The Debate Over "Community Education Councils"

There’s an election taking place in New York City right now… quietly, and on the Internet. Parents of public school students are casting “straw votes” for community education councils. The councils were created by the state after Mayor Bloomberg was given control of the city schools in 2002. With lawmakers debating whether to renew that law when it expires in June, some parents claim the mayor has too much authority. And as WNYC’s Beth Fertig reports, they believe the councils don’t have enough.

REPORTER: Isabella Moreno is a typical active parent. She has two children in the public schools, one in high school and another in second grade. She’s served on leadership teams at her schools with teachers and principals. And she attends parent meetings. But until this year, she’d never had any contact with a Community Education Council.

MORENO: I vaguely knew that parents were involved with them but I wasn’t really sure what they were doing, what they were for.

REPORTER: Moreno is sitting in the auditorium of PS 121 in the Northeast Bronx neighborhood of Allerton, wearing a button that says “Candidate.” She’s now running for an open seat on the Community Education Council for District 11 because she wants to get more involved.

The Community Education Councils, or CEC’s, are each composed of nine parents and two appointees of the borough president, all volunteers. They were created to replace local school boards when the mayor took over the school system. The councils are like advisors responsible for reviewing and evaluating instrutional programs in local schools. Their one real responsibility is to approve any zoning changes when a new school opens or closes. But Monica Major, the president of the CEC for district 11, claims the Bloomberg administration often excludes them even from this. A recent example was when the city decided to open a charter school without consulting CEC 11, and before it even selected a site.

MAJOR: The school of no fault of their own is taking applications for students for a school due that’s due here in September of 2009. However where is that school going to be housed? That’s still the big question.

REPORTER: Major, and her fellow CEC members, have no problem with charter schools. But they worry that the charter could open in an existing public school and cause overcrowding.

Similar debates have flared up from Harlem to Brooklyn, where Community Education Council members claim they weren’t consulted about the siting of charter schools. The city recently backed off plans to close three schools that were to be replaced by charters, after CEC members and the teachers union filed a lawsuit. But the parents who serve on CECs aren’t just concerned about having a say over charter schools.

CONNELLY: The Parent Commission rejects the condescending autocracy that currently masquerades as parent engagement (Applause)

REPORTER: That was Patricia Connelly testifying at a state assembly education committee hearing last month on mayoral control of the schools. Her Parent Commission has been calling for CEC’s to approve all school sitings, openings and closings. The group also wants an inspector general for the schools and an ombudsperson to resolve parental complaints.

It’s not just opponents of mayoral control who claim the Bloomberg administration ignores parents. Supporters of the law, such as the public advocate, have also called for giving parents more input. As legislators consider whether to renew mayoral control over the schools, the administration has been arguing that it DOES listen. Officials point to the hiring of parents coordinators in every school and a parent engagement officer.

WALCOTT: We are out there on a regular basis listening to parents, whether it’s directly in a school, districts, or just in the community itself.

REPORTER: Dennis Walcott is the Deputy Mayor in charge of these initiatives.

WALCOTT: I’m out talking to parents on a regular basis, I respond to parents on a regular basis. I respond to parents on a regular basis. You hever had that before where a parent had direct access to a deputy mayor or mayor. Are there systems that need to be put into place to improve the sharing of information around potential closures and new schools coming in, sure.

REPORTER: But he says that can be done without any change in the law.

The Bloomberg administration has also tried to involve more parents in the selection of community education council members.

AD NARRATOR: This spring New York will hold the first entirely online public election in US history. If you have a child ...

REPORTER: This public service announcement is on the website Power to the Parents, which is organizing the elections. It’s a strange process. Under state law, the only people who can officially vote for CEC candidates are the PTA officers at every school. But the Bloomberg administration arranged a straw poll over the Internet so all other parents could weigh in with their selections…advising the actual voters, who will determine the outcome next month.

In other words, it’s not really an election. So far, the city says more than 10-thousand parents have voted online. But you wouldn’t know it from the poor attendance at candidate forums around the city.

MORENO: Hello, good evening everyone.. My name is Isabella Moreno, I am a parent of 2 children one who is a ninth grader…

REPORTER: When Isabella Moreno introduced herself at the candidate forum in District 11 of the Bronx last month, only five voting parents were there in the auditorium. CEC member Petra Peleon said many parents didn’t see the point in participating since the councils have so little power.

PELEON: it’s like having – just being a bell that’s ringing and no one’s really responding.

REPORTER: But if parents want a bigger part of the process, some say they should start now. Mark Halvorsen, an outreach coordinator at Grassroots Initiative, said he tried to promote the candidate forums by contacting parent associations, libraries, and community centers. Grassroots is the non-profit consulting firm in charge of the elections.

HALVORSEN: You want to complain about not having power but then you don’t show up. It’s just like, you can’t win by choosing not to participate at all.

REPORTER: Halvorsen said turnout for the candidate forums was much bigger in other districts. But of the 33 community education councils, including one for parents of special education students, 7 don’t have enough candidates to fill all their seats. In the last election, there were only 3 districts without enough candidates. Online voting ends tomorrow. For WNYC I’m Beth Fertig.