De Blasio puts education reform at top of his agenda as New York City mayor

CARLO ALLEGRI/Reuters - Bill de Blasio hugs his wife, Chirlane, and children Chiara and Dante during his election victory party at the Park Slope Armory in New York on Tuesday.

Bill de Blasio, elected mayor of New York City last week, intends to dial back or abandon many of the education changes outgoing Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg aggressively implemented in the nation’s largest public school system.

Bloomberg (I), the first New York mayor to control the system that educates 1.1 million students, promoted competition, data and accountability. Amid public outcry, he shut down more than 160 low-performing neighborhood schools, replacing them with hundreds of smaller schools and public charters, which are funded by tax dollars, privately managed and nearly all non-union. He graded schools with A-to-F report cards and brought in a contentious teacher evaluation system.

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“Bloomberg really epitomized an approach to reform that has been sweeping the country and urban areas, endorsed by the U.S. Department of Education,” said Pedro Noguera, a professor of education at New York University. “Market-based reforms — charters, choice, school closures. Heavy emphasis on high-stakes testing as a means of holding schools accountable. Bloomberg probably carried out that strategy more effectively than any other mayor.”

Pushing a ‘new direction’

De Blasio — the first Democrat elected mayor in 20 years and the first in recent memory with a child in public school — wants to pause or reverse many of Bloomberg’s policies. He has said he will impose a moratorium on school closings, ditch Bloomberg’s A-to-F report cards for schools and stop relying on test scores as a basis for judging schools and teachers.

“We have to be willing to reverse so many mistakes of the Bloomberg years, especially the focus on test prep and teaching to the test that has really undermined our educational system,” de Blasio told a labor forum during the campaign. “What the mayor has done is failed our children. . . . It’s not the fault of the teachers. They haven’t been given what they need to succeed and they’ve been under attack the whole time.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, whose local affiliate represents teachers in the city, said de Blasio’s easy victory means that voters agree.

“New York wanted a new direction, in terms of public schooling, from the 12 years of the Bloomberg mayoralty,” said Weingarten, who has been mentioned as a possible choice for schools chancellor in de Blasio’s administration, an idea she swatted away. “I love, love, love my job,” she said.

De Blasio wants to offer preschool to every 4-year-old in the city, aiming to narrow the achievement gap between low-income children and their more affluent peers. He also wants to create after-school programs for middle-schoolers. To fund both, he has proposed raising taxes on the city’s wealthiest residents.

“If he does what he promised, he will be the most important national leader against the movement to close down and privatize public education,” said Diane Ravitch, the education historian and blogger who opposes the kinds of changes Bloomberg championed.

But charter advocates, some wealthy funders and others who support Bloomberg’s policies said they worry that under de Blasio, school improvement will sputter.

“We have an educational crisis of monumental proportions in this city,” said Eva Moskowitz, a former city council member and founder of Success Academy, the city’s biggest charter operator, with 22 high-performing schools. “And we’ve got one of the most prominent Democratic figures in the country saying we should take a giant step backwards.”

Charter changes, taxes

The incoming mayor is cool to the city’s 183 public charter schools, which educate 7 percent of city students. Under Bloomberg, most of the charters were given free classroom space, usually inside existing city schools that were underutilized.

Real estate is a major obstacle for public charter schools around the country, which usually receive a per-pupil dollar subsidy from the government that doesn’t cover the cost of physical space.

De Blasio wants to charge charters rent on a sliding scale, according to their ability to pay.

“Some are clearly very, very well-resourced and have incredible wealthy backers, others don’t,” de Blasio told public radio station WNYC this fall. “So my simple point was that programs that can afford to pay rent should be paying rent.”

According to Success Academy tax filings, Moskowitz earns about $475,000 a year — more than twice the salary of the city’s schools chancellor.

Moskowitz, who led about 10,000 charter advocates, parents and students across the Brooklyn Bridge to City Hall to protest de Blasio last month, is worried he will crush her plans to open 10 new charter schools inside existing city schools next year.

“I can’t see how the mayor in good conscience is going to deny an option that’s working,” she said, noting that her schools outperform wealthy suburban schools elsewhere in the state. “Once the dust settles and you have to govern and embrace policies that are good for children and families, my hope is that we will land in a common-sensical place.”

De Blasio’s proposed tax increase for preschool and after-school programming would need approval from the state legislature in Albany.

New York City already offers publicly funded pre-K but tens of thousands of children attend half-day or not at all. Any dramatic expansion in preschool would need to happen slowly to ensure quality and because classroom space is scarce, many observers said.

If it passes, the New York program would boost a growing campaign to increase preschool access nationwide, advocates say.

State funding for preschool has grown significantly in the past decade. And this year President Obama proposed the expansion of preschool nationwide, providing matching grants to states to provide pre-K to all children from low- and moderate-income families.

Obama’s plan has not generated much support in Congress, but an increasing number of cities are trying to provide universal access. A new pre-K program in San Antonio got underway this fall financed by a one-eighth-cent increase in the sales tax. And the Seattle City Council passed a resolution in September to pursue high-quality preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds.

De Blasio has a chance to carve out a new path forward, by taking what worked under Bloomberg and correcting what didn’t, Noguera said. “If he can do that, he’ll be charting a new path that will influence the way we think about reform nationally,” he said.

 
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