While running for New York City mayor, Bill de Blasio could count on applause for attacking unpopular charter school co-locations, where charters that need space are squeezed into public school buildings alongside other schools. Instead of extolling the promise of the charters, de Blasio provided a spine-stiffening defense of the “common” school, and his base ate it up: The unions loved it, parents whose kids were not in charters loved it, and many of de Blasio’s fellow Park Slope progressives loved it. De Blasio went on to win more than 73 percent of the vote and was sworn into office with a mandate to lead.
So the new mayor must be feeling whiplash after the outcry that met him as he began to carry out a popular campaign pledge: slow down the charter co-locations and shift more money to traditional public schools. That the charter community opposed the mayor wasn’t a surprise. It was their political strength, organization, and popularity that caught de Blasio off guard.
From the rhetoric, you’d think de Blasio had personally bounced kids out of charter schools across all five boroughs. In fact, in his first executive action on the issue, he blocked only three expansions, but in the process managed to anger charter supporters with his tactics and allowed centrist Democrats such as Gov. Andrew Cuomo to score points by portraying him as an ideologue. De Blasio also finds himself in a pretty lonely situation: By going after the charters, he is attacking one of the most promising urban school reform strategies available to Democratic mayors across the country these days, and he’s doing it without offering a clear alternative.
De Blasio’s not completely on his own. He’s part of the national “pushback” movement against school reform, which saw the progressive mayor’s election as validation of its views. Charter schools are a high-profile target of these anti-reform activists, but they are also fighting against standardized testing, the new Common Core standards, teacher evaluations based on student outcomes, and reforms to teacher tenure and pay. In other words, most of the popular ideas to improve schools today. Overall, the pushback movement is still more noise than signal, but in de Blasio it has found a high profile elected official who embraces its cause and takes its advice. However, if he can’t wring real academic gains out of the traditional public schools he’s favoring, he’ll deal it a high-profile setback. Unfortunately for the movement so far, de Blasio is proving to have two political left feet.
The mayor’s first misstep was going after one specific charter network, Success Academy, run by Eva Moskowitz, a former city council member who has clashed with de Blasio in years past over city education policies. He singled out Moskowitz on the campaign trail with harsh personal rhetoric. “There’s no way in hell that Eva Moskowitz should get free rent” was a favorite line. At a teachers union event last spring he went even further, saying it’s “time for Eva Moskowitz to stop having the run of the place. She has to stop being tolerated, enabled, supported. I have seen her schools have a destructive impact on the schools they’re going into.”
De Blasio and his schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, developed a four-point evaluation system for deciding which charter seats to block. It sounded sensible but had a serious flaw: It put only Success Academy schools in the crosshairs, and the criteria were not about school quality.
The fallout from that misstep was immediate. Among the 870 Success Academy seats blocked was a modest 194-student expansion for Success Academy students in Harlem to move into a new middle school. That triggered days of searing press coverage pointing out that those 194 students, all low-income minorities, were coming from a school, Success Academy 4, that killed it on the new state test scores, with 80 percent of the students passing the math test, and 59 percent the English test. The co-located middle school the mayor is protecting and where many of those 194 charter students would end up: P.S. 149, where 5 percent of students passed the math test, and 11 percent the English test.
Wasn’t de Blasio supposed to be the champion of improving education for have-not children, his critics asked?
In Albany, Cuomo was more than ready to grab the low-hanging political fruit left by the mayor and position himself as the foremost elected education reformer in the state while bolstering his national credentials. Cuomo’s instincts are generally reformist—he’s also a smart enough politician to know that what gets applause in Park Slope can be political kryptonite in the rest of the country. He made a boisterous appearance before a Moskowitz pro-charter rally in Albany to tell charter parents he has their back.
The rally drowned out the mayor’s efforts to get Albany to focus on preschool expansion and, with his approval ratings tumbling into the 30s after just a few weeks on the job, de Blasio effectively cried uncle late last week. His schools chancellor Fariña flip-flopped on the co-location decision, saying she would find seats for the 194-student expansion elsewhere so that the school could operate. Still, neither Fariña nor de Blasio have given any hint that they understand the bigger problem they are facing: What do they have up their sleeves to help schools like P.S. 149?