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Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing: NYC Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s Education Legacy

As a whopping 40+(!) candidates gear up to run for Mayor of New York City, we thought we’d take a comprehensive look at the education legacy of Gracie Mansion’s current occupant.

Bill de Blasio was sworn in as NYC’s 109th Mayor on January 1, 2014. He told a Tale of Two Cities and promised to bring equity to all aspects of his constituents’ lives, especially in the sphere of education. 

First on his agenda was Universal Pre-K

Less than a week later, on January 6, 2014, he promised, “The goal is that every single child, at pre-k age, has full-day pre-k available to them in a reasonable – within a reasonable distance of their home… (N)o wait-lists, no you have to go ten miles away. It should be available locally for every single family.”

On June 3, 2014, as the first round of acceptances went out, the mayor pronounced his initiative an unqualified triumph, though he did hedge, “[w]hether your child is accepted to a public school program this week or not, there are more options—both at community facilities and at other public schools—to find the right fit.”

On November 12, 2014, he hedged “So waiting lists – central Queens, lower Manhattan… not every seat is going to be right down the block, some will take a little bit of travel.”

On September 9, 2015, a reporter asked de Blasio why, if 73,000+ seats are available, only 65,000+ are full? The Mayor replied, “(I)f you want the seat that works for you best, that’s nearest to your home, or nearest to your work, the faster you act, the more chance you’ll get the seat you want.” (Ed. note: UPK is not first-come, first-served.)

By 2017, Mayor De Blasio had decreed UPK so successful for 4 year olds that he was about to add 3 year olds to the program. This despite Pre-K for All:

  • Using public money to fund religious schools
  • Beginning public school segregation at an earlier age
  • Cutting the hours of child-care available to low-income parents from full-day to 8:00 AM through 2:20 PM
  • Cutting the months of child-care available to low-income parents from year-round to September-June
  • Serving less children from the lowest-income group than any other
  • Opening more centers even as existing ones fail to attract a full cohort of students
  • Closing centers for a variety of failures even as the Department of Education swears that all are exactly the same “high-quality”

The above, Bill De Blasio cheered, was the sort of result that you could only get under mayoral control of the schools. Otherwise, he predicted, you end up with chaos, gridlock, and corruption.

With his mayoral control renewed on January 29, 2017, Bill De Blasio was ready to tackle the other NYC school issues he declared untenable.

Elementary school Gifted & Talented programs? Bad. The majority of students in the NYC public school system were Hispanic and Black. The majority of students in G&T programs were Asian and white.

Screened middle schools? Bad. They weren’t diverse enough. Mayor De Blasio wanted his own children in integrated schools, but was apparently forced to send them to Brooklyn’s whitest and wealthiest one. 

Specialized High Schools? Bad. Even though his own son attended one. Students could only get in by cheating. Cheating meant preparing for the test. Did his son prepare? Hizzoner couldn’t remember.

Screened High Schools? Bad. Even though his own daughter attended one. Presumably, like the middle schools, he couldn’t figure out how to apply her to a more diverse one.

With mayoral control, Bill De Blasio could have started changing all of the above the moment he took office in 2014.

He chose not to.

Instead, he waited until his second and final term, which began in 2018. 

In June of that year, he announced his intention to fix the Specialized High Schools’ “diversity problem” with a plan that would switch admissions from a single test to a quota system that would use a variety of metrics to be named later.

Despite having held mayoral control for four year at that point, De Blasio appeared surprised to hear that changing admissions to Specialized High Schools wasn’t up to him. It had to be done at the state level. 

De Blasio sent his School Chancellor, Richard Carranza, to Albany to plead his case. They were turned down. He sent him again in 2019. They were turned down again.

When reminded that Screened high schools, which are richer and whiter than the Specialized ones, actually were under his control, and that he could change admissions to them with the stroke of his executive pen, the Mayor promised, “We’re certainly going to turn our attention to the screened schools… We’ll be back with some ideas.”

That was in 2018.

It wasn’t until the very end of 2020, when, due to the Coronavirus pandemic, the Mayor was forced to address screened high school admissions for 2021. Public school 8th graders had no test scores or final grades to submit. What should screened schools use instead?

Uhm… Mayor De Blasio said… Use whatever you want. Previous years’ grades and test scores, your own assessments, portfolios, interviews, it’s up to you… just try and be more diverse about it, OK?

(For the record, he did get rid of district priority, something we’ve been advocating since 2019.)

When it came to Screened middle school admissions, the mayor presumably took the advice of Chancellor Carranza to “never waste a good crisis” and finally did what he’d claimed to want for seven years now. He announced that all middle schools would be unscreened, ala his former Brooklyn district. An endeavour that was also pronounced a great success, despite a lack of data

Is he making the unscreening permanent, then? Nope. It’s just for the year. We’ll reevaluate later.

Finally, in early 2021, De Blasio announced that NYC would still administer the Gifted & Talented test to 4 year olds for one more year.

But that’s it! Because the program isn’t adequately diverse, this would be its final outing. 

“We will spend the next year engaging communities around what kind of programming they would like to see that is more inclusive, enriching, and truly supports the needs of academically advanced and diversely talented students at a more appropriate age. We will also engage communities around how best to integrate enriched learning opportunities to more students, so that every student – regardless of a label or a class that they are in – can access rigorous learning that is tailored to their needs and fosters their creativity, passion, and strengths… We will develop new plans for identifying and serving exceptional students and release them for the next enrollment cycle.”

Alas, Hizzoner’s plan hit a snag. Despite having mayoral control, De Blasio was outvoted by his own, handpicked Panel For Educational Policy, who declined to renew the Pearson company’s contract to administer the test. 

Undaunted, the Mayor swore that his previously stated plan would go forward. Parents would still be able to apply their children for Gifted & Talented programming 2021, nonetheless. How? Uhm… he’ll get back to you on that.

Don’t worry. Everything would still proceed exactly as he’d outlined it for 2021-2022, and beyond. He was the mayor, after all!

Except that NYC has traditionally tested students for entry into G&T programs the January before the September when they would start school.

For the 2022 admissions season, that would mean testing them in January of 2022.

Mayor Bill De Blasio’s term ends in December of 2021.

Now, we suppose this administration could “develop new plans for identifying and serving exceptional students and release them for the next enrollment cycle.” (And get them approved by a Panel For Education Policy that had just made clear they were not merely there to rubber stamp the administration’s edicts.)

But this is the same administration that entered September 2020 with no plan in place for reopening schools, or even determining how many students would be learning remotely versus those who’d opted for hybrid.

The one that had almost a year to distribute tech devices and couldn’t get the job done on time.

The one that, in December, had already given up on any productive learning taking place for the remainder of the school year and had leapt ahead to promising remediation in September… via a plan woefully short on details.

What are the odds that this administration will have a plan for G&T that’s ready to hit the ground running on the first day of 2022?

Whether it’s Specialized High Schools, Screened High Schools, Unscreened Middle Schools or Elementary School Gifted & Talented programs, the mayor has failed to institute long-term change for any of them. He has, instead, kicked the can down the road at every single academic level.

If the changes he touted so vocally for seven years — but failed to act on until the very last minute — do come to pass, then he can proudly take credit for all the groundwork he laid to make NYC a better place. Without having to face the consequences of his actions, either politically at the voting booth or personally — his kids have already graduated.

If none of the changes are continued by the next Mayor, then he can furrow his brow and cry bitter tears about how he tried his best, he really did, but those unprogressive reactionaries who came in after him undid all of his glorious achievements. 

It’s win-win for him.

And a lose-lose for the rest of us.

What do you think?

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