Refocus on Reform

Cathie Black's departure from her post as New York City schools Chancellor was abrupt, but it was absolutely in the best interest of New York City's 1.1 million students. The city needs to refocus on reforms just taking root which are constantly threatened by a variety of status-quo protectors. Keeping course through this storm will require a steady, seasoned hand.

Thankfully, Dennis Walcott is exactly the right person for the job. As a fellow K-12 New York City public school graduate, a former teacher, and as someone who has worked alongside the education reform community to advance the Children First agenda over the past 8 years, he's a known quantity with the credibility Black lacked. He can ensure that the guiding principles Mayor Bloomberg and former Schools Chancellor Joel Klein embraced can survive a devastating budget situation and an entrenched opposition emboldened by recent missteps.

I met Black only once, amid a gaggle of cameras on her first day as Chancellor when she came to visit Democracy Prep. We were grateful and excited she came to celebrate our teachers and scholars for having been named the highest performing charter school and the highest performing middle school in the entire city. Unfortunately, her short tenure became mired in the same politics that foiled many of her more experienced predecessors.

By contrast, Walcott is uniquely and expertly prepared for the role. He has visited our school a number of times. He's never come for photo-ops. Instead, he's come to Democracy Prep because of his sincere interest in learning about what works, and because of the joy it clearly brings him to engage with students. He is connected to our teachers and families in Harlem in meaningful ways, and he knows personally and deeply why he's fighting so hard. He is so familiar to our students, that after seeing Walcott on TV discussing waffles, one of my students asked me to buy a waffle maker just in case he pops in again soon.

Even with his experience and rapport, the challenges facing Walcott are tremendous. He takes over at the same time district public schools will be forced to implement thousands of harmful last-in first-out teacher layoffs and budget cuts. Moreover, union forces are continuing to pursue a scorched-earth legal strategy, spending piles of cash to unsuccessfully sue excellent charter schools on spurious grounds in a last-ditch effort to halt reform.

To overcome these challenges, Chancellor Walcott must continue to advance the goals of accountability, autonomy and choice to get the reform agenda back on track.

First, he must seek to increase teacher accountability and end Last-in First-out (LIFO). Chancellor Walcott should leverage his natural strengths as a consensus builder and demand the teachers union come to the table and end insane layoff policies that hurt children. If the Chancellor and the union wants a model of evaluation that is fair, thoughtful, and proven in NYC, we'd welcome them to research the procedures at Democracy Prep and other high performing charter schools that have helped attract, develop, and retain the best educators -- not the longest serving. On the city's annual school surveys, we've had some of the most satisfied teachers, students, and families in the entire city of New York and most importantly our scholars make more academic growth because of these exceptional educators.

Second, Walcott must fight hard against bureaucratic efforts to deny great public schools -- both district and charter -- the ability to open and grow within underutilized public space. He can start by publicly and aggressively urging the State Education Department, Chancellor Tisch, Commissioner Steiner, and heir-apparent John King to clarify or reverse their inexplicable recent decision to deny a high performing Brooklyn charter school space within a district school building based on a minor bureaucratic technicality. The decision could set a dangerous precedent for future space sharing arrangements and Walcott must reaffirm his commitment to supporting great public schools in public space.

Third, he must support parental choice. At Democracy Prep, we teach our scholars and our families that democracy means "Choice and Voice." With nearly 5,000 applications to Democracy Prep this year, for just 250 available seats, parents are voting with their feet and demanding better options for their kids. Chancellor Walcott should hold authentic dialogues and town-hall meetings with families to listen to their concerns and help them understand the choices available to them, rather than just holding more antagonistic public hearings. All public school children benefit from phasing-out low-performing schools and replacing them with excellent ones.

By supporting accountability, autonomy, and choice Walcott can distinguish himself as a Chancellor committed to both bold education reform and consensus building. The two certainly don't have to be mutually exclusive. The right course for kids is clear--we need a strong, unwavering leader to keep us on track.