Bloomberg-Era School Changes Debated in N.Y.C. Race
A dozen years of control by New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has caused tectonic shifts in the way the Big Apple runs its schools, but as the battle for his replacement moves into its final stretch, a few of the Bloomberg administration's most controversial education initiatives are shaping the landscape of the general election.
Mr. Bloomberg gained control of the nation's largest school system soon after his initial 2001 election win. He restructured the 1.1 million-student district and ushered in a series of sweeping changes through a package of initiatives he called Children First. The program includes support for charter schools, a school-grading system, merit pay for principals and teachers, citywide school curricula, and other changes.
Democrat Bill de Blasio, the city's public advocate and the front-runner to replace the retiring mayor, set himself during the primary as opposed to much of the Children First initiative, and said he would do away with the city's A-F grades for schools in his first year in office and provide additional supports for schools in trouble.
"Under the Bloomberg administration, the mayor used mayoral control to shove his policies into schools and communities," said Dan Levitan, a spokesman for Mr. de Blasio. He noted that the candidate plans to keep mayoral control but direct the district's 13-member appointed school board, to "take into serious consideration" concerns from community education councils, which replaced the former local school boards.
Willing to Listen
Mr. de Blasio's main opponent, Republican Joseph J. Lhota, a former deputy mayor and former chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, said in a July primary debate that he "applauded" Mr. Bloomberg's education initiatives, but he, too, wanted to use a less confrontational style than the mayor's: "There's been a lack of communication going on, and communication is nothing more than transparency," Mr. Lhota said. "Mayoral control does not say we're not going to listen, so that's something I would change."
Mr. Lhota's office did not return requests for comment by press time.
Bill de Blasio, 52, public advocate, City of New York;
Master's degree in international and public affairs, Columbia University; bachelor’s degree, New York University
• Create free prekindergarten for all city children and greatly expand middle school after-school programs, financed with a tax on residents making $500,000 a year or more
• Eliminate letter-grade evaluations for schools and create an “office of strategic support” to provide short-term, intensive help to low-performing schools to avoid school closures
• Revise mayoral control to give community education councils an advisory vote on major school changes in their communities
• Overhaul the data system used for special education students and cap the amount of time they may spend on bus delays
Joseph J. Lhota, 59, former chairman and chief executive officer, Metropolitan Transportation Authority;
M.B.A., Harvard Business School; bachelor’s degree, Georgetown University
• Create new district schools; advocate to the state an increase in the cap on charter schools to double the number of such schools, particularly in low-income neighborhoods
• Provide prekindergarten access for all city children
• Provide teacher bonuses for performance and for taking difficult assignments
• Implement a new evaluation and professional-development system for teachers
Adolfo Carrión Jr., 52, founder, Metro Futures LLC, a consulting and real-estate-development firm;
Master's degree in urban planning, City University of New York at Hunter College; bachelor’s degree, Kings College
• Extend learning time and keep schools open for expanded days and hours for community activities
• Create a citywide, common-core-aligned "lesson plan bank for teachers • Revise teacher-evaluation system and merit-pay system; create a "master teacher" job track
• Continue expansion and co-location of charter schools; provide additional supports and evaluation
Tight mayoral control has been a "two-sided coin" for the city's schools, according to James J. Kemple, the executive director of Research Alliance for New York City Schools at New York University. While efforts to create uniform standards and clearer accountability have shown some benefits, he said, "the other side of that coin is, sometimes the more centralized the decisionmaking process and implementation, the more likely it is that the voices of parents and of more marginalized communities will be less pro minent in the discussion.
"That may be in part at the heart of the conversation that seems to be evolving about what mechanisms can be put in place to protect those voices," Mr. Kemple said.
Charters and Co-Location
Since the primaries Sept. 10, most of the education debate has focused on highly controversial charter school growth and co-location with other schools. Charters have proliferated during the Bloomberg years, with nearly 200 of them now serving 70,000 students—a little more than 5 percent of the district's students.
They've played an outsize role in the mayoral debates in part because of public concern over small schools—many of them charters—sharing space in public facilities that once housed the city's huge comprehensive high schools.
A new report by the New York City Independent Budget Office found co-located schools often share facilities, providing less access to them for students at each individual school.
"Where there are small schools in one location and all the principals work together with a common vision for the whole, the schools are seeming to work OK, but that's a rare commodity," said Jill S. Levy, a management consultant and former president of the city's principals' union. More frequently, she said, three or more schools are vying to use common gymnasiums, laboratories, and lunchrooms. And charter schools that are heavily supported by private foundations may be housed with less well-off district schools.
"When you see multiple schools in one building, and some schools have more capital investments than others, that's really in your face," said Lori Bezahler, the president of the New York City-based Hazen Foundation. The foundation is part of the Education Funders Research Initiative, 15 philanthropies that have invested more than $2 billion in many of Mr. Bloomberg's school initiatives.
Ms. Bezahler voiced concern that neither of the candidates nor any private foundations have discussed long-term financial support for schools that got startup money during the Children First rollout.
"There are schools and networks of schools running in the public system right now that could not operate the way they do without private dollars. We need to think deeply about what we need to do about that," she said.
A Rent Proposal
Mr. de Blasio has not been interested in increasing the number of charter schools, and wants significant changes to the co-location process. He wants more information on how schools divide space, how these divisions and access procedures affect students with disabilities, and more analysis of parent concerns in co-location plans. In the past month, he has been criticized by charter advocates for calls to develop a "sliding scale" of rent for charter schools sharing space in district buildings, based on how much private money they raise and how much they include special education and low-income students.
By contrast, Mr. Lhota pledged to double the number of charter schools, particularly in low-income neighborhoods, and to push for the state to increase the existing cap on charter schools. Mr. Lhota would also continue to allow multiple schools, including charters, to share space in public buildings for free.
The most recent poll by the Hamden, Conn.-based Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, on Oct. 21, found nearly 40 percent of the New Yorkers surveyed said they wanted more charter schools and 35 percent wanted the same number, with only 18 percent wanting fewer of them.
However, slightly more New Yorkers agree with Mr. de Blasio that charters should be asked to pay rent for public space, 47 percent versus 43 percent.
"I see clearly the weaknesses and limitations [of Bloomberg-era initiatives], but having said that, I also recognize the progress, and I think any fair assessment of New York City, both in com
parison to other cities and looking back at where it was, would have to say it's gotten better under Bloomberg," said Pedro Noguera, an education professor at New York University who has followed the implementation of the Children First initiatives.
"What concerns me now is that so far the race has just turned on the most controversial issues—charter schools, co-location—and while those issues are very important, they are by no means the most important. We're not really hearing the candidates talking about the larger issues in public education. We don't have a clear indication yet of what they would do differently," Mr. Noguera said.
Both candidates have said they would expand prekindergarten to all New York City 4-year-olds. "All of the research points to the importance of early-childhood education, and yet we have not made any serious investments in this field over the last 12 years," Mr. Levitan said. Mr. de Blasio has prioritized creating a tax on New Yorkers making more than $500,000 a year to pay for that and expanded after-school programs in middle schools. Mr. Lhota criticized Mr. de Blasio's tax proposal, but has not yet said how he would pay for increased preschool access.
Mr. Kemple cautioned that neither candidate has discussed school finance in much depth, and that expanding preschool or career and technical education, or continuing small high schools or charters, could all become "a real challenge" in increasingly tight state budget times.
Paul T. Hill, the founder of the Center on Reinventing Public Education and a research professor at the University of Washington Bothell, agreed, noting that in the early days of Children First, Mayor Bloomberg took advantage of relatively higher state education budgets to increase teacher salaries during negotiations over school accountability and other issues.Mr. Hill, Ms. Levy, and Mr. Noguera agreed that the next administration will need to plan finances and solve inequities for English-learners and other high-need students, such as their disproportionate assignment to failing schools.
An Annenberg Institute for School Reform study released last week found that students who enroll in the city's high schools without participating in the citywide school matching process—a mostly high-risk group that includes immigrants, those with special needs, homeless or highly mobile students, and those returning from prison—are disproportionately assigned to low-performing schools or even those slated for closure.
"What it will take is a new mayor," said United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew. "At this point, we're just looking to make sure Mr. de Blasio wins."
A de Blasio administration is likely at this point. Mr. de Blasio led Mr. Lhota 65 percent to 23 percent among likely voters, and held significant leads among white, black, Hispanic, male, female, Democrat, and independent voters, with Mr. Lhota leading only among Republicans, according to the Oct. 21 Quinnipiac poll, which mirrors the results of other general-election polls. The poll also found only 5 percent of likely voters "undecided." Another 8 percent of those who picked a candidate said they were likely to change their minds.
Vol. 33, Issue 10, Pages 1, 9-10Published in Print: October 30, 2013, as For N.Y.C., Bloomberg Era to End