Squeezed in along one side of a very long table, New York City's Panel for Educational Policy gathers like a bureaucratic Last Supper, if several apostles brought lawyers.
It is April 20 at Prospect Heights High School in Brooklyn, and tonight's monthly meeting will be a short one. It will start at 6 p.m. and end about midnight.
In New York City, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg has overseen the nation's largest public school system since the state Legislature granted his request in 2002, the panel has become one of the few public access avenues for parents, students, teachers and others seeking to be heard as the mayor and Chancellor Joel Klein continue to remake the city's long-troubled schools.
About 350 miles away in Rochester, Mayor Robert Duffy increasingly points to the efforts in New York City as a success story as he intensifies his push for control of the Rochester School District.
Graduation rates in New York City are up, now surpassing Rochester's by more than 17 percentage points. At his State of the City address Monday, Duffy showed a chart comparing Rochester's performance with New York City's. And others say customer service, embraced by districts trying to operate more like private businesses, also has improved under Bloomberg.
"New York City is outperforming our school district in every measure," Duffy said.
The reform he supports for Rochester — mayoral control, an appointed panel, City Council oversight — is a miniaturized version of New York City's governance system.
But by design, the system excludes parents from the district's decision-making process, something Klein acknowledged in an interview last month.
"Parents are heavily, heavily involved. But in the end, after we've had lots of input, the mayor or myself ... is making the tough decision," he said.
"It's not that people are shut out. Under a school board, though, you can play politics ... and block change, and that's often what's happened in Rochester and elsewhere."
Still, in many ways, New York City defies direct comparison.
All school districts in Monroe County combined serve about one tenth as many students.
The mammoth bureaucracy running the New York City Department of Education starts with the city's top executive but expands into a tangle of local representatives, citizen and parent boards and other interests.
"It's like comparing the Big Apple," said Rochester school board member Van White, who opposes mayoral control, "to a little tangerine."
In seeking to consolidate city and school governance for a five-year test period, though, Duffy is urging state lawmakers who voted for New York City's plan and reauthorized it last year to do the same for Rochester.
Similar governance, Duffy says, will yield similar results.
But in New York City, some parents, teachers, students and experts say those results are an open question — perhaps even an illusion.
And some wonder whether a change in leaders — the people furthest from the classroom — can really mean the difference between success and failure.
Are voices heard?
Lydia Bellahcene walks out of Prospect Heights High School's auditorium, the site of April's Panel for Educational Policy meeting, and says she's disappointed but not surprised. In recent months, she and several other parents of students at P.S. 15 in Brooklyn fought a district decision to house a charter school inside the same school building.
Turf wars over the co-location of charter and district schools pop up frequently in New York City, where district officials, starting with the mayor, strongly support charter schools — at the expense, some say, of the very schools the officials oversee.
As in the system Duffy proposes, the majority of the panel's members are appointed by the mayor after it was created to replace New York City's school board system when Bloomberg took over. Although policy changes require the approval of a majority of panelists, tonight the eight Bloomberg appointees vote in unison — and not in Bellahcene's favor.
For parents such as Bellahcene, the 13-member Panel for Educational Policy, or PEP, has become a monthly pilgrimage and whipping boy. Klein is a nonvoting member.
A digital clock counts down each speaker's 120 seconds. Venture a few seconds too long, and someone turns off the microphone.
"It's intimidating," says Bellahcene. "If you're not able to walk into your school and get your problems aired out, how does it feel to go in to speak to the chancellor, to speak to this panel? Very intimidating."
Intimidating, and not particularly effectual: Since its inception, the panel has never rejected one of Bloomberg's proposals. He can and has removed his appointees at his discretion.
"Ours is an inclusive process, but in the end, we require the tough decisions that a mayor has to make," Klein said.
Legislators who reauthorized mayoral control in New York City last summer granted the panel more responsibility, if not more independence.
At a wild meeting in January, the panel's vote to close 19 city schools for poor performance came after 3 a.m., and the vote was only necessary because of a change in state law that occurred when the mayoral control legislation was reauthorized. School closing decisions in previous years were closed-door affairs.
In March, the school closure decision was voided by a judge. Because the city failed to provide enough detail about the expected impact of the closures, the judge ruled, the public had not been sufficiently involved. The schools remain in limbo.
Duffy's vision for the panel is slightly different. He has said he would be open to panelists serving set terms, making removal more difficult, and granting them more independence. Last week, Duffy said he would be comfortable so long as there was some process by which to remove panelists who are chronically absent.
Without the ability to remove panelists, Klein said, some things couldn't have been done — like ending social promotion. That vote, over mandatory testing for third-graders before they could be promoted to fourth grade, led Bloomberg to replace two board members.
"In the end, our mayor feels strongly that when you're accountable, you have to have the authority to effectively run them," Klein said. "What happens if the mayor says he wants to move in a certain direction and the appointees don't?"
"The mayor is hell-bent on shutting down parent voice," Bellahcene said.
Pros and cons
"This chancellor doesn't believe in community input or community control," said Clara Hemphill, senior editor at the New School's Center for New York City Affairs and author of several books on New York City's schools.
What's less clear, she said, is whether that's a bad thing.
Klein "thinks that was the problem he was trying to fix," Hemphill said. "He thinks community control brought us all the patronage that we had in the bad old days."
Hemphill, a city public school parent, said New York City's old school board system was hardly user-friendly.
"The other thing we had in the old days was constant bickering among school board members about stuff that had nothing to do with education," she said. "They would tie up for months over (the controversial children's book) Heather Has Two Mommies."
But that board, unlike Rochester's, was not directly elected by voters.
Now, the elected presidents of New York's five boroughs each appoint one member — a parent — to the PEP. A few of those appointees often push against administration proposals, but are routinely outvoted by the panelists appointed by Bloomberg, voting records show.
Khem Irby, a parent at P.S. 3 and a member of one of the groups of active parents known as Community Education Councils, said getting information or voicing complaints has proved difficult.
"Everything is hidden on the DOE website. That's mayoral control? For me to have to always have a friend on the inside? Transparency? Definitely not happening," Irby said. "I came in understanding how to work the system one way for our child. Then something else happened."
Parents and others working the system to block initiatives, Klein said, are part of the problem that mayoral control seeks to solve. The majority of parents, he said, support Bloomberg's oversight of the schools.
"If you want to get changes in Rochester — and you need changes in Rochester, there's no question about that — you're going to have to have a mayor who's willing to step up front and center and take the hard decisions," Klein said.
"And if you don't, if you allow special interests and community groups and others to make the decisions, then you're going to continue to get the results you're getting."
The Brizard connection
Rochester Superintendent Jean-Claude Brizard once worked under Klein, the culmination of a 21-year career in New York City schools. "I'm a fan of JC's," said Klein, who supervised Brizard when he was a regional superintendent overseeing more than 100 schools. The two still talk regularly.
Brizard has a more traditional education background than Klein, a former U.S. assistant attorney general.
"I don't need to know so much what the background is," Klein said of Brizard. "I really need to know whether you're willing to do the tough work to transform the system." Brizard, he added, has "that kind of toughness."
Brizard, who has said it would be inappropriate for him to take a position on Duffy's proposal, said some of the lessons he learned in New York City apply equally well to Rochester — having a "results-driven" philosophy, for one.
"Do what needs to be done," he said. "That's important."
Klein said mayoral control breeds stability — he's been on the job eight years, an eternity for an urban superintendent — and Brizard would likely stay longer in Rochester under mayoral control.
"I think he could get more done under mayoral control," Klein said. "People who get more things done usually want to stay at the top longer."
Brizard said he agreed with Klein's larger point, "but my case is a bit different. I have a majority of the board that has been with me from the get-go."
He cited school board President Malik Evans and vice president Melisza Campos as supportive of his agenda.
"My fear, honestly, is that they'll decide to leave," Brizard said, and Evans is running for state assembly. "We have a little joke in this business that the board that hires you is not the board that fires you."
High school graduation rates are an imperfect measure of school success, but the statistic answers a simple question: How many of the students who started ninth grade four years ago will graduate this year?
The formula also adjusts for transfers in and out that have been properly documented by school districts on both ends, and in New York has come to include students who graduate over the summer after their senior year.
By this measure, New York City is on a better path than Rochester.
New York City's graduation rate has improved steadily from 46.5 percent five years ago to 59 percent for those students who started high school in 2005, according to state data. That number grows to 62.7 percent if summer graduates are included.
Rochester, by comparison, improved for two years before dropping this year to 42.1 percent — 45.6 percent including summer graduates.
No one thinks the results in Rochester, or even now the results in New York, are satisfactory, Klein said. "We still have significant progress we need to make."
But critics — including Bloomberg's political opponents — say graduation rates can and are manipulated as schools push students out of buildings and toward GED programs in a way that does not hurt the overall rate. A 2004 class action lawsuit brought by students who said they'd been pushed out of the district was settled to allow students back into schools.
Test data can be even murkier, though it appears likely that New York City students outperform Rochester's, at least at the elementary and middle school levels. On state math and English tests, New York City's third- through eighth-graders' scores exceeded Rochester's in nearly every grade in each of the last four years.
But opponents of mayoral control say state test scores are easily manipulated and provide no valid comparison to performance in other states.
On the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests — the only measure administered uniformly across the country — New York City's gains in recent years begin to recede. Between 2003 and 2007, the last year for which NAEP data is available, New York City students showed significant improvement on only fourth-grade math tests.
Enter charter schools
Charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run, have proliferated in New York City to a far greater extent than in Rochester, partly due to support from Bloomberg and Klein.
Divorced from teachers union rules, the schools have wide latitude to experiment with academic and disciplinary practices.
Rochester has only a handful of charter schools — some quite successful — but Duffy and Brizard have championed their promise. At his State of the City address on Monday, Duffy pointed to True North Rochester Preparatory Charter School as a model of excellence.
But in New York City, the growth of charter schools has been seen by some parents and teachers as an intrusion.
"I don't understand Klein's support of charters. I think the more charters we have, the harder it makes his job to fix (district) schools," Hemphill said.
At P.S. 3, longtime teacher Stephen Mohney said the school is fighting to keep the city from moving a charter school into its building.
"The department of education is our enemy," said Mohney, who grew up in the Rochester area and follows the Rochester mayoral control debate through news reports. "Our enemy is our boss."
Former New York City councilor Eva Moskowitz, CEO of the Success Charter Network, operates a series of charter schools in Harlem with the strong support of both Klein and Bloomberg. Klein even wrote a letter to parents of one of his public schools, urging them to consider enrolling at one of Moskowitz's schools.
At the April 20 PEP meeting, one parent after another wearing orange Harlem Success Academy T-shirts spoke about their love for the school and their champion.
But like Klein, Moskowitz has become controversial. When asked about Moskowitz, Mohney made the sign of the cross with his index fingers as if to ward off a vampire.
"In New York, we had lousy schools for 50 or more years" and are finally showing signs of improvement, Moskowitz said.
She cautioned, however, that mayoral control is a necessary condition of success, but not a guarantee. "That's kind of naïve. It's not a panacea."
The idea that there is animosity between charter school and district school parents is overblown, Moskowitz said, noting that most of the critics of locating charter schools inside district buildings were teachers, not parents.
Not Bellahcene, who waited with her children to speak at the recent PEP meeting. Later, she said she brought them along so they would learn to advocate for themselves and each other — a skill many poor children never learn — even though she knew she was unable to stop the city from allowing a charter school to use classroom space in P.S. 15.
"I always used to describe board politics as the politics of paralysis. You could stop things. What you need in education is the politics of leadership to get the tough things done," Klein said. "It's not that there are no processes. It's that in the end, the mayor makes the decisions."