The Mayor’s Race: Focus On Education

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In 2002, Mayor Michael Bloomberg took control of New York City’s public school system, reversing a 30-year governance structure in which the Board of Education managed 32 community school districts. It was a system that many regarded as marred by political infighting and lacking in accountability. The new law allowed the mayor unprecedented oversight, and through Bloomberg’s appointment of Chancellor Joel I. Klein, he created a system of competition among schools with annual report cards, cash incentives for academic progress and a slew of new small schools and charter schools from which parents could choose.
But Bloomberg’s opponents say that he and Klein have created a top-down approach to education where businessmen and lawyers are in charge of a school system that teachers and parents know best. All of Bloomberg’s challengers point to the bus route fiasco of 2007, when the chancellor and mayor decided to consolidate bus routes during the middle of the school year to save money. Parents who were unaware of the changes were left standing in the bitter cold with their children waiting for buses. Many learned too late that they no longer qualified for school bus service, and were forced to scramble midyear to get children to school. The story aroused intense anger at the administration and critics use it as an example of why the current management style doesn’t work.
Heading into election season, each would-be mayor claims to have the answer to fixing the public school system, whether it means a change in people or a new arrangement entirely. All say they support mayoral control, but they have different ideas about how they would wield that power. We also asked the candidates where they stand on other issues, like charter schools, small schools, merit pay for teachers and parental involvement.

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG, RUNNING AS A REPUBLICAN

Mayoral Control of Schools
Bloomberg released data showing that the graduation rate under mayoral control has increased by more than 11 percentage points (though that data has been disputed; see box). The law that gives him control of the school system is up for renewal in June, and debate between the candidates has focused on how best to check that power. A Bloomberg spokesperson said diluting the mayor’s authority would lead to a “politics of paralysis,” where competing interests would take over in a Board of Education-type system that would leave no one fully accountable.

Charter Schools
Under Bloomberg, New York City has gone from having 17 charter schools to 103 authorized schools, as of February. Bloomberg said he believes that charters foster a sense of competition between schools, giving principals and teachers incentive to provide the best service so that students will choose that particular school. Critics have said the city should focus on making public schools better, but Bloomberg argues that charter schools are in fact a type of public school and that being part of a bureaucracy (i.e., Department of Education and union regulations) is not essential to the concept of a public school.

Merit Pay for Teachers
During his tenure, the mayor has raised teacher salaries by 43 percent, according to a spokesperson. He also introduced a pilot program in the city’s highest need schools that attach teacher bonuses to performance targets. The same idea has been applied to principals, who in 2007 had their bonuses attached to school accountability measurements. Additionally, the administration provides bonuses to teachers who split time between teaching and mentoring students, as well as to principals who take on struggling schools.
Parental Involvement
Bloomberg established the Office of Family Engagement and Advocacy within the Department of Education, which serves the 1 million public school families. He also created a new position in each school called parent coordinator, to act as an intermediary between parents and the school system. He is in the process of creating PS311, which is 311 for parents—a way to find out a child’s progress at school with a quick telephone call.

Small Schools
Bloomberg broke up large underperforming high schools and replaced them with several smaller schools to give students more individual attention. He has released data that shows the graduation rate for small schools is higher than the citywide average, but that data has been challenged both statistically and anecdotally. Regardless, Bloomberg has pledged to open more small schools if he is elected to a third term. Critics of the small school movement say that it duplicates resources that the city does not have, does not provide the wide array of clubs and classes that a larger school can offer and has historically excluded students with special education needs.

WILLIAM C. THOMPSON, JR., DEMOCRAT

Mayoral Control of Schools
Thomson, who served as president of the Board of Education from 1996 until he was elected City Comptroller in 2001, said that he supports renewing mayor control of schools, but not in its current form. One of his key suggestions for improvement revolves around oversight. Instead of the Panel for Education Policy, a 13-person oversight committee that essentially does the mayor’s bidding (the mayor appoints eight of its members), Thompson wants to install a nine-member school board that would come from a pool of nominees chosen by a 19-member nominating committee comprising parents, teachers and principals.
Thompson has also accused the Department of Education of “manipulating” numbers to show an increased graduation rate and test score gains. He wants to set up an independent body to study data on student progress.

Charter Schools
Thompson supports charter schools and is committed to expanding them. Smaller classes, extended school days and a longer school year—hallmarks of charters—are keys to improving graduation rates and test scores, according Thomson. Despite his assertion that Bloomberg’s statistics are faulty, he has repeatedly said that he believes charter schools and small schools graduate their students at a higher rate than traditional public schools.

Parental Involvement
Thompson lists parental involvement as one of his top concerns with the current state of education in the city. In testimony before the City Council, Thomson said the Office of Family Engagement and Advocacy is understaffed, and is not equipped to handle the task of being the sole intermediary between schools and parents. Parents are unaware of School Leadership Teams, groups of parents and school staff that meet once a month to decide on individual school policy. Thompson wants to tie principal evaluations to the efficacy of each leadership team. He also wants to reinvigorate Community Education Councils, parent representatives to the community-at-large, and make it easier for parents to get involved in schools by streamlining the process for joining such councils.

Technical Education
Thompson is a supporter of increasing career and technical education high schools, arguing that they help at risk students stay in school and ultimately attend two- and four-year college programs. As comptroller, he commissioned a study that looked at technical high schools and ways to improve them for students and employers. The study found that such schools were under-funded and were given limited access to city resources by the Department of Education. Thompson’s recommendations included increased funding, expanded intervention programs for high-risk teenagers and a standardized five-year graduation plan.

TONY AVELLA, DEMOCRAT


Mayoral Control of Schools
While Avella said he does not want to overturn mayoral control of schools, he thinks the mayor “blew a wonderful opportunity.” Like Thompson, he wants greater oversight, but he suggested that the City Council and State Legislature play a greater role. However, he does not have a clear vision of what exactly that role would be. If elected, he plans on speaking with teachers and parents about the best way to move forward. “They know the system better than anybody,” Avella said. “Part of the solution can come from them.”

Charter Schools
Charter schools take away precious funding from public schools, Avella argues. If the public school system is broken, the government should fix it, not abandon it. “Why create a whole new system? Why not improve the public schools?” he said. “That’s the way I look at it. Make every school the best it can be and make sure every child gets the best education and the same education, no matter where they live in the city.” While Avella said he would not shut down charter schools if elected mayor, he believes that they would ultimately become unnecessary if the proper resources were invested in public schools.
Merit Pay for Teachers
Avella said he has no formal position on the issue. He said that when elected mayor, he would gather together the experts—parents and teachers—and ask them what they think. But Avella said he thinks teachers can be given incentives without money. “We have got to return the sense of morale and accomplishment to the teachers before anything else,” he said.

Parental Involvement
Avella has few specifics on how he would encourage parental involvement. But he knows it’s necessary. “Kids excel when parents are involved,” he said. “I would like, the day after I’m elected, to start meeting with parents, teachers and principals to start to come up with a plan that we can all get behind.”

Small Schools
Although the Bloomberg administration has come out with figures showing that small schools are a success, Avella is suspicious. He said he hears from parents and teachers that the experiment is not working out well. Small schools are not, however, out of the question; Avella pledged to include them in any discussion he would have with parents, teachers and principals.

ANTHONY WEINER, DEMOCRAT


Mayoral Control of Schools

Weiner supports mayoral control, but he thinks Bloomberg did a bad job at execution. “I think we should keep mayoral control and get rid of the mayor,” said Weiner at a February panel on education in Queens. Weiner, as well as other critics of the mayor, has said that Klein and Bloomberg have a top-down approach more comparable to a business than a school system. The Congressman said he would put education experts in charge of the school system.

Charter Schools
Weiner is a supporter of charter schools, but he’s not an enthusiastic one. A spokesperson said he is “open to them, but does not believe they alone are the panacea to the problems facing our city.”

Merit Pay for Teachers
Weiner selectively supports attaching teacher salaries to student performance. He said he supports giving teachers higher salaries to take on challenging assignments, like struggling schools or high-risk schools. He also believes teachers should be paid higher salaries in areas where there is a void, like math and science.

Parental Involvement
Weiner has been a critic of the current administration’s relationship with parents. He wants more transparency in the school system so that parents can be empowered by having easy access to information about their children.

DATA DISPUTE

By Andrew Hawkins

While Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein have reported increases in graduation rates and test scores, those findings have been disputed.
Brooklyn Assembly Member James Brennan, a frequent critic of mayoral control, released a report saying that standardized test scores actually began rising four years before Bloomberg took office.

Other indicators used by the Department of Education have also been questioned. Eighth graders, for instance, have made no significant progress when compared to national test scores since Bloomberg took over the schools. National scores also show little gains in narrowing the achievement gap between white and minority students.

Klein, however, has defended his record.

“People can always challenge the information,” he said. “They also pick and choose the numbers.”

He dismisses the comparison of city scores to national ones, saying that the department does not factor national numbers into its “accountability metric.” Compared to the state average, he says, the city outperforms almost every other school district.

The graduation rate, which has hovered barely above 50 percent during Klein’s tenure, is also a source of controversy. Klein has stopped counting discharges—students removed from the rolls but not considered dropouts—but does count failing students who earn credit by turning in independent projects. According to the original parameters, critics say, the graduation rate has increased only 6 percent since Bloomberg took over the schools. That is about half the increase Klein regularly advertises.

ELECTION BRIEFS

ENDORSEMENT SCORECARD
Over the past few weeks, candidates in a variety of races have been disseminating endorsement updates like it’s going out of style. Below is a summary of citywide and Manhattan races.

Mayor: In the mayor’s race, Comptroller William Thompson received endorsements from Manhattan elected officials on the Upper West and East sides in the past month. Former Mayor David Dinkins, the city’s first black mayor, endorsed Thompson on the steps of City Hall. Rep. Charles Rangel, whose district covers parts of the Upper West Side, endorsed Thompson as well.

West Side legislators State Sen. Eric Schneiderman and Assembly Member Daniel O’Donnell, along with Assembly Member Deborah Glick, who represents Tribeca, gave their support to Thompson.

On the Upper East Side, home to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Assembly Member Micah Kellner also came out in support of Thompson in the mayor’s race.
Public Advocate: Council Member Bill de Blasio is solidifying support with Manhattan’s elected officials. Last week, Rangel gave his support to de Blasio. Weeks before, a group of West Side elected officials endorsed de Blasio, including Rep. Jerrold Nadler, State Sens. Eric Schneiderman and Tom Duane, Assembly Member Linda Rosenthal and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, a former West Side Assembly member.

On the East Side, State Sen. Liz Krueger, along with Assembly Members Jonathan Bing, Micah Kellner and Brian Kavanagh, and Council members Dan Garodnick and Jessica Lappin, have endorsed de Blasio.

Comptroller: In the Comptroller’s race, Manhattan’s elected officials are splitting their support between Council members David Yassky of Brooklyn and John Liu of Queens. Yassky was endorsed by East Siders Bing and Garodnick.

Liu, who has drawn support largely from the black and Latino communities, was endorsed by Schneiderman and State Senate colleague Bill Perkins on the West Side, along with Kellner on the East Side.  Council Member David Weprin of Queens was endorsed by Dinkins.

District Attorney: Richard Aborn has sewn up much of the support from elected officials and Democratic clubs. In addition to Perkins, Aborn is supported by Bing, Glick and O’Donnell, along with Assembly colleagues Richard Gottfried and Linda Rosenthal. Aborn also got the support of Katrina vanden Heuvel, long-time editor of the Nation magazine.

Cyrus Vance, Jr., whose support comes from former prosecutors and alumni of retiring District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, was endorsed by Dinkins and Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum. He also recently announced the support of downtown Council Member Alan Gerson and the Chinatown Democratic club United Democratic Organization.

Leslie Crocker Snyder, Morgenthau’s 2005 opponent, is supported largely by police and law enforcement unions.
—Dan Rivoli

GUN PLAN
Richard Aborn, a Democratic candidate for Manhattan District Attorney, recently unveiled a five-point plan for combating gun violence in the city.
“We need a plan to crack down on gun violence by going after guns at their source, deploying micro-stamping technology to better identify guns used in crimes, and fighting for tougher restrictions on the buying and selling of them,” Aborn said in a statement.

The plan includes sharing trafficking gun data with other cities and states, a program in which parents can give police permission to search homes for guns and introducing a five-year renewal process for handgun permits.
—Clara Martinez Turco

COUNCIL SPENDING, ONLINE
Council Member David Yassky, Democratic candidate for City Comptroller, launched ItsYourMoney-NYC.com, a searchable online database of the city’s budget and City Council earmarks for fiscal year 2009.

“City taxpayers deserve to know where their hard-earned money is being spent, and the results city government is producing with those dollars,” Yassky said in a statement.

The website allows visitors to search earmarks by keyword, borough, funding recipient, agency, dollar amount and Council Member. Visitors can also track city agency spending by program, and they can provide feedback about the budgets and the programs.

In addition to the launch of ItsYourMoneyNYC.com, Yassky issued the campaign’s first position paper for city budget reform.
—    Clara Martinez Turco

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