New York City’s mayoral primary is on September 12th, six months from now, and it’s looking excessively likely that incumbent Bill de Blasio will win the primary and then win a second term in November. Given the odds, here’s a few suggestions from an admittedly edu-centric bystander on what the Mayor can do to improve his spotty record on raising student outcomes in the largest school district in the country.
First, let me apologize for any disrespect in dismissing de Blasio’s opponents. But let’s get real. Right now the ever-changing list of Democratic candidates includes Sal Albanese (who has run twice before, finishing 3d and 8th, and whose education platform focuses on pre-K expansion, one of de Blasio’s few success stories); Kevin Coenen (who has a section about education on his website that contains grammatical errors); Robert Gangi, and Collin Slatter (who have no name recognition). The tease of Ruben Diaz Jr., the Bronx borough president, and Hakeem Jeffries, the Brooklyn congressman, injects a wee bit of excitement into this non-race but they’re likely to sit out til 2021.
Paul Massey, the top Republican candidate, supports “stop and frisk,” enough on its own to undermine his credibility. In fairness, he does have an education platform in which he promises to “reward and replicate success” and “rescue students trapped in failing schools.” However, he doesn’t say how he’ll do this (besides offering vouchers) and he’s already spent more money than he’s raised.
So let’s make the logical leap that Mayor de Blasio will hold on to his seat for another four years. What can he do to improve a system where 30% of high school students don’t graduate and 50% aren’t ready for college or careers?
Here are some suggestions, Mr. Mayor.
Get over your animus towards charter schools. It’s not only bad politics but it’s bad for kids, especially those who are trapped in low-performing traditional schools. Yes, yes, UFT leaders hate charter schools but you’ve already gifted the teacher union’s members with a golden contract (19.5% increase over 9 years with less student contact time and less accountability) so consider it even. Cities with long-troubled school systems — think Newark and Camden just across the Hudson — have successfully partnered with public charters to offer opportunities to needy kids, particularly poor children of color. I’d suggest that you or your chancellor sit down with these district leaders, Chris Cerf and Paymon Rouhanifard, and learn how they directly collaborate on enrollment, data collection, and professional development.
This evolution in your views would be a fulfillment of the original concept of charter schools as laboratories of innovation with you, the education champion, ready to put aside petty grievances, inject some innovation into tired bureaucracies, and bow to what Martin Luther King, Jr. called the “urgency of now,” a term that one of your heroes (and mine), Barack Obama, used to great effect. Don’t talk about universal literacy in 2026. Talk about this kid in this school right now. And think of co-location of charter schools and public schools as your friend. Don’t burden taxpayers with unnecessary rental costs. (Albany requires the City to either offer charters available space or pay their rent.) Blame the State Legislature if you want, but get over this aversion to sharing space. This is about kids, not New York real estate.
Find an exit strategy from your Renewal School project, which promises universal literacy by 2026. Sort of NCLB-ish, isn’t it? It’s so not you. And so not working. Instead, emulate your predecessor Mike Bloomberg and find the cohones to close schools that have failed to improve for decades. After all, many of them are half-empty as parents find seats in more successful public schools, either charter or traditional.
Find an exit strategy from your PROSE program, a collaboration between the City and UFT, the teachers’ union, which promised to infuse charter-like innovations into district schools. A report just released from Students First NY shows the program to be an abysmal failure: students outcomes are down in PROSE schools, with student achievement levels way below those in traditional charter schools. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Or, as SFNY counsels, “Mayor de Blasio must… stop obstructing the growth of charter schools that have consistently produced results for students. Both of those actions require that the Mayor stand up to his political patrons and advocate for the needs of students.”
Double down on your great plan to increase access for poor families to NYC’s high-achieving schools, which almost exclusively serve White and Asian students. And figure out how to find room for the two-thirds of gifted and talented youngsters who are denied access due to lack of available seats.
Precluding some scandalous upheaval (not likely, especially considering that our bar for bad behavior from elected officials is ever-rising), you will be a two-term mayor. If you want to really make a difference in the public education of poor children of color and their families, you’ll hold yourself accountable for both your successes and your failures. New Yorkers will respect your honesty and earnestness. Please, Mayor, be the change we dream of.