Joel Klein's ongoing defiance of the rule of law

Joel Klein's ongoing defiance of the rule of law
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On Friday, Judge Joan Lobis of the New York State Supreme Court nullified Chancellor Klein's decisions to close 19 middle and high schools in New York City, ruling that his actions were illegal.

This court's judgement was an important step forward for the rule of law. It was also a confirmation of the necessity for a genuine public process to inform and improve arbitrary and rash decision-making at the NYC Department of Education.

Klein's proposals to close these schools has been met with tremendous protest from thousands of parents and teachers alike, because of the devastating effect on their children, their communities, and the public school system as a whole.

My organization, Class Size Matters, submitted an analysis, showing how these closings would likely lead to skyrocketing discharge rates, with thousands of students leaving the system without a diploma and yet not counted as dropouts, and even worse overcrowding, when citywide, more than half of our high school students already attend severely overcrowded schools.

The announcement to close these schools led to protests outside the mayor's house and packed hearings, culminating in an eight hour meeting of the Panel for Educational Policy, in which hundreds of parents, students and teachers who spoke out in opposition, with only one speaker in support.

Neverthless, at 3 AM in the morning, all the mayoral appointees on the Panel, making up a super majority, voted to approve these closings, without a word of explanation.

Subsequently, the NAACP, the United Federation of Teachers, the Manhattan and Brooklyn Borough Presidents, state legislators, and city council members filed suit to block the closings, citing numerous procedural and substantive violations of law.

The court agreed, based on three, clear findings of fact:

The Educational Impact Statements produced by DOE and required by state law were cursory and inadequate. Specifically, they "failed to provide any meaningful information regarding the impacts on the students or the ability of the schools in the affected community to accommodate those students" shut out of these schools. For example, they did not show where students currently enrolled centers for pregnant students or with small children that are closing might find similar programs elsewhere.

Lack of community involvement. There were no joint hearings held with the Community Education Councils and School Leadership Teams of the affected schools, as required by law. Some members of these groups were invited to participate after the fact; but even then, had no role in running the proceedings or deciding the manner in which they would be held.

Lack of public notice. The DOE failed to provide hard copies of these proposals to local Community Education Councils, Community boards, Community superintendents, and School Leadership Teams. Simply posting them on the DOE website was insufficient.

Predictably, the Chancellor disagreed. As quoted in the NY Times, he said, "I think the process was robust...We literally met with thousands of people who expressed their views. We heard them, and in the end, we disagreed."

Despite the court decision, Klein said that none of the schools originally slated for closure would accept students, and he would send out high school admissions letters over the weekend, with none of these schools included.

Even those 8500 students who had listed these schools as one of their top choices would be assigned other schools, and would instead receive a letter, "stating that, should the schools remain open, they may select one of them."

By this action, the Chancellor signalled that he intends to close these schools down regardless, by starving them of students.

Klein's arrogance, hubris and continuing disregard for the rule of law has lead to several lawsuits and negative rulings in recent months.

In early January, Class Size Matters, the UFT, the NAACP and the Hispanic Federation filed suit in the Bronx State Supreme Court against the Chancellor, for his failure to reduce class size despite a state mandate requiring that he do so. Instead, Klein and the DOE have allowed hundreds of millions of state funds meant for smaller classes to be misused, leading to sharp increases in class sizes over the last two years.

Also in January, the New York Civil Liberties Union filed suit in federal court, charging that the rights of students had been violated by so-called School Safety Agents, who harass, abuse, and arrest students for minor disciplinary offenses.

Just a few weeks ago, the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) found that the NYC Department of Education had discriminated against a Moslem principal, Debbie Almontaser, and had fired her, because of her ethnic and religious background.

Klein's announcement that he will send out admissions letters that will essentially force these schools to close by denying students the ability to enroll in them despite the court decision, is reminiscent of what occurred last year, when parents, along with the NYCLU and the UFT, sued to prevent his unilateral closing of three zoned elementary schools without the consent of local Community Education Councils, which by law have to approve any changes in attendance zones.

The Chancellor had wanted to replace these zoned public schools with charter schools, including two branches of the rapidly expanding chain called the Harlem Success Academies.

After the lawsuit was filed, he decided not to go forward with the closings, but put charter schools in their buildings anyway, taking away substantial amounts of classroom space . He also sent letters to all the parents at these schools, exhorting them to withdraw their children and apply to charter schools instead.

As one reader of the NY TImes recently commented, "Isn't Joel Klein controlling public schools? If public schools are so terrible what does that say about his tenure? Imagine if Steve Jobs told Apple customers to "seriously consider" buying more PCs."

Subsequently, Juan Gonzalez of the Daily News released FOILed emails, revealing how Eva Moskowitz, the operator of the Harlem Success Academies, had months before asked Klein to close these schools down, so that her charter schools could take their place.

Ironically, at the end of the year, the three public schools which Klein had tried to close, claiming that they were failing, all received "A's" according to the DOE accountability system.

Clearly, in his reckless zeal to privatize the system, the Chancellor is a serial offender when it comes to respecting the view of parents, the communities, and the rule of law.

If he goes ahead with his announced plan, and refuses to assign students to these 19 schools, he should be held in contempt of court.

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