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Education: Can Democratic or Shared Governance Co-exist with Mayoral Control?

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Undoing the Tragic Reality of Parent Leadership in the New York City Public Schools!

I have high hope for Mayor Adams and Chancellor Banks as the 2024 mayoral elections loom. They have a real opportunity to make parents full partners and render mayoral control a moot issue if they do a few things. Parents will turn a blind eye to the legal jargon of mayoral control if Mayor Adams and Chancellor Banks can creatively fix the issues around parent engagement, parent leadership and parent partnership through enforceable regulations and policies. They might need to ask Albany for some help in terms of legislation to enable codified actions and give policies some teeth. While I believe Chancellor Banks is sincere about his fourth pillar of parent engagement and partnership, too much of it is at the pleasure and the mercy of superintendents, principals and parent coordinators.

Unfortunately, when I think of parent leadership and partnership within the NYC Public Schools, farce, buffoonery, sham, charade, pretense, demagoguery, comedy are all words that come to mind. I served on a Community Education Council for eight years and a Parent Association for two years during the tenures of two mayors and three chancellors. I saw first-hand how the NYC Department of Education goes through the motion of engaging and partnering with parents while not engaging them at all and not partnering with them at all. Before that, I was a teacher and saw first-hand how Mayor Bloomberg decimated parent voice in the education of their children, especially in underserved, impoverished BIPOC communities. And I do believe Chancellor Banks is doing a lot to make parent partnership a reality, but there are just too many folks in leadership in districts and in schools who won’t allow him to do it.

The secret to making the issue of mayoral control moot for at least our current mayor is for Mayor Adams to actually find legal ways to make superintendents, principals and parent coordinators accountable for not allowing parents the rights that they already have according to state law, DoE policies and regulations. There is, for example, no excuse for principals and parent coordinators to try to control PAs/PTAs by installing puppet executive boards, persecuting and harassing strong PA boards and parent leaders. There is no excuse for principals and parent coordinators to control through deceptive means how the parent portion of Title I monies are spent. There is no excuse for superintendents to purposely divide CECs in order to render them ineffective and create a rubber-stamped parent body. It is unacceptable that School Leadership Teams should deprive parents of real opportunities to participate in the decision-making around budgets and school policies. It is unacceptable that District Leadership Teams should disregard the concerns and opinions of parent leaders when writing the District Comprehensive Education Plan. The paternalism with which some DoE officials treat parent leaders is nauseating and insulting.

It is counter-productive to have so many parent leadership groups that never come together to discuss anything and come to consensus on anything at any level. From the Panel for Education Policy to the Chancellor’s Parent Advisory Council to the Community/Citywide Education Councils to the Presidents’ Councils, I have never seen these parent leadership groups come together to work on anything, come to consensus on anything, and make any type of joint recommendation to a principal, a superintendent, a chancellor or a mayor. Instead, we have the greatest cacophony of parent leaders frequently talking past each other, repeatedly talking at each other and often fighting to no end – getting almost nothing constructive done as a unit to defend the interests of their children and their interests as the taxpayers who actually pay for public education, and as the people who must reinforce at home what is being taught in school.

In the meantime, we have the United Teachers Federation, the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, and District Council 37 unions coming together in an organized way to bargain with the City and the DoE in the best interests of their workers. The result is often a perfect storm of confusion in which parent leaders find themselves aligning with one or all of these unions against their own interests. The result is often parent leaders getting manipulated into thinking that their job is to actually advocate for teachers and administrators against the very parents that they are supposed to represent.

It is of course easy for parent leaders to be confused in regards to their roles. Parent leaders are frequently elected without a real understanding of their rights, their duties, the laws, regulations, and policies around education. They interface a lot more often with school leaders than they do with their own constituencies. The DoE parent leadership structure is designed in such a way that elected parent leaders cannot have access to their constituents. In spite of the fact that FERPA gives schools the right to disclose contact information of parents, provided that they inform the parents – the DoE has systematically refused to provide education councils, parent associations and other parent leadership groups access to the parents they were elected to represent in the strangest of paradoxes (never mind that they share that information with charter schools and interested businesses).

I am still not understanding how parent leaders can represent people to whom they never get a chance to really speak. It is the DoE, through its parent coordinators, family leadership coordinators and family support coordinators, that is responsible to contact parents on behalf of parent leaders. I have never heard anything more absurd in my life, and as you probably can guess, parents are never in great attendance when their parent leaders hold meetings for them. The notices seem to get lost in the mail, email blasts and phone blasts just a little too often. Wink! Wink! Is this because the DoE actually has no intention of letting parents come together to discuss anything of value and influence the education of their children in any meaningful way?

My immediate recommendations to Mayor Adams and Chancellor Banks are to find a way to take disciplinary actions, including termination, against all DoE employees who refuse to allow parents to exercise their rights and perform their duties freely without manipulation, coercion and interference. Educate parents on the intricacies of the system, including its limitations and abilities. Educate parents at every level of leadership and engagement on how decisions are made and include them in the decision-making processes through structures and systems that are transparent and verifiable. Frequent and endless meetings are not transparent and verifiable ways of participating in the decision-making process, although they are a step in the right direction. Create and formalize a body through which all parent leadership groups within the DoE are required to work together to make joint recommendations to the Mayor and Chancellor through formal votes. Give parent leaders real access to their constituents by sharing the contact info of their constituents, even if that means forcing them to sign non-disclosure agreements and legally persecuting them if they misuse the information. Let parents know how much of their concerns actually translated into policies.

Give parent leaders real autonomy by making the roles of the Family Leadership Coordinators, Family Support Coordinators and Parent Coordinators more family and community based. Remove them from the direct supervision of the superintendents. Put them under the supervision of a Superintendent of Family and Community Affairs or under the supervision of a Superintendent of Family and Community Engagement – to rigorously oversee the parents-as-partners piece in school districts and individual schools. The title of that person will actually depend on what government agency will be responsible for it. Will it be the community affairs office of an elected official, such as the Public Advocate or will it be under FACE, the family and community engagement division of the DoE? Regardless, that person should not be a current pedagogue and most probably should not be paid by the DOE, but must work very closely with the District Superintendent of Instruction.

It is my firm conviction that the DoE needs community leaders and community organizers to work directly with the Family Leadership Coordinators, Family Support Coordinators, Parent Coordinators, Community/Citywide Education Councils, Presidents’ Councils, District Leadership Teams, School Leadership Teams and Parent Associations/Parent-Teacher Associations – especially in underserved communities where parents may need the most help to advocate for themselves, their children, and an educational system that will be conducive to upward mobility, and to stop the cycle of low standards and low expectations. The truth is in underserved and impoverished BIPOC communities, the parent and community piece is too big and too complex for superintendents and principals. There are too many needs that are not directly related to education, but weigh heavily on education.

Superintendents in those communities should not be asked to oversee instruction and community – especially if they don’t live in the community and have trouble understanding the community and its needs.  Furthermore, the solutions to these problems forcibly require the engagement of elected officials, government agencies, businesses, community organizations, community leaders, families, students and the ability to conceptualize and oversee community responses. Thus, it is work that requires expertise that most educators do not have. Moreover, it can also be a conflict of interest because professional interests are often in direct contradiction with communal interests. Therefore, the two duties should really be separate, even as the folks in charge need to find ways to collaborate on everything.

If making those recommendations a reality means renegotiating union contracts to make sure that the DoE does not agree to anything that would infringe on the rights of parents, so be it! If that means asking Albany to pass legislation that better supports parent rights, so be it! It’s an investment in voters and sets the foundation for real transformation in the system. It is not true that we can effectively educate children without empowering their parents. While unions can organize for Mayor Adam’s reelection, and spend money on his campaign, parents do the actual voting and can help give the Mayor a landslide. They can furthermore support him in future elections for future positions. Additionally, parents also donate and volunteer for campaigns. If Mayor Adams and Chancellor Banks do these things, they will give parents the opportunity to help them cement their legacies as the ones who were truly able to democratize and transform the system for the better.

Should Mayor Adams agree to do these things, as a community organizer, I will be the first in line to organize and campaign for him. I also will be the first to advise Albany that I have changed my mind on mayoral control and will now support mayoral control for Mayor Adams for his second term – because under this form of mayoral control, there will actually be a tangible and verifiable democratic governance of our schools. In addition, I am happy to sit with Mayor Adams, Chancellor Banks and their teams to help decipher how to best achieve these things.

 

 

Farah Despeignes,
Soon to be a Former Parent Leader

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