How Mayor de Blasio Can Regain New York City's Trust

Jun 20, 2016 12:00:00 AM

by Laura Waters

Early Saturday morning the New York State Legislature passed a bill that falls far short of the mayor’s political and educational objectives. First, legislators shrunk his presumed three-year extension of control of the city schools to an ignominious single year. Second, high-performing public charter schools, long accustomed to de Blasio’s cold shoulder, will be able to bypass two of the three authorizers permitted by state law and switch to SUNY (the State University of New York), a more friendly overseer. Third, new fiscal oversight rules embedded in the bill will, according to Politico, “create reams of new paperwork for the Department of Education, and city officials said the new rules would disrupt the current school budgeting process," although a little more fiscal accountability could prove worthwhile for the city’s 1,700 schools. However, the most personal affront to de Blasio is that single year of control. New York City’s previous mayor, Mike Bloomberg, after all, adeptly managed the school system for a dozen years without ever having to beg for control in Albany. The Senate gave him control for seven years and then renewed his authority for the rest of his tenure. In contrast, Bill de Blasio gets crumbs, nothing more than another probationary period. Certainly, a variety of stakeholders— Merryl Tisch, Governor Cuomo, charter school leaders—had expressed support for a three-year extension. But with city teacher union lobbyists sitting this battle out (they prefer the old multiple school board oversight system), the Assembly had nothing to lose and Senate Leader John Flanagan (R-LI) had a bullseye painted on the mayor’s forehead because in 2014 de Blasio tried (and failed) to unseat the Republican majority. Next April, a scant 10 months from now, the mayor will be back in Albany in the midst of a re-election campaign pleading for additional time. Egos, politics, and governance theories aside, the Senate bill is good for New York City schoolchildren, at least as long as their educational trajectories are beholden to a mayor who seems to view public charter schools with disdain and sets the bar embarrassingly low for academic improvements among the city’s lowest-performing schools Currently 43,000 students sit on charter school waiting lists and support among New York City parents for these alternative public schools is high. Although details remain obscure, the new bill will facilitate charter sector growth, which is good for families. According to the New York Times:
[The legislation] would effectively create a parallel system of charter schools within the city, allowing “high-performing charter schools in good standing” to switch to join the State University of New York umbrella or the Board of Regents of the State Educational Department...Although the announcement of the agreement did not offer details, the Senate’s proposal would exempt SUNY schools from the usual state standards and free to set their own rules, two officials with direct knowledge of the negotiations.
While Mayor de Blasio and his Schools Chancellor, Carmen Farina, have set benchmarks for improvements in long-struggling schools, many scoff at the lack of ambition. For example, one goal is that all children will read on grade-level by 2026, long after de Blasio is gone from office. Another example is that the goals set for the city’s lowest-performing schools, called “renewal schools,” are in some cases set so low that they had been met before the goals were announced. The New York Times reported that at John Adams High School in Ozone Park, Queens, the school’s college readiness index was supposed to hit 15.1 by 2016. But the score is already 20.2. It’s not too late for the mayor to turn this around. He could start by breaching the false dichotomy between traditional schools and charter schools, fostering partnership rather than rivalry. He could set higher goals for the city’s worst schools and be unafraid of closing down those that continue to fail their students. He can step out boldly and recreate himself as an educational leader in a city where a third of the students (80 percent of whom are Black or Hispanic), failed math and English tests this year and where this year, according to the New York City Education Department, failure rates in the worst schools went up, not down. Meanwhile, potential contenders are lining up. Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. a prospective gubernatorial candidate in 2017, attended a pro-school choice rally last October in Brooklyn and said this to 18,500 parents:
Mr. Mayor, what we’re saying here today is this: The public-schools system is your system. Charter schools are a part of that system, and all we want from you, Mr. Mayor, is to treat them equitably.
A battle’s been lost and time is short, but de Blasio can still redeem himself by committing to meaningful improvements in the city’s school system. To do so, he must respect parents’ vigorous cries for school choice and set ambitious goals for school improvement. This is his year to prove himself worthy of mayoral control. We’ll wait to see if he possesses the vision and leadership to regain the trust of New York City parents, educational leaders, and state legislators. While the de Blasio quest for long-term mayoral control may have failed this year, the city’s 1.1 million students may just come out ahead.

Laura Waters

Laura Waters is the founder and managing editor of New Jersey Education Report, formerly a senior writer/editor with brightbeam. Laura writes about New Jersey and New York education policy and politics. As the daughter of New York City educators and parent of a son with special needs, she writes frequently about the need to listen to families and ensure access to good public school options for all. She is based in New Jersey, where she and her husband have raised four children. She recently finished serving 12 years on her local school board in Lawrence, New Jersey, where she was president for nine of those years. Early in her career, she taught writing to low-income students of color at SUNY Binghamton through an Educational Opportunity Program.

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