The moderator of the mayoral campaign’s first education debate declared consensus among seven candidates in support of “school choice,” which has included charter schools.
Not so fast, said Kermit Carolina.
Carolina (pictured), the principal at Hillhouse High, piped up to say he would not want money taken away from traditional public schools to go towards charter schools. In a debate sponsored by charter school proponents, he was the only candidate who expressed such reservations.
He also talked about how as a principal, he has seen firsthand how charter schools dump the toughest-to-teach students onto traditional public schools.
Carolina’s remarks came as he fought back against criticism over new survey results revealing discontent at the 1,000-student traditional public high school he runs.
The discussion took place at an education-themed debate Friday evening at Varick Memorial Zion Church at 242 Dixwell Ave. It included all seven candidates seeking the Democratic nomination to replace retiring 10-term incumbent Mayor John DeStefano: Carolina, Alderman Justin Elicker, former city economic development chief Henry Fernandez, state Sen. Toni Harp, state Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, plumber Sundiata Keitazulu, and former Chamber of Commerce prez Matt Nemerson.
Scroll down for a live play-by-play blog of the debate.
Friday was not only a day for debate, but a day for policy: Three candidates released education platforms in advance of the event.
This was the first debate centered on education, and the first chance for charter school proponents to direct attention to their agendas. The debate was sponsored by: A Better Connecticut, the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now (ConnCAN), Higher Heights Youth Empowerment Programs, Inc., the New Haven Firebirds, the Urban League of Southern Connecticut, and Varick Memorial AME Zion Church.
The setting was not an accident: Varick has become a cause célèbre for the charter movement, as Pastor Eldren D. Morrison (pictured) moves forward with a proposal to launch a charter school serving Dixwell and Newhallville. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has scheduled two personal visits to the church this year to support the charter effort. In turn, Morrison has joined a group of ministers who have lent political heft to the charter movement. That heft has been “a game-changer” for the charters at the state Capitol, according to Reshma Singh, vice president of external relations for Achievement First, which runs a network of charter schools.
Carolina stood out from other candidates on the issue of the day, charter schools. A charter school is a public school that operates outside a traditional school system under its own state-authorized charter. In return for extra state scrutiny, charters get state funding and extra autonomy. Morrison and Varick are awaiting state permission to open a pre-K to 4 school named after Booker T. Washington.
Carolina gave a nuanced argument. He said schools of choice, like charters, dump difficult and transient kids onto schools like Hillhouse High. Sixty-three percent of all high school kids who transfer schools mid-year end up at Hillhouse, Carolina said. “Those are kids from incarceration, failure in charter schools, failure in magnet schools. They all come to us.”
Carolina said he got one new student just last week, with one week left in the school year. He said he supports families having the right to choose which schools they go to, but the burden of difficult kids and transient kids should be spread evenly between schools.
He also expressed concern that charters draw resources away from schools like Hillhouse: “I’m not anti-charter schools. I certainly support their right to come into existence. … But I do not support the idea of taking money” away from traditional public schools to fund charters.
Carolina found himself on the defensive Friday against remarks made by Holder-Winfield before the debate. On Thursday, Holder-Winfield blasted Carolina over new school survey results revealing discontent at Hillhouse. Carolina promised to launch a robust defense Friday of his three-year tenure in charge of the school.
Before the debate, Carolina released a statement attacking Holder-Winfield as a “desperate and lonely political figure”—click here to read it.
In the statement, Carolina didn’t address the specific areas in which Hillhouse saw declines in satisfaction over the last year. Instead, he gave a broad reply: the survey results “reflect the challenges the school has historically faced. Given the number of challenges the larger community faces – challenges that seem to grow in intensity and frequency on a near daily basis – it is highly likely that the breakthrough for which we have all worked so hard to bring about will take more time.”
During the debate, Carolina didn’t have much time to elaborate. But he did say his school faces many challenges outside of its control, including students entering at a 5th-grade reading level, and various problems associated with poverty.
Carolina also argued that too many teachers live outside the city and come to New Haven just to teach. Because of that, “there’s a cultural disconnect” between teachers and kids. “We can no longer accept people coming into the city” and just teaching and going home. He later clarified that he was referring only to “some of those teachers who live outside the city,” not all of them.
In other debate highlights:
• The candidates found consensus about the need for investment in early childhood education. That matches up with President Obama’s recent pledge to spend $75 billion in early childhood education over the next decade.
• Holder-Winfield and Elicker disagreed over the usefulness of “character education” programs. Elicker supports them; Holder-Winfield called them ineffective and said hunger, trauma and poverty need to be addressed first.
The debate was moderated by Ayana Harry, a Fox CT reporter. Shahid Abdul-Karim, reporter for the New Haven Register, and Dr. Fred McKinney, president and chief executive officer of the Greater New England Minority Supplier Development Council, asked the questions.
Where They Stand
In advance of the event, three candidates released education platforms.
Elicker, an alderman from East Rock, made education the focus of a series of policy proposals released this week. On Thursday, he unveiled an early childhood education plan, which included pre-K programs that focus on “love and play” instead of letters and numbers. Friday, he called for a “citywide character education curriculum.”
“Research has found that soft skills—self-control, curiosity, the ability to form trusting relationships, and so on—are the most crucial foundations for success both in school and in life,” Elicker wrote on his campaign website. Read more here.
Harp, a state senator, unveiled the first component of a five-part education plan Thursday, calling for more report cards grading schools’ success. Her campaign handed out the rest of the plan at a 5:45 p.m. rally outside Varick. The rally drew a half-dozen people, who briefly chanted, “Toni! Toni!” when the press arrived.
Fernandez, a former City Hall economic development director, released his education platform Friday. His platform is likely to be palatable to charter proponents in the church Friday: He called for “recruiting high-performing school management alternatives” at failing schools, including charter management organizations and “innovative partnerships” like the Elm City Montessori school.
Fernandez also called for clearing up an “overly complicated and confusing” registration process for enrolling students in school; addressing a “disturbing” achievement gap between Latinos and their white and black peers; and launching a national marketing plan to attract high-quality educators. Click here to read his whole platform.
A live blog follows:
6:24 p.m. Candidates are schmoozing in the basement. The church is filling up. Lots of excitement.
6:43: Fernandez can’t get his mic to work. Something’s wrong with the wire. “The scissors in Justin’s jacket look very suspicious,” he quips.
The crowd is filling in. “It’s about to be standing-room only,” whispers moderator Ayana Harry.
6:45: Pastor Morrison welcomes the crowd. Education is the most important civil rights issue of our time, he says. “The faith community can no longer be silent on this issue.” Morrison has become very active at the Capitol and locally speaking out on the issue. He spoke at Hillhouse’s graduation ceremony. He calls education “a matter of life and death”—of kids getting shot or fulfilling the promise of their lives.
Morrison invites a robust debate, “but please remember where you are tonight”—in the sacred hall, there are some words you shouldn’t say.
It will be interesting to see to what extent candidates converge around a common agenda tonight.
Here are the rules: Intros. Then questions. Candidates each have two minutes to respond to each question, with no rebuttals. No audience questions—just one that was preselected. If any candidate strays from the education theme, or directly addresses another candidate, moderators will jump in to intervene.
6:53: One-minute intros. Carolina jumps up from his stool, on which he has hung a white towel reminiscent of a boxing fight. He said he’s “under attack” on his tenure at Hillhouse. He gives a glimpse of his rebuttal: 60 percent of what happens in school is a result of factors outside the school’s control, he argues.
Elicker jumps up, too. Last time he was here he was singing, he notes.
Fernandez starts with a narrative of a hypothetical 5-year-old in New Haven who has his or her fate determined by “the luck of the draw of a lottery.” That’s “immoral,” he said, drawing some mmm-hmmms of approval. Carolina had contended he was the only one with kids in New Haven public schools; Fernandez points out that his own son attends the public schools. (My bad, Carolina says.)
Harp starts out forceful. She walks right up to the first pew and shouts. She calls for “accountability.” She’s winning the crowd quickly. She gains applause for this line: “The new slavery is the lack of education, and we’ve got to do something about it.”
Holder-Winfield starts with a personal narrative—he grew up struggling in a poor school in the Bronx. He touted his education credentials—working on early childhood literacy and school governance councils at the state Capitol.
Keitazulu, a Newhallville plumber, shoots straight. He mentions his outrage at meeting a kid at Lincoln-Bassett School who told him he comes to school just “to eat” because he doesn’t have food at home. Keitazulu grew up going to this church. He seems to be connecting with the crowd here.
Nemerson, a former Chamber of Commerce president, is going to have a tougher time connecting. He comes off as wonkish. Calls for “systemic” changes. Doesn’t grab the audience with a story.
7:03: What should a mayor do about all the kids, most of them black and brown, who are stuck in failing schools?
Nemerson is the first to mention the “c” word, charters. He calls for bringing in more charter operators to run failing schools. “We have one charter operator now. We should have more.”
Keitazulu: “The lottery system doesn’t work. Our school system needs a total reconstruction from the bottom up.” Teachers are blamed too much, he says—pushing back against the common line of argument of the charter/reform/accountability movement, which focuses on teacher effectiveness as measured by growth on standardized tests. He says instead of teachers, parents are to blame for letting kids “run wild.”
Holder-Winfield: A lot of teacher prep programs don’t teach reading well. He touts his early literacy program, piloting in five cities (not New Haven). “We have to talk about the foundations” of learning. He said a good mayor needs an overall view—including familiarity with state policy. He sets up Harp nicely.
Harp calls for “results-based accountability” of how education money is spent. The state invested nearly $200 million over 10 years in a reading program, but reading scores went down, she says. Need to make sure our tools have been measured and are “evidence-based.”
Fernandez: We need to evaluate our administrators the same as we evaluate our teachers. (Is this a dig at Carolina? I’m not sure.) If an administrator fails at taking over one role, “we should not move them over” but “move them out.” He vows to end patronage, where jobs in the school district are handed out to “friends.” Implicit criticism: outgoing Superintendent Reggie Mayo used the school district as a patronage system, creating a black middle class that in turn supported Mayor John DeStefano’s many reelections. School systems aren’t meant to benefit adults, but kids, he said.
Fernandez gets applause here for the patronage remarks.
Elicker picks up the anti-patronage theme: He argues, however, that a hybrid Board of Ed would be more accountable that the current board, which is appointed by the mayor.
Carolina’s in the hot seat now. School patronage is an issue, he says. But he says the real culprit comes way earlier—in early childhood. Lots of low-income city kids get off to a “horrible start,” lagging way behind in reading. He’s launching his defense of Hillhouse: Most of kids come to Hillhouse on a 5th grade level, he said. “Despite decades of negative data,” I chose to take the job.
Now Carolina takes aim at Harp: “Some people” have had the power to make decisions for 20 years, and have not done so, he said. (He’s running overtime.)
7:19: Second question: The other “c” word—choice. Two-part question: “Should parents be able to choose what type of school they send their child to? What role do you think public schools of choice should play in New Haven?”
“That’s a loaded question,” Carolina says. He makes an equality argument. When kids get kicked out of magnet and charter schools, that dumps problems on “one school,” aka Hillhouse, which absorbs more than its fair share of difficult and transient kids, Carolina argues. He doesn’t come out against charters, but he calls for spreading the burden around between all schools.
Elicker (pictured): “Parents should have a choice.” He calls for more charters like the Elm City Montessori school, which will be run as a unionized school within the school district.
Fernandez comes out most strongly in favor of charter schools, specifically those run by Achievement First (AF). “Parents are making that choice already” to enroll in AF schools. Look at the schools that are oversubscribed: Elm City and Amistad, two schools run by AF, he notes. (He doesn’t mention the eight traditional public schools that were harder to get into than Amistad for kindergarten.) We need to create more options like those schools, he argues. “We need to take everything that works and make it bigger.”
Harp: Public charter schools “taught us that poor kids can be taught.” The culprit in New Haven schools isn’t administrators, or teachers, “it’s the system.” We need more accountability, she argues. She says the current school board doesn’t have a transparent budgeting process; you can’t tell how much is spent on education at a given school. (She doesn’t mention the school system has overhauled its budget, and now gives a detailed breakdown of each school’s budget.)
Holder-Winfield supports charters and choice. He takes aim at Elicker’s call for “character education.” (Elicker taught for one semester at a private high school in Woodstock, Conn., focused on character ed.) “Character education programs do not work.” Holder-Winfield says until we address issues related to poverty, like kids showing up hungry to school, character education won’t get us there.
Keitazulu returns to blaming parents for letting kids run wild. He sees kids running around on the streets. “Where is your parents? Where is the truancy officer? Where is somebody” he says, with a dramatic pause. (Lots of laughter and applause. I don’t think he was trying to be funny, though.)
“Always a hard act to follow,” confesses Nemerson (pictured). He’s the only candidate who stays seated while talking.
Nemerson calls for more autonomy for principals and more collaboration.
Moderator Harry re-asks the first part of the question: “Should parents be able to choose what type of school they send their child to?” She confirms that all candidates answered “yes.”
7:36: Question: What is the connection between the economic situation in the city and the educational situation?
This question is right up Nemerson’s alley. He’s the former chair of the Chamber of Commerce. He calls for New Haven to compete better with other towns on economic development, which will translate to better schools; he doesn’t offer many specifics.
Keitazulu: “I’m the only candidate who understands how the real world works.” (Laughter.) He calls for training kids to work, through two vo-tech programs. Our kids have a “no-job” problem. Not every kid is going to college. Kids need to learn Spanish and prepare for careers.
Holder-Winfield (pictured) takes issue with Nemerson’s trickle-down idea of economic development. “Some people think that if you expand and grow, then everything will get better.” But some communities get left behind, Holder-Winfield argues. (He credits Keitazulu with keeping focus on New Haven’s poor.) He argues that kids need a foundation in literacy before getting prepared for jobs: “Businesses want people who can think.”
Harp: Over 65 percent of people who work for the city live outside of the city. Why does it have to be that way? (Applause.) One huge problem is that New Haveners can’t pass their civil service exams… If we want New Haveners to land those jobs, we’ve got to focus on education.
Fernandez: In his time as city economic development chief, he heard repeatedly from business owners that they couldn’t hire New Haveners because they weren’t prepared. There’s a “horrible cycle” that needs to be broken. Great schools will break that cycle, he argues: “But it starts with our willingness to” admit what’s broken.
Elicker: Just met a parent who’s leaving for Milford to attend better schools. Improving schools would keep those people in the city.
Carolina brings the conversation back to Hillhouse to defend his record and emphasize his education chops. Hillhouse is working on solutions, he argues, with a teacher prep program and a public safety academy for high school kids. He calls for 10, not 5, extra points on civil service exams for New Haveners who apply for city jobs. (Applause.)
7:51: Question submitted by the audience. What would you do to boost parental involvement?
Carolina, curiously, takes aim at teachers: Because so many of our teachers live outside the city, “there’s a cultural disconnect” between teachers and kids. “We can no longer accept people coming into the city” and just teaching and going home.
Elicker said the Board of Ed makes it tough for parents to navigate the system: To enroll in a magnet pre-K program, you have to go to one building; to enroll in Head Start, you have to go to another building. He calls for a “No Wrong Door” policy that would let parents enroll their kids by walking into any school. He also calls for a change in attitude, where parents will be respected. “That attitude starts with me. I am one of the most responsive” aldermen in the city. Just ask around.
Fernandez calls for more transparency, so parents can figure out how much money is being spent, how well a school is performing, and what the school climate is.
Harp (pictured) calls for supporting “parent universities,” which were under the threat of budget cuts by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
Holder-Winfield highlights his successful legislative campaign to require schools to set up school governance councils, teams of parents and teachers who are supposed to be empowered to oversee a school. “I’ve been fighting with New Haven” over the city’s failure to implement the exact model required by state law. (New Haven has asked for a waiver to allow existing parent groups to be used as a substitute.)
Keitazulu credits Morrison for Morrison’s charter school proposal. He calls it a good example of “bringing the community together” in the name of good schools.
Nemerson comes out in favor of a longer school day and a longer school year. (Some murmuring. I can’t tell if people are agreeing or getting restless to go home?) If we open our schools for longer hours, parents will be more involved, he argues.
Closing statements: Not much time to say anything. (30 seconds each.)
Harp: “The reality is we have a lot of money that we give to New Haven schools.” The answer is accountability, not more money, she implies.
Carolina emphasizes his work “in the trenches.” I am prepared to hire “even those here,” his fellow candidates, to help find a solution, once he’s in the mayor’s seat.
Ayana Harry wraps it up: There’s a general consensus around choice, she says (though Carolina was a clear outlier there).
[She meant her remarks in a narrow sense: All candidates answered “yes” to the question, “Should parents be able to choose what type of school they send their child to?”]
8:13: Morrison urges the crowd to approach the candidates with any more questions. “Don’t say Pastor didn’t give you the opportunity.”
8:14: Carolina breaks the rules to pipe up and point out that he is not in lock step with the others on choice. [He appears to have interpreted Harry’s remarks more broadly, to be about charters, too.]
“I would not want money taken from New Haven public schools to go to anything but New Haven public schools,” Carolina says.
After the debate, Carolina was asked to clarify his remarks.
Carolina said 63 percent of all New Haven high school kids who transfer schools mid-year end up at Hillhouse, Carolina said. “Those are kids from incarceration, failure in charter schools, failure in magnet schools. They all come to us.”
“I’m not anti-charter schools. I certainly support their right to come into existence. … But I do not support the idea of taking money” away from traditional public schools to fund charters.”
He said he would not oppose Morrison’s plan to create a new charter school in Newhallville. “But I don’t support a large expansion of charter schools that begin to replace public schools.”
He said he is “concerned about expanding a system of haves and have nots.”