when the iron is hot

At bus driver strike hearing, Walcott bats away council criticism

Chancellor Dennis Walcott takes questions from Robert Jackson during a City Council hearing on the school bus strike.

Agitated City Council members spent more than two hours today grilling Chancellor Dennis Walcott about the city’s refusal to restore job protections for school bus drivers or intervene in their nearly monthlong strike.

The hearing took place more than three weeks into the strike on a day when many families’ tenuous transportation plans were complicated by the start of a snowstorm. Attendance in schools for students with disabilities, which have been hardest-hit by the strike, fell from 76 percent on Thursday to just 50 percent today.

Maria Uruchima, whose nightmarish commute includes 8 buses and 4 trains, said her son wasn’t feeling well, “so I just kept him home because it’s going to be crazy out anyways.”

Even before the inclement weather, at least 2,500 students who attend schools in District 75, which serve special education students with the highest needs, “were still home,” Maggie Moroff, Special Education Policy Coordinator at Advocates for Children, said in her prepared remarks. For students that made it to school, Moroff said parents sacrificed hours of their work days to get them there and many students arrived late anyway. 

The plight of students and families came up occasionally, but the hearing centered more on the ongoing labor dispute between Local 1181 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, the city and the School Bus Coalition, which was absent. The stated purpose of the hearing was “the costs of student transportation,” but that got short shrift as well.

In his testimony, Walcott didn’t say much about transportation costs that the city faced, something that irked council officials who organized the hearing. The one dollar figure that Walcott did cite was the $95 million that the city expected to save from new five-year contracts for prekindergarten busing. Those contracts did not include seniority protections for bus drivers.

School transportation will cost the city $1.1 billion this year, according to the Comptroller’s office, and increase to $1.3 billion by 2014, according to the council, which had asked the education department to come with a prepared breakdown of how that money was spent.

The costs were relevant, Education Committee Chair Robert Jackson said in his opening remarks, because the city has often cited the high costs of bus transportation for why it needs to seek new and cheaper contracts.

“We’ve all read and heard lots of heated rhetoric and half-truths, claims and counterclaims about the cost of busing in New York City, and now it’s time for a reality check,” Jackson said. More than half of that amount is reimbursed by the state, a fact that Jackson said was not mentioned by Mayor Bloomberg during his many press conferences on the issue.

Later in the questioning, officials confirmed some the per-pupil cost breakdowns. Eric Goldstein, Chief Executive Officer of the Office of School Support Services said the city spent an average of $6,900 per pupil on transportation —   $2800 on general education students and $12,800 on students with special needs.

Jackson led the charge of criticism of Walcott. He accused Walcott of misleading the council on the city’s true intentions behind the labor conflict, suggesting he was either ignorant of the issues facing students, families and bus drivers in the strike, or he’s more nefarious than that.

“You’re like an ostrich with his head in the sand not willing to come out and deal with reality,” said Jackson, nearing the end of Walcott’s lengthy testimony, which once escalated into a tense exchange with a confrontational council member.

“I don’t know whether or not it’s about money, chancellor,” Jackson added. “I’m wondering whether or not this is about the Bloomberg Administration willing to attempt to try to break the back of the union.”

In response, the overflow room about 20 feet down the hallway, packed mostly with striking bus drivers, erupted in applause.

Walcott disputed the claim, saying that the city was getting rid of seniority-based job protections for its upcoming contract bidding process because they were legally obligated and to save money.

“We are not trying to break the union, as I’ve said over and over again,” Walcott said. “The union will still be in place even with the new bids.”

Walcott was defensive but remained even-tempered for most the of hearing. The exception came in response to questioning from Councilwoman Letitia James, a candidate for Public Advocate who repeatedly asked — and interrupted to answer herself — Walcott about the city’s interpretation of a 2011 court decision that he said justifies withholding job protections.

“You can come to the panel meetings and act out,” Walcott said, referring to the contentious Panel for Educational Policy meetings. “I’m not going to take it here.”

after douglas

Betsy DeVos avoids questions on discrimination as school safety debates reach Congress

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos prepares to testify at a House Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing in Rayburn Building on the department's FY2019 budget on March 20, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos fielded some hostile questions on school safety and racial discrimination as she defended the Trump administration’s budget proposal in a House committee hearing on Tuesday.

The tone for the hearing was set early by ranking Democrat Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who called aspects DeVos’s prepared remarks “misleading and cynical” before the secretary had spoken. Even the Republican subcommittee chair, Rep. Tom Cole, expressed some skepticism, saying he was “concerned about the administration continuing to request cuts that Congress has rejected.”

During nearly two hours of questioning, DeVos stuck to familiar talking points and largely side-stepped the tougher queries from Democrats, even as many interrupted her.

For instance, when Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from Texas, complained about proposed spending cuts and asked, “Isn’t it your job to ensure that schools aren’t executing harsher punishments for the same behavior because [students] are black or brown?” DeVos responded by saying that students of color would benefit from expanded school choice programs.

Lee responded: “You still haven’t talked about the issue in public schools as it relates to black and brown students and the high disparity rates as it relates to suspensions and expulsions. Is race a factor? Do you believe that or not?” (Recent research in Louisiana found that black students receive longer suspensions than white students involved in the same fights, though the difference was very small.)

Again, DeVos did not reply directly.

“There is no place for discrimination and there is no tolerance for discrimination, and we will continue to uphold that,” she said. “I’m very proud of the record of the Office of Civil Rights in continuing to address issues that arise to that level.”

Lee responded that the administration has proposed cuts to that office; DeVos said the reduction was modest — less than 1 percent — and that “they are able to do more with less.”

The specific policy decision that DeVos faces is the future of a directive issued in 2014 by the Obama administration designed to push school districts to reduce racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions. Conservatives and some teachers have pushed DeVos to rescind this guidance, while civil rights groups have said it is crucial for ensuring black and Hispanic students are not discriminated against.

That was a focus of another hearing in the House on Tuesday precipitated by the shooting last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, falsely claimed in his opening statement that Broward County Public Schools rewrote its discipline policy based on the federal guidance — an idea that has percolated through conservative media for weeks and been promoted by other lawmakers, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Utah Sen. Mike Lee. In fact, the Broward County rules were put into place in 2013, before the Obama administration guidance was issued.

The Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden, a leading critic of Obama administration’s guidance, acknowledged in his own testimony that the Broward policy predated these rules. But he suggested that policies like Broward’s and the Obama administration’s guidance have made schools less safe.

“Faced with pressure to get the numbers down, the easiest path is to simply not address, or to not record, troubling, even violent, behavior,” he said.

Kristen Harper, a director with research group Child Trends and a former Obama administration official, disagreed. “To put it simply, neither the purpose nor the letter of the federal school discipline guidance restrict the authority of school personnel to remove a child who is threatening student safety,” she said.

There is little, if any, specific evidence linking Broward County’s policies to how Stoneman Douglas shooter Nicholas Cruz was dealt with. There’s also limited evidence about whether reducing suspensions makes schools less safe.

Eden pointed to a study in Philadelphia showing that the city’s ban on suspensions coincided with a drop in test scores and attendance in some schools. But those results are difficult to interpret because the prohibition was not fully implemented in many schools. He also cited surveys of teachers expressing concerns about safety in the classroom including in Oklahoma CityFresno, California; and Buffalo, New York.

On the other hand, a recent study found that after Chicago modestly reduced suspensions for the most severe behaviors, student test scores and attendance jumped without any decline in how safe students felt.

DeVos is now set to consider the repeal of those policies on the Trump administration’s school safety committee, which she will chair.

On Tuesday, DeVos said the committee’s first meeting would take place “within the next few weeks.” Its members will be four Cabinet secretaries: DeVos herself, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.

on the run

‘Sex and the City’ star and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon launches bid for N.Y. governor

Cynthia Nixon on Monday announced her long-anticipated run for New York governor.

Actress and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon announced Monday that she’s running for governor of New York, ending months of speculation and launching a campaign that will likely spotlight education.

Nixon, who starred as Miranda in the TV series “Sex and the City,” will face New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in September’s Democratic primary.

Nixon has been active in New York education circles for more than a decade. She served as a  longtime spokeswoman for the Alliance for Quality Education, a union-backed advocacy organization. Though Nixon will step down from that role, according to a campaign spokeswoman, education promises to be a centerpiece of her campaign.

In a campaign kickoff video posted to Twitter, Nixon calls herself “a proud public school graduate, and a prouder public school parent.” Nixon has three children.

“I was given chances I just don’t see for most of New York’s kids today,” she says.

Nixon’s advocacy began when her oldest child started school, which was around the same time the recession wreaked havoc on education budgets. She has slammed Gov. Cuomo for his spending on education during his two terms in office, and she has campaigned for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

In 2008, she stepped into an emotional fight on the Upper West Side over a plan to deal with overcrowding and segregation that would have impacted her daughter’s school. In a video of brief remarks during a public meeting where the plan was discussed, Nixon is shouted down as she claims the proposal would lead to a “de facto segregated” school building.

Nixon faces steep competition in her first run for office. She is up against an incumbent governor who has amassed a $30 million war chest, according to the New York Times. If elected, she would be the first woman and the first openly gay governor in the state.