Testimony Before the NYC Panel for Educational Policy (PEP)
By: Kemala Karmen, Deputy Director, Co-Founder NYCpublic.org
Ladies and gentlemen of the PEP, I thank you for calling a special session to consider passing a resolution against the nomination of Betsy DeVos. My suspicion is that you would not have called this session unless you were already inclined to pass the resolution because, as I am sure those who come before and after me today will note, Ms. DeVos completely and utterly lacks the qualifications to run a classroom--much less the education system of our entire country.
Since passing this resolution is a no-brainer, I would like to use my brief time in front of you to ask you to think about why you oppose DeVos and, further, to think about how New York State and New York City are guilty of some of the same crimes for which you would call out DeVos. And, as the parent of public school children myself, I would ask you PLEASE, on behalf of the children and families of our city, that you put your money where your mouth is, and no longer shore up those things, as you currently do, whether through direct action or passive inaction.
What am I talking about? In their home state of Michigan, the DeVos family has been working to undermine public education for at least 40 years. When their initial attempts to fund religious schools with public money failed, they jumped on charter schools as an answer, leveraging their billions in assets to buy pro-charter political clout. In NY, the mechanism may not be exactly analogous, but our politicians too, both Democrat and Republican, have bent under a cascade of donations from the Big Money pro-charter sector. In NY, as in Michigan and elsewhere, the means by which the denigration, defunding, and closure of public schools is justified is through test-based “accountability.” Though our governor has remarked that the state test scores are “meaningless” for students, that is in fact not true. The state receivership law sends the bottom 5% of schools into receivership based on test scores—i.e. open for charterization, something DeVos would applaud. If you keep doing away with the bottom 5% year after year, soon you will be left with no public schools. Also, test scores tend to correlate with income, so the vulnerable schools tend to be right here in our city, where there are many families living in poverty. I would hope that the mayor, the chancellor, and you on the PEP would be screaming to the rooftops about this injustice, but I don’t hear much about it. Instead, I have heard the Chancellor, in response to parents like me, who see the test refusal endorsed by the grassroots opt-out movement as a way to fight back—because without the test scores you can’t rank the schools for this indignity—endorse the tests with infuriating statements like “Our students are up for the challenge.” Really? Performing on a test whose purpose is to close down public schools is not the challenge I envision for my child. The challenges I want for my children are figuring out how to live in a pluralistic society, how to use their wits and their talents and their compassion to work alongside others for the betterment of the world.
One of the measures that DeVos supported in Michigan was Senate Bill 571, the so-called *gag order* law intended to keep public entities from talking to their constituents about local ballot measures—school millages, bonds to fund public services, etc. Here in New York, we have our own gag order. No joke: Teachers are not allowed to READ the state tests they proctor. In other words, there is no official feedback/quality control for these high-stakes tests on which schools, and not withstanding Cuomo’s remarks, students, are judged (Specific to NYC, middle and high schools use state test scores in the admissions process. DOE, PEP, remove student test scores from the admissions process!)
I know the Chancellor has been asked to sign a parent-created petition making the small, reasonable demand that this loophole re not reading the tests be closed. To my knowledge, she has not signed. I am not surprised because the superintendent of the district in which I live is on record opposing teachers talking to parents about the educational merits, or lack thereof, of these tests.
In closing, I would like to make a final point. The kinds of voucher and charter policies that DeVos espouses splinter a community. We are seeing what it means when the polity is so fractured, how positions calcify and government fails to do the will of the people. There needs to be more space for community voices in our city’s education policy. I am happy that today you are listening to what we think about Betsy DeVos. But…When thousands of people petition you about their disappointment in a principal (as happened at LaGuardia HS and Central Park East I—both places where the new principal’s stance on testing is part of parent dissatisfaction), I invite you to listen. When parents beg that their schools not be closed or co-located, please listen. We need strong, community-supported public schools now more than ever.