Hundreds of protesters** descended on Brooklyn Thursday, laying bare the deep philosophical divide that has become central to the Bloomberg administration's education policy: whether the city should fix failing schools or shut them down.
The dichotomy came to a head this week as the Panel for Educational Policy met twice to vote on whether to shutter 22 schools deemed failures because its students can't read or do math on grade level.
The panel, which is populated mostly by Bloomberg appointees, voted to close 10 schools at its meeting Tuesday and was expected to vote to close the other 12 Thursday night.
The administration and charter-school advocates argue that some schools are such failures they must be shut down completely and replaced with new schools. Students are allowed to register at the new schools, but for the most part, the new schools start up with different teachers and administrators. The city maintains that the new schools are more effective.
At the opposing end, the teachers union and others charge that the city's Department of Education sets up schools for failure by depriving them of resources, ultimately harming students who get displaced.
The panel may not necessarily have the last word. Last year, the panel voted to close 19 schools. After the United Federation of Teachers and the NAACP sued the city over the plan, two courts sided with the UFT and the schools remained open. The UFT hasn't yet indicated whether it will oppose the latest closures in court, but it organized a massive protest outside of the panel meeting Thursday night at Brooklyn Technical High School.
An hour and a half into Thursday's meeting, chanting teachers, students and parents brought the proceedings to a halt for 15 minutes. UFT President Michael Mulgrew inspired an ovation when he yelled at schools chancellor Cathleen Black and the panel members, "It's clear you want schools to fail." Minutes later, hundreds of teachers walked out, emptying the cavernous auditorium by half.
The rest of the evening was spent as a spirited volley between anti-closure speakers and charter-school parents. Deputy mayor Dennis Walcott frequently left the stage to referee arguments over whose turn it was at the public microphones.
"Closing schools should be a method of last resort after the DOE has done everything possible to improve them, not an educational policy," said Noah Gotbaum, president of Community Education Council for district three, which covers parts of Harlem and the Upper West Side. "The schools are closed down and their kids cast out or scattered to other overburdened schools which inevitably are next on the DOE's closure list."
But many parents agreed with closing schools. "I don't see any valid argument to keep a school open that has consistently failed its students," said Margery Hannah, who lives in Harlem and has three children in three different public schools. At one of the schools, "there are a lot of wonderful people there, however the expectations teachers have of students are low," she said. As a result, she spends an hour to two every night teaching her daughter skills that she believes she should be learning at school.
**Including members of Make the Road New York (MRNY).
"Today, with 12,600 dues-paying members, MRNY is a unique amalgam of worker center, legal clinic, citizenship school, mutual aid society, policy shop, protest factory and church. Its four offices in Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and Long Island are an egalitarian oasis for members, who gather there for conversation and classes..."