It’s June, and the primary is around the corner. Welcome to the ninth NYC election-focused newsletter! I’m independent journalist Felipe De La Hoz, and this edition is full of issues, sure, but also escape. Keep reading for author Radha Vatsal’s recommendations on what to read and watch right now, inspired by this political moment.
In recent months, much of the conversation around New York City’s education policy has hinged around discussion over school reopenings, when students can return to in-person instruction, how to make up for lost time, and the extent to which remote education will continue in the future — that is to say, issues directly tied to the pandemic.
These are all very significant issues for both students falling behind and parents who are desperate to get their kids back in schools so they can return to work, but also will be largely settled by the time that the next mayoral administration and City Council take office next year. Some long-simmering questions like school desegregation, accessibility for students with learning impediments and disabilities, and dual-language education have fallen a bit by the wayside, but will be huge areas of policy-making decisions for the next set of leaders.
Ultimately, “education” is one of those keywords that gets thrown around in political campaigns, regardless of how well-developed a candidate’s schools platform really is. Teachers, who often have a thankless job, regularly complain that despite their frontline position in educating the city’s next generations, they’re not included enough in decision-making and have their expertise ignored. Yet, as might be expected from such a public-minded profession, there are a number of former educators themselves currently running for City Council seats around the city, so we thought: why not ask a few what their priorities are for making the educational system in NYC more equitable, and how their experiences as teachers have shaped their worldview.
“You need an educator at the table making decisions with educators, not just for them. No one thinks about us when they make policies, everybody swears they know everything about public education, and they don’t know. They have no idea what our struggles are,” said Rita Joseph, a candidate for Brooklyn’s District 40 — which covers Crown Heights, Flatbush, Prospect Lefferts Gardens, among other neighborhoods — who is remarkably continuing to teach as an English as a second language coordinator at P.S. 6 in Flatbush while running her campaign.
Voting in New York City can be confusing. Did you know you have to register with a party before you can vote in its primary, or that this year will feature the first round of ranked-choice voting, where you can select an order of candidates by preference? For more guidance and resources, see here:
NYC Campaign Finance Board Voter Guide
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This newsletter was written by Felipe De La Hoz for URL Media, a network of Black and Brown news and information outlets. Our collaborative elections coverage is sponsored by a grant from the Center for Cooperative Media.
In the crowded race for District 40 there are not one but two teachers, with former special education teacher Cecilia Cortez also in the mix. Candidates are vying for the open seat being vacated by council member Mathieu Eugene, who is the longest-serving member of the legislative body as a result of a couple of flukes: his first election was a 2006 special election that didn’t count toward term limits, and then he benefited from the brief Bloomberg-era period where local elected officials could run for three terms before the limit was reset to two. This means local residents will have a completely open council election to vote in for the first time in over 14 years.
For Cortez, who taught deaf and hard of hearing students for about 35 years in Brooklyn before retiring in mid-2020, the pandemic laid out the extent to which there are stark disparities in simple access to the right tools. “Some of the students, they were given technology, they were given tablets, they came home, and they didn’t know how to do it. I had a few parents here calling me and telling me ‘we have the technology, but we don’t have the internet,’ ” she said. Cortez also emphasized the need for funding for non-teacher staff like counselors and nurses. “Every school should have a nurse. That is something that is constant, and has to be addressed. That is an issue that is not a temporary issue. Schools have to have nurses, schools have to have counselors, schools have to have psychologists to serve the population that is there.”
Joseph also stressed the abysmal numbers of support staff she was counting on. “My school has over 600 students. I have one of each: one guidance counselor, one social worker, one nurse, and even my psychiatrist, I was sharing a psychiatrist,” she said. Recent pandemic-related federal funding infusion might enable some hiring in the short term, but Joseph emphasized that long-term funding streams must be identified to hire more staff, lower class sizes, and create more after-school programs permanently, not just now, in part by conducting more stringent oversight to identify waste. For example, she believes it was useful for the city to provide students K-2 with iPads during the pandemic, but that older students may have been better off with cheaper laptops. “I would definitely want to look at our technology program to make sure that not only do schools have access, but equity. Access and equity are two different things.”
Another closely watched council race is the contest to replace outgoing council member Eric Ulrich in Queens’ District 32, which includes Breezy Point, Howard Beach, Rockaway Park, and other neighborhoods. Ulrich holds the distinction of being the only current Republican member of the chamber from outside Staten Island. Despite the borough’s broader transformation into one of the most diverse and Democratic-leaning counties in the country, the district has remained a relative conservative stronghold, and, unlike Republicans in most other districts, GOP candidate Joann Ariola has a feasible path to victory in the November general election. Among the Democratic primary candidates competing to face off against Ariola is Felicia Singh, a former teacher who taught until last year as a special education co-teacher at Coney Island Prep, a charter school.
Legislatively, Singh is hoping to help mandate that the Department of Education better compile and analyze information “to see whether or not services had been filled during a pandemic, the amount of backlog for school districts on IEPs” — i.e. Individualized Education Programs, the documents that lay out the educational plan for a student with special needs — “Maybe there may have been overdiagnosis during this time of the pandemic, we don’t know. Our cities are driven by data, we need to mandate DOE to be able to provide that and provide that in a timely way.”
She also believes that, if city officials are serious about equity in education, they will reverse cuts to after-school programs and training opportunities. “When you cut opportunities from them, like the summer youth employment program, what you’re saying is that the value of children’s learning, especially over the summer, is just not worth funding, right?” she said.
Randi Levine, the policy director of the nonprofit Advocates for Children, said that there’s a limited amount that the council can do on city education priorities, which are largely under the purview of the mayor, but they do have two very significant functions: controlling the budget, and providing oversight. “The city is in the process of negotiating this year’s budget, which includes an additional influx of $7 billion of federal funding to the Department of Education,” she said. So far, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s budget proposals have included scant details on how exactly this huge funding pool will be allocated. “We certainly hope some of those details come to light before this budget passes, but we also think that the City Council will have a role in verifying that each dollar is used effectively,” she added. For example, in programs emphasizing “students with disabilities, english language learners, and students who are homeless.”
The New York primary elections are around the corner, and key citywide positions, including mayor, are up for grabs. We have so many candidates running this year, and ranked-choice voting—but I’m particularly excited that three women are running to lead a city with a multibillion dollar budget and a 300,000+ workforce. Never in its history has New York elected a woman mayor and as we go into this election cycle, I’m thinking about women in politics, the history of New York and issues of race. Here are a few suggestions of what to read and watch that tackle these subjects from an unusual and/or entertaining angle.
A must watch show is the TV series Borgen from Denmark (available on Netflix), which follows the ups-and-downs of a fictional female prime minister, Birgitte Nyborg. The show, released in 2010, harkens back to a less polarized era of politics and features leading government officials biking around the city, Birgitte’s family dramas, and the machinations of her spin doctor and various members of the Danish press. It’s great fun.
For a well paced, immersive read that captures the spirit of late 19th century New York, E.L. Doctorow’s novella The Waterworks tells the story of a journalist trying to uncover the secret of his presumed-dead millionaire father. Doctorow beautifully intertwines the systemic corruption and personal ambition that drive the city forward. And who knew that the site of the main branch of the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue was once a giant reservoir with walls thick enough to promenade on top?
One of my favorite and most idiosyncratic writers on race is Zora Neale Hurston. I Love Myself When I am Laughing … And Then Again When I AM Looking Mean and Impressive: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader includes excerpts from her fiction, and selections of her brilliant essays, including “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” “What White Publishers Won’t Print,” and “Crazy for This Democracy.” Read this book if you want to be exposed to the ideas of a truly original and powerful mind.
Radha Vatsal is the critically acclaimed author of the Kitty Weeks mystery series set in World War I era New York. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Atlantic, The LA Review of Books, The Smithsonian Magazine, Kirkus Reviews (for which she wrote a biweekly crime fiction column), CrimeReads and The Brooklyn Rail. Born and raised in Mumbai, India, she received her Ph.D. from Duke University where she studied Victorian literature and film history.
And now, what we’re reading:
Our partner TBN24, featuring URL’s own Mitra, interviewed mayoral candidate Shaun Donovan. See it here.
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