News Round-up March 20th, 2015

Mayor Proposes Changes at Rikers Island:

  • Mayor de Blasio has introduced proposals to help reduce violence and eliminate smuggling at Rikers Island. Some of the proposals include: improving the security cameras, a computerized screening system, creating an inmate education program, and changing the policies for visitors. The proposal also includes plans to create a new inmate classification system and separate warring inmates and gang members.
  • Under the new visitor policy, visitor-inmate physical contact would be limited to a hug at the beginning and end of the visit. There will also be plexiglass partitions installed to separate inmates and visitors. The goal of this is to avoid the smuggling of contraband, which can lead to a reduction in violence because disputes among inmates often stem from the possession of contraband.
  • Critics of the Mayor’s proposal, including the Prisoners’ Rights Project at the Legal Aid Society, say that visitation is one of the only outlets inmates have to keep them sane in jails. Visitation during incarceration can often play a part in whether or not the inmate ends up back in jail after release.
  • The proposals will be presented to the Board of Correction in May and, if approved, will take effect in August.


Legislators Propose Common Core Test Opt-Out:

  • Legislators are proposing a bill that will allow parents to opt-out of common core curriculum tests. The bill, named the Common Core Parental Refusal Act, would require schools to inform parents of students in grades three through eight by mail, email or a letter sent home with the child that the child may refuse to take any of the standardized tests administered under the Common Core standards.
  • The bill also ensures that there is no penalty for parents or children who refuse to participate in the Common Core tests. Parents must be informed of the option a week before the standardized tests are slated to begin.
  • Critics of the opt-out argue that the Common Core is meant to create unified standards across education and if there is a problem with a test or any aspect of the Common Core, that it should be fixed individually instead of eliminated entirely. They also raise the concern that New York could lose federal funding.
  • The bill is sponsored by both Democrats and Republicans, who hope that it will be passed before tests are administered in April.


Prayer or Religious Instruction in Universal Pre-k Raises Constitutional Concerns:

  • One of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s major campaign promises was to provide a free universal pre-k program.   The goal of the program was to bridge the education gap between students of varying economic backgrounds by providing all four year olds the opportunity to attend a high-quality, full-day, pre-k program.
  • De Blasio recently announced that religious schools participating in the universal pre-k program will be allowed to set aside time for what is considered “non-program activities” which can include prayer and/or religious instruction.
  • According to a letter that was sent out to all providers of universal pre-k, both public and private religious institutions may set aside a “short break” for non- program activities.
  • The time set aside will not count towards the program hours, nor will public funding be available for this short break.
  • Families will also be given the opportunity to opt in or out of these non-program activities. The children who opt out of non-program activities must be provided with another activity, and the time allotted for non-program activities must be clearly identified.
  • Those who vehemently oppose this development argue that this goes against the practice of separation of church and state. The idea is not that using public funding in private religious schools offends this notion, but that mixing religion in publicly funded pre-k programs by allowing prayer and/or religious instruction is a violation of a constitutional right.
  • Critics also argue that having a break in the middle of the school day for religious activities will be unfair to the children who have opted out because it will exclude them from certain activities.
  • Supporters argue that teachers are in demand and classroom space is scarce, therefore expanding the program to more private religious schools could help solve this problem.
  • Still, some private religious schools consider these rules to be too limiting, so they will not become universal pre-k providers.
  • Trying to further the goals of the universal pre-k program while upholding the policy of separation of church and state has proven to be quite difficult. As things currently stand, these competing interests are likely to create legal dilemmas that could lead to litigation for the city.
  • To read more about this, please click here and here.