actual work. Learn what’s going on in the other schools in the district. Be the parent who talks to your other local elected officials about what’s going on with your CEC. You’d be surprised at what people don’t know.
Third and most importantly, however, is our need to change the state education law to resurrect meaningful community school boards. No system of service delivery can be effective if there are no checks and balances. Mayoral control of schools is, by definition, authoritarian – even dictatorial. So there must be a meaningful democratic counterweight. Before the new Mayor comes to office on January 1, 2014, there should be changes to Mayoral control of education based upon what we’ve seen for these past three Mayoral terms – including the re-establishment of community school boards with substantive powers. So be aware and be prepared to “answer the call” and push your State Assembly representative and your State Senator this coming September to make changes in the state education law.
Fourth, keep up with education news through internet newsletters and other news sources. Reputable organizations sharing information include Class Size Matters, Parents Across America, the NYC Parents Union, Gotham Schools, Education Week, many other sources, and even the Department of Education’s various divisions as well.