NEW YORK—The presidential race is over, but the New York City mayoral race has, in many ways, just begun. At Fordham University on Nov. 19, leading candidates discussed what their education policies would be if elected in November 2013.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg has presided over the education system under mayoral control, which gives the mayor discretion to make decisions. The result has been widespread changes that critics have taken issue with, such as decreasing parental involvement in schools. About 6 out of 10 respondents to a Marist poll in April said they want the city’s next mayor to take the public schools in a different direction.
Mayoral control was a step forward, but the way Bloomberg has used it in the second and third terms have been backward steps, said Public Advocate Bill de Blasio.
“Our school system is largely stalled right now,” said de Blasio. “We cannot continue the status quo that Mayor Bloomberg created.”
Tom Allon, owner of Manhattan Media, a consortium of New York newspapers, said overall things are slightly better, but the fundamental problem in education is that we are not properly training teachers before or after they start teaching. “Doctors don’t walk into an operating room before they have three years of clinical training,” said Allon.
Christine Quinn, speaker of the City Council said, “Clearly progress has been made, but not enough.” She approves of mayoral control but doesn’t think parents have been involved enough.
Two other candidates were present: William Thompson, former city comptroller; and John Liu, the current city comptroller, who is largely seen as a long shot because his office has been mired in corruption allegations.
“I think over time we’re likely to see some of the candidates pull into a sharper anti-Bloomberg stance—I mean it won’t be framed as anti-Bloomberg alone—but I mean a sharper call for change,” said Jeffrey Henig, chair of the Department of Education Policy and Social Analysis at Teachers College at Columbia University.
Liu said his top priority would be to hire more guidance counselors.
Allon said he would eliminate testing from grades one through five.
Thompson said he would have an instant moratorium on school closures, and would hire a schools chancellor with experience as an educator, drawing some applause from the crowd.
Asked later whether they would only hire educators as chancellor, de Blasio and Liu agreed, but Quinn said she would consider someone who is not an educator, such as Jennifer Raab, president of Hunter College. Allon had a shortlist of candidates in mind: Raab and three others—Eric Nadelstern, former deputy chancellor; Stanford professor Linda Darling Hammond; and John White, former top official of the New York City Department of Education (DOE).
Charter schools are still public schools but are given more flexibility in creating curriculum, among other differences. Charter schools often “collocate” or move into existing school buildings rent-free, which has angered some in the school community.
“If you go into some of these schools, it appears as if the charter side of the school … has new equipment, it’s bright, it’s airy, it’s been painted,” said Thompson. “You go to other side, the public side, and it’s dingy, the children feel as if they’re second class citizens.” He said equity is needed, meaning resources get used by both schools, such as gyms and cafeterias. Only 50,000 students in New York City attend charter schools versus 1 million in district schools, so the conversation shouldn’t be lost on this issue, he said.
De Blasio said parents have been ignored on a range of issues, including proposed collocations. Parents have voiced their concerns to him. “If their voices don’t matter, why are they even bothering to try to play a productive role in the school system?” he asked.
Allon and Quinn said that in the buildings where principals of the different schools work together, arrangements have gone smoothly. Liu claimed these are few, and called for a moratorium on collocations.
David Bloomfield, education teacher at City University of New York, said in an emailed analysis that Liu’s suggestion is “disingenuous,” since Liu “has had the power as comptroller to require contracts for use of public school buildings, yet has not required these arrangements.”
For the past five years in a row parents have said in a DOE survey that smaller class size is their No. 1 priority, according to Class Size Matters, a nonprofit advocating for smaller class sizes.
As part of a lawsuit settlement in 2007, city officials committed to lowering class size. According to Leonie Haimson, Class Size Matters executive director, classes have grown larger since then, despite the city receiving $500 million a year from the state to be used for reducing class size.
All the candidates support reducing class size, but Haimson, who attended the forum, said in a phone interview she was “disappointed” by the candidates appearing uncommitted. “I don’t think there’s any chance of making the kinds of fundamental reforms that we need in our schools unless we reduce class sizes,” she said.
Quinn and de Blasio said they would look for savings in the Department of Education budget and use the money to reduce class size. Quinn said long-term planning is needed. “Look at the census levels, look at the Department of Health birth certificate numbers, plan out with some degree of specificity where those children would be and where we would need to build new schools,” she said.
Allon said it’s impossible in “a tough fiscal climate” to reduce sizes across the board, so he would focus on reducing class size to below 20 students in first and second grade. “If it takes in 2nd grade, it’s a lot easier to educate kids in 3-12.” he said. Thompson would focus on reducing class size in grades K–3. Class size currently averages 23.9 in K–3, according to the latest report from the DOE.
Renewing Mayoral Control
Mayoral control legislation will expire in 2015 if the state Legislature does not choose to renew it.
All five candidates said they would support renewing mayoral control, but would support modifying the system. Liu, for example, said he would like to see it returned to what he sees as its original purpose—accountability.
“If you’re running for mayor you don’t want to run for mayor and say, ‘Hey, I don’t want a responsibility for the schools,’ it doesn’t sound good,” said Henig, of Teachers College.
Other signs of change are whether one or more of the candidates say they favor reducing the number of mayoral appointees on the city’s school board (currently 8 of 13), or favor fixed terms for appointees, “so the mayor can’t fire a member of the panel just based on a sense that there’s disagreement on the policy issues,” said Henig.
Thompson and de Blasio, meanwhile, appear to be calling for the resurgence of geographically based community school districts in supervising schools, said Bloomfield, of the City University of New York.
“What the mayor has done is basically to steamroll over … and taken away the powers of the districts and the superintendents,” he said in a phone interview. “A new mayor could re-establish them as the primary supervisors of schools in those areas.”
Quinn wants to bring the DOE under the purview of City Council instead of the state Legislature, but Bloomfield said this isn’t a good idea.
“I think most people would hate to see the City Council start micromanaging the Department of Education through legislation,” he said.
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