New York’s Mayor Takes on Charter Schools, and the National Education Debate Hangs in the Balance

Getting schooled.
March 12 2014 2:12 PM

De Blasio vs. Everyone Else

New York’s mayor takes on charter schools, and the national education debate hangs in the balance.

(Continued from Page 1)

De Blasio appears to be ruling out strategies used by fellow Democratic mayors. For example, consider the four prominent mayors now on a tour to talk about education innovation: Mayor Julian Castro of San Antonio, a rising Democratic star and the keynote speaker at the 2012 Democratic National Convention; Kevin Johnson of Sacramento, Calif., the upcoming president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors; Denver Mayor Michael Hancock; and Providence, R.I., Mayor Angel Taveras. All support cooperation with charter schools and ideas at odds with de Blasio’s.

In Denver, Hancock endorsed the “reformers” at recent school board elections, all of whom won. Denver is closing low-performing schools and doubling the number of charter schools. “What charters give,” Hancock told us in an interview “is a capability to be more nimble. They bring in best practices and challenge traditional school thinking.” Denver schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg, who draws strong support from Hancock, entered into a compact with local high-performing charters: We will give you space if you take a fair share of special-education students, agree to a common application process, and, most importantly, act as collaborators when you get space in our buildings.

Creativity like this makes Denver a darling of education analysts, but politicians get it, too. Another fan of Denver-style solutions is Sacramento’s Johnson, who is closely watching New York developments. “New York is the home of some [of] the best charter schools in the nation" he says, referring to the various studies that show New York's charters are stronger collectively than charter schools in many other states. Winning an election on a platform of income inequality, as de Blasio did, should be an ideal jumping-off point for pursuing greater equity in education, Johnson says. That includes great preschools, as advocated by de Blasio, but goes far beyond, Johnson told us.

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“Mayors have to support any schools serving poor and minority students well. There aren’t enough of those schools. We need more.” And charter schools, said Johnson, have to be in the mix. “Mayors around the country, no matter how centrist or progressive, get that charters have become one of several good options for parents to choose from, if they are performing well.”

Not all mayors. De Blasio says nothing about compacts and collaboration. On the contrary, he wants to cap building-sharing and slow the expansion of charters while at the same time has not articulated how doing so will improve the situation at schools like P.S. 149. About the only school improvement initiative de Blasio and his chancellor have unveiled is a vow to talk nicer to teachers and principals. But a “tone shift” won’t turn around P.S. 149.

For now, about all de Blasio is turning around are his opponents’ political fortunes. Just a few months ago Moskowitz couldn’t buy good publicity and even leaders in the charter community privately griped about her. Now, after she stood up to de Blasio, some New York political observers are already talking about her as a viable mayoral candidate in the next election. Cuomo, meanwhile, was viewed skeptically by many in the education reform community. Now he’s beloved for siding so strongly with the charter parents against the mayor.

Besides making new political foes, de Blasio is exposing the growing rift over education policy among Democrats. The party’s progressive wing views government ownership and control as the touchstones of common education. Schools are considered public if they’re run by school districts (ideally with unionized teachers) and private if they’re not, even if they’re operated by idealistic nonprofits. Democratic centrists by contrast worry more about whether schools are public in their mission, operations, and goals, but they believe common public schools can be run by nonprofits or groups of teachers just as well as by school districts. Progressives see teacher evaluations as a backdoor way to rid the system of expensive veteran teachers. Centrists see effective teacher evaluations as key in a labor-intensive field like education. Progressives see standardized testing as a strategy to discredit public schools. Centrists see accountability as necessary in improving them.

These are not academic debates. At stake is what comes next after two decades of progress improving American schools. Neither faction in the education dispute has an interest in peddling good news so you don’t often hear about it in the toxic back and forth of education politics, but schools are doing better now with a more diverse group of students than they ever have. Scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress—a no-stakes test given to students across the country—continue to rise, especially for disadvantaged students. High-school graduation rates are higher than they’ve ever been. Plenty more remains to be done, especially in urban and rural communities, but the progress is real and stems from bipartisan ideas and education reforms in states and from Washington. The debate now is over what to do for the next generation of education reform.

Most American parents know nothing at all about Bill de Blasio, but they should. New York has an outsized importance in the education world. “What does or doesn’t happen in New York reverberates throughout the country,” Sacramento’s Johnson told us. The charter fight is a test case for both sides—can progressives push the charters back or are the reformers too strong now? That question explains why so much energy was invested by both sides in a battle over a handful of schools.

If de Blasio can figure out how to regain momentum and harness progressive support to improve schools in New York City—taking the rough edges off of Mayor Bloomberg–era policies and hewing a different path from reformist Democratic mayors—that would change the terms of the national education debate. If de Blasio can’t produce political and educational results, he will deal a devastating blow to the national anti-reform movement. That’s why so much is riding on who comes out on top.

Andrew J. Rotherham, a partner at non-profit educational consulting firm Bellwether Education, and Richard Whitmire, author of  the upcoming On the Rocketship: How High Performing Charters are Pushing the Envelope, are working on a book about education politics. 

Richard Whitmire is the author of the upcoming On the Rocketship: How High Performing Charters are Pushing the Envelope.

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