Mayoral Hopefuls Denounce School Closings and Co-Locations at Education Forum in Harlem

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Jason Lewis/ Village Voice
Parents, teachers, students and advocates packed First Corinthian in Harlem last night.
A crowd of more than a thousand students, parents and teachers packed First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem last night to hear mayoral hopefuls pitch their plans to improve the city's fractured educational system.

The candidates continued to distance themselves from many of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's educational policies with denouncements of school closings and co-locations.

"Are we actually trying to save and uplift each school, or are we taking the cheap way out and closing schools even though they can be saved, or co-locating schools whether it's going to work or not?" Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, a 2013 mayoral candidate, said. "I reject those policies of the Bloomberg era. They did not work."

Former New York City Comptroller Bill Thompson, and current NYC Comptroller John Liu are vying to become mayor in 2013 as well, and both said they will press for a moratorium on school closings and co-locations. Mayor Bloomberg's Panel for Educational Policy was set to rule on this year's round of co-location proposals earlier this month, but that date has been pushed back until Dec. 20 due to Hurricane Sandy.

The four-ton elephant in the sanctuary last night was the beef over privately managed public schools, better known as charter schools -- an issue that New Yorkers for Great Public Schools, the coalition which hosted the forum, argues is linked to the proliferation of school closings and co-locations. De Blasio was the first and only candidate to address the issue head-on at the event.

"StudentsFirst sounds nice, but I'm not interested in taking their money," de Blasio said.

NYGPS, a coalition which the UFT teacher's union is a part of, released a report in August that accused StudentsFirstNY, the New York subsidiary of national ed-reform organization StudentsFirst, of being an astro-turf movement funded by wealthy right-wing conservatives seeking to capitalize off of public education funds. StudentsFirstNY identifies itself as a grassroots community-led organization seeking to find alternative and new solutions to the problems plaguing the country's education system.

Liu was the first candidate to refuse campaign money from StudentsFirstNY -- as the organization is pushing to keep Mayor Bloomberg's current educational policies in place after he leaves office. City Council Speaker and fellow mayoral hopeful Christie Quinn said she will accept money from both the teacher's union and StudentsFirstNY. Thompson has been non-committal thus far.

With the deadline on school closings and co-locations approaching, parents expressed concern about the impact such decisions will have on their child's education.

"When you put two schools in a building and one has private funding plus public funding, the other one is basically getting bled to fail -- to make space for another school," Miriam Aristy-Farer, mother of a third-grader who attends P.S. 314 in the Bronx, tells the Voice. "We're tired of being courted by charter schools...There's a way to privatize education and involve the private sector. Allowing them to use [public schools] as an investment arena is not right."

Kercena Dozier -- a member of First Corinthian Baptist Church, which is a part of the NYGPS coalition, said that co-location can have a divisive effect on communities.

"I have been at co-location meetings, and I've seen parents who live on the same block pitted against one another," Dozier said. "And, it is not that they are parents who do not want to see other parents' children succeed."

Quinn, who holds a sizable lead over her opponents in early polls, didn't outright bash co-location policies. Some critics fear that a Quinn administration will simply be an extension of Bloomberg's tenure. But when it comes to education, she expressed some decidedly different philosophies. In fact, she proposed alternative solutions to closing schools and to the system's over-reliance on high-stakes testing as a measure of progress.

"We need to put in place a new system that deals with schools that aren't doing well, not a system that comes in at the end and seems gratified when we close the school. But a system that's a red flag warning system," Quinn said.

She cited her work with the city council, several NYGPS member organizations, the UFT and others to raise $25 million in council funds to help beef up resources and promote improvement at 51 struggling middle schools across the city.

Liu says there needs to be a radical reworking of how the New York City Department of Education approaches its duties and services.

"DOE is not a corporation making money," Liu said "The Department of education has to stop thinking that teachers are assembly line workers, that students are widgets piling onto the assembly line, that parents are just annoying customers that [the DOE] can ignore....When we get rid of the high-stakes testing, when we stop playing shell games with all the school co-locations and closures and so called new schools, when we stop that factory mentality...then we can get down to the old business of educating."

The Reverend Michael Walrond, pastor of First Corinthian, urged those in attendance to persistently demand a concrete plan on education from whichever candidate they decide to cast their vote for. He also cautioned them be wary of that 4-ton elephant in the room.

"There will be forces that oppose this kind of gathering tonight. There will be forces that oppose these kinds of gatherings in the future, and they will come with money. Our mayor right now is developing at the grassroots level, a gathering of people, of money, to maintain his policies in hopes that they continue after he leaves offices," Walrond said. "[But,] organized people always overcome organized money."

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