Politics vs. Policy: The “Urgent Moral” Case for Dramatic School Intervention

Today in the Daily Beast former NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and Louisiana Superintendent John White make the “urgent moral” case that “the most appropriate response to dramatic failure” for persistently failing schools” is “dramatic intervention.” In doing so, they posit an entirely different approach than the tweaks exercised by current NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has expressed great reluctance to either close chronically-failing schools or offer families options through charter school expansion.

Certainly, closing a school is a fraught decision, one that Klein and White describe as the most “contentious” tool of school reform. But what is best for kids when, decade after decade, a school fails to improve student outcomes despite additional funding and wrap-around programming?

During Klein’s chancellorship under former Mayor Mike Bloomberg, the NYC D.O.E. closed 150 perpetually-failing schools and replaced them with hundreds of small new ones. A recent study from the Research Alliance for New York City Schools examined student outcomes in 29 large, low-performing high schools that the Bloomberg Administration closed and replaced with 200 new small high schools. Researchers concluded that most of the middle school students who ended up in small high schools showed higher achievement and better attendance. Graduation rates rose from 40% at the closed schools to 55% at the new ones. The chief researcher, Dr. James Kemple, said that “our results offer support for the strategic use of school closures as part of a multi-dimensional high school reform strategy.”

Yet De Blasio and his chancellor Carmen Fariña take a different approach towards failing schools. Instead, de Blasio has initiated a School Renewal Program that originally included 94 (now 86) of N.Y.C.’s worst schools and gives them extra support, like physical and mental health practitioners, guidance counselors, adult literacy teachers, and longer school days. The New York Times reported last year that the intention of the Renewal Program is to “draw a bright line between Mr. de Blasio’s educational policies and those of his predecessor, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.” If that is indeed Mayor de Blasio’s intention, then he’s been successful. However, the city has already spent hundreds of millions of dollars on those schools while enrollment drops; parents, faced with the urgency of now,  aren’t willing to wait.

Indeed, White and Klein argue that “abandoning calls for dramatic intervention in persistently struggling schools would be a stain on the education legacy of any President and would do unjustifiable harm to millions of American youth growing up in poverty.”

They conclude:

The American education system presents intolerably long odds to low-income children attending persistently struggling schools, and sometimes the most appropriate response to dramatic failure is dramatic intervention.

Last June Professor Theodore Hamm of St. Joseph’s College considered the differences between the educational leadership of Bloomberg and de Blasio. He told the Gotham Gazette that “Bloomberg’s people put policy before politics. De Blasio’s administration does it the other way around.”

Right now NYC’s low-income children are paying the price for Mayor de Blasio’s proclivity for putting politics before educationally-sound policy.

What do you think?

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