TLD Interview: Education Advocate Lisa Donlan
In the past several weeks, the Lower East Side has become a main battleground in the struggle for New York City’s public schools. Parents have staged protests, called news conferences and come out in force for public meetings to speak out about the expansion plans of the Girls Prep Charter School. In the middle of the debate is Lisa Donlan, the president of District 1’s Community Education Council. I sat down with her recently for a wide-ranging conversation about the state of the neighborhood’s schools. From her perspective, the Girls Prep controversy has exposed (but not for the first time) the perils of centralized control of the city’s schools in the hands of Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
There are 32 Community Education Councils (CEC’s) in New York City, each aligned with a school district overseeing a neighborhood’s public elementary and middle schools. According to the Department of Education’s web site, the CEC’s “responsibilities include: approving school zoning lines, holding hearings on the capital plan, evaluating community superintendents, and providing input on other important policy issues.” But, as a practical matter, Donlan says, the councils were made impotent by the 2002 state law transferring control of the schools from the Board of Education to Bloomberg:
(CEC’s are) granted very few rights and responsibilities compared with, say, a school board, which any non-urban, non mayoral-controlled district would have. You pay your taxes, you elect people who make decisions about the schools. That’s direct representation. One of my biggest issues is that this is, to me, a very racist and classist setup for urban school districts. In Scarsdale, this is not happening. This is not what’s happening in most of the country. There’s this shock doctrine that says, ‘failing urban schools are the fault of local control and we need to centralize it and put it into the hands of the mayor, who can make these tough decisions.’ I think there’s something implicitly racist and classist in that, and colonial, in that thought process.
Earlier this month, the CEC passed a resolution calling on the Department of Education (DOE) to deny the Girls Prep request to expand its middle school in District 1. They argued the DOE had badly underestimated the impact of three proposed expansion scenarios on other neighborhood schools. But Donlan is not optimistic the council’s opinion will matter very much. Like many parent advocates, she contends the local superintendents have almost no influence with the decision-makers at the DOE. State legislators have insisted this year’s law renewing mayoral control guaranteed parents a stronger voice. But Donlan says:
The mayor and Chancellor (Joel Klein) have made it very clear that they don’t think parents have any role in this level of decision-making, so they’ve done everything they can to thwart the law… Not only do we have no levers of power but we don’t even have the ability to get information to empower ourselves. There is no transparency. The rhetoric of transparency and accountability is absolutely Orwellian.
Back in 2005, Bloomberg boasted he had “boldly and systematically overhauled and streamlined the management structure of the schools,” eliminating “the patronage-infested community school boards.” But Donlan rejects the notion that District 1 schools needed “saving.”
To say that schools were a mess is inaccurate. Schools are a mess today. To say there’s been progress? I really don’t see the progress that he’s been pointing to. Show me the progress you’re talking about. Is it in the over-inflated, dumbed-down test scores that have become the whole carrot and stick of an entire system? Have the least performing schools improved incrementally? That may be true. I’m not completely sure. By closing all kinds of schools and pushing the most at-risk kids and the least prepared kids into these mega-schools that you then close one by one – I’m not sure that’s progress. I think this is the illusion of progress. I certainly think we’ve lowered the bar. I think District 1 is a wonderful response to the mythologizing or demonizing of the past. I can tell you that every time you can find examples of corruption or inefficiency in government anywhere, you don’t close the system down. You work on improving it. You just don’t demolish everything and say we’re starting over and then call that progress.
Donlan and other opponents of mayoral control have a new ally. Bill de Blasio, New York City’s public advocate-elect, is calling on the mayor to take parental concerns more seriously. More pointedly, in an interview with WNBC, de Blasio said he was ” suspicious of the math and reading tests that City Hall cites as proof that schools are getting better.” Donlan is equally skeptical. But what concerns her most is the dismantling of programs and policies in District 1 schools that were beginning to bear fruit.
We had this incredible admissions policy that was very forward thinking. I think that had it been allowed to continue it would have continued to bring about more progress. When the parents took over the school board 20 years ago with a particular vision, the District 1 schools were 31st out of 32 test scores published in the New York Times. When it was dismantled in 2003 they were in the top half, clearly making their way up. Were there plenty of schools that were still struggling? Yes. Would time have continued to bring about progress in those schools? Possibly.
Donlan also points to the district’s commitment to universal Pre-K, which has made a tremendous difference to poor, working families. Small classes and an emphasis on art and music programs, were also major factors in the district’s improving fortunes, as well, she said. This past October, a state report found District 1 was the “most improved” school district in all of New York City.
During the summer, explaining his determination to increase the number of charter schools in New York City, Bloomberg said, “you give me competition, I’ll show you progress.” His comments were detailed in the New York Times:
It is the charter schools that will get the public to demand that the rest of them come up,” Mr. Bloomberg said. “It’s the charter schools that let parents vote with their feet and tell us what the parents think about the quality of the education, of the schools. And I can tell you, one of the reasons that the public schools in the city have gotten better is because the charter schools exist and give parents an alternative and let parents see that you can do something better.
Donlan says the notion of parental choice has always been an important principle in District 1. All parents can choose which school to send their children, a policy that has encouraged innovation and diversity in teaching approaches and educational programs. So, in theory, she’s not opposed to the mayor’s ideas about competition in the city’s schools. The problem, she told me, is that the deck is stacked against traditional public schools:
Philosophically we believe in choice. So philosophically I believe that the charter model makes sense in this district of choice where we’ve always aligned with the same goals that the New York Charter Law delineates: innovation, creating capacity in the teaching staff, providing increased educational opportunities for at-risk students and choice… Where the rubber hits the road is in the implementation… and whether or not those schools are meeting (expectations) and how that is measured. I would maintain that the charter schools are not carrying their share of the burden in terms of ELL’s (English Language Learners) and students with disabilities, including Special Education students .
Charter schools are publicly financed but privately operated. Donlan believes this decreases transparency and accountability. And she shares the concerns, expressed by some parents, that charter schools could one day destroy the public school system.
Private management, which is disconnected from any sort of democratic input is very problematic. And I see a fine line between private management that is today not for profit in New York City, but in New York state is allowed to be for profit, so I do buy into the doomsday scenario of the dismantling of the public schools for a private management system, and then we no longer have the public service. If that is indeed the end game or the consequence or even the unintended consequence of having management that is disconnected from a larger community then I’m philosophically opposed.
In October, we visited Girls Prep and spoke with the school’s founder, Miriam Raccah. She told us Girls Prep is “relentlessly focused on achievement,” and in recent weeks she has repeatedly argued that charter schools deserve the same resources as traditional public schools. In followup stories (here and here), it became clear Donlan and Raccah disagree on almost everything. On one issue, however, they are aligned. Like the downtown political establishment, and parents across the neighborhood, they’re dismayed the DOE has failed to accommodate the space requirements of all schools. Girls Prep, for example, shares a building on Houston Street with P.S. 188 and P.S. 94. Many critics of the Education Department are convinced it’s not a lack of money or incompetent management causing the space crunch – but a deliberate strategy.
At a recent Education Council meeting, DOE official Ross Holden seemed to suggest charter schools could grow by pushing out “failing neighborhood schools.” And he made it clear a $200 million charter school construction fund was no magic bullet. While Holden denied making the argument that charter schools could grow at the expense of existing neighborhood schools in a later conversation with Donlan, the remarks played into many parents’ worst fears. Donlan says more than 80-percent of the schools in District 1 share a building with another school. If the State Legislature raises the charter cap, as Bloomberg hopes they’ll do, the space crunch will become even more acute. Donlan told me the Girls Prep dilemma is not the only illustration of the problem – only the most recent example:
Is there some space in our schools that could be used more efficiently? Yes. Is there enough room to sustain another middle school- three sections of four grades? – no. What would have to be given up to create that is something that’s already quite rare… It’s about who gives up what to whom. It’s not just ‘oh there’s space let’s use it better.’ It’s about giving up occupational therapy rooms, giving up rooms to do speech or guidance counseling. It’s rooms for art, music, dance, after school.
Donlan says she’s been begging for more schools for five years. The Lower East Side makes up the fastest growing district in the city. Young families are moving into certain sections of District 1 (the Grand Street co-ops, for example) in large numbers. Alluding to the school overcrowding crisis on the West Side, Donlan warns, “don’t make us the next Tribeca.” Building that case, she says, has been made far more difficult by the renewal of mayoral control:
There is nothing that replaces democracy. Having levers of power around decision making that affects our community is essential…. Mayoral control is the opposite of democracy. It’s politicized, it’s not transparent and it’s not accountable.