What DeBlasio’s win in New York City means for school reform

Bill de Blasio (Spencer Platt/Getty Images) Bill de Blasio (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

If the man New  York City residents just elected as their new mayor does what he promised to do about reforming public schools, the country’s largest school system could take on a far different look than it has had for the last dozen years under Mayor Michael Bloomberg — and that could have an important effect on reform nationwide.

De Blasio can thank Bloomberg for the power to shape a school reform agenda; Bloomberg won mayoral control of the school system in 2002 from the City Council. But where Bloomberg embraced the national corporate-influenced reform agenda by closing public schools deemed to be failing, expanding the number of charter schools, cutting back on teacher tenure and promoting standardized test-based accountability for students, teachers and schools, de Blasio promises a very different approach.

For starters, he campaigned on a pledge to raise funds for universal pre-K and after-school programs for middle-schoolers by raising taxes on people who earn more than $500,000 a year. This is easier said than done; the city’s mayor can’t alone raise taxes, but the proposal goes a long way to explain how he is thinking about  helping students do better in school.

De Blasio is also likely to get rid of a school grading system instituted by Bloomberg that assigns A-F grades to schools largely based on student standardized tests, which critics say is an unfair way to judge schools.  And charter schools don’t hold quite the same promise for de Blasio as they did for Bloomberg; the soon to be new mayor has said that along with a moratorium on the closing of traditional public schools, he would stop co-locating charter schools in buildings with traditional public schools and make them pay rent to the city.

Elite New York City high schools that have accepted students based on a single standardized test score can expect to see that admissions system change under de Blasio; he said during the campaign that he wants multiple factors to be used to admit students.

And de Blasio said he would take a different approach than Bloomberg had toward picking a new chancellor to run the New York City school, promising to select an educator for the job. This would be a marked departure from Bloomberg’s selections.

Bloomberg’s first chancellor was picked Joel Klein, who previously had worked in president Clinton’s justice department as as U.S. Assistant Attorney General and as counselor to the international media group, Bertelsmann. Klein served for eight controversial years, which ended in 2010 after it was revealed that rising student standardized test scores — which he and Bloomberg had been pointing to as proof of the success of their reforms — were the result of  increasingly easy exams.  Then Bloomberg, against the recommendation of an expert panel he convened to advise him, chose as Klein’s successor  Cathleen Black, a former USA Today publisher and head of Hearst Magazines who happened to be a friend of the mayor.  She lasted 31/2 months on the job, stepping down after a tenure marked by  a series of gaffes; when, for example, a parent asked her about crowding at schools, she responded by saying, “Could we just have some birth control for a while? It would really help us.” She later apologized.  Bloomberg then picked as chancellor his deputy mayor,  Dennis M. Walcott, who had advised Bloomberg on education issues and who has been a target of criticism recently for rushing to implement the Common Core State Standards.

What happens in New York’s education world can affect school reform elsewhere in the country because New York City is the largest school system in the country, and because it is one of the first to institute the Common Core State Standards and force students to take standardized tests aligned to the standards. A real retreat from the kind of corporate-influenced reform that Bloomberg championed — which seeks to run the public education system like a business and use test scores as the chief metric of effectiveness — could influence other mayors and school boards to walk back some of their support from an agenda that has seen increasing opposition from the public, including in New York City.

De Blasio will need support from the City Council and in some instances, the state, to make some of the changes he has promised. Whether he can get that, and whether he will take the city’s schools on a new course remains to be seen.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.

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Valerie Strauss · November 6, 2013

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