The New York City Mayoral Candidates and Education!

Dear Commons Community,

With the primaries fast approaching on September 10, interest in the New York City mayoral race is becoming intense.  Anthony Weiner’s sexting issues have provided much fodder for the media as well as an unfortunate distraction for the candidates and the voters. Nevertheless, as the primaries near and the opinion polls become more frequent, the candidates are sharpening their positions on issues in an attempt to distinguish themselves from the competition.   There are many issues that need to be reviewed and considered, but education is surely on the minds of voters, especially for parents of school children during this election year.

Republican candidates are supporting most of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s policies of the past twelve years.  The majority of Democratic candidates agree that New York City needs a new direction.

Bloomberg, for the most part has performed his duties well:  the business community has confidence in the mayor and the New York City economy has emerged from the recession doing better than most other metropolitan areas of the country; his stance on gun control has been impeccable and inspiring; his initiative for bringing more technology companies to the city is visionary.

However, the mayor has also had his problems–arguably, the most controversial—has been the policy changes he brought to the New York City public school system.  While there is no doubt that the school system is better managed under mayoral control than under the previous community school board structure, schooling is not simply about management; it is and must be primarily about learning and education.

Some of his education policies have polarized segments of the City’s population by pitting the school reformers who seek greater privatization, charter schools, testing, undergirded by a corporate culture, against the teachers and unions, ultimately alienating teachers, parents, community groups, and students, alike.

The most visible conflict the Bloomberg Administration advanced has been against the United Federation of Teachers.

Among the mayor’s greatest failings was his appointment of Joel Klein, a non-educator, to be the City’s schools chancellor.  Klein created a confrontational environment where teachers were vilified and parental input was ignored.  Many of Klein’s perceived accomplishments, advanced by Tweed spin doctors, did not reflect the substandard realities (more than 400 schools received failing to middling grades of F, D, or C on the recent school “report card” evaluation system) that continue to exist in many public schools.

During Klein’s tenure, test scores barely improved.  Results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which administers a test every two years to fourth- and eighth-graders across the country, show that New York City results have been basically flat with little if any improvement.  Graduation rates have improved but college readiness declined, indicative of a system that was simply pushing students through, but not truly educating them.  For example, under Klein, the high school graduation rate climbed from 46 percent in 2005 to 65 percent in 2011.  All that is to the good and required enormous hard work, however, more than 70 percent of the graduates still fell short of college readiness.

The present chancellor, Dennis Walcott, has toned down the vitriol considerably, but was appointed too late to leave a constructive policy mark on the school system.  He also presided over the horrific implementation of the Common Core Curriculum; because it was rushed into New York State public schools, many districts including New York City, were not prepared to develop materials or do the teacher training needed to teach the new curriculum.    The results were that just under 30% of New York City students were proficient in math and 26% in reading – a drop by more than half of the number of city students making the grade in each subject compared to 2012. But the real tragedy in these results is in the differences in achievement between black and Hispanic students and their white and Asian counterparts. In math, for instance, 15 percent of black students and 19 percent of Hispanic students were proficient in mathematics, compared with 50 percent of white students and 61 percent of Asian students.   These disparities are not due to the Common Core but to the systemic failure of the New York City public schools to improve the education of minority students.

So where does this leave the candidates who hope to succeed Bloomberg?

The Republican candidates (Joseph Lhota, George McDonald, John Catsimatidis) generally support Bloomberg’s education policies and if any of them is elected, New Yorkers can expect more of the same of the past 12 years.  Lhota, however, has leveraged his experience as a City University of New York Trustee, to comment regularly on the fact that New York City high school graduates are not ready for college.  He frequently mentions that in 2012, 81 percent of the CUNY applicants who graduated from New York City public schools were not ready for college and required remediation classes to enable them to successfully enter academic programs.

If elected, Lhota will likely take a hard, critical look at the present policies, such as credit-recovery (a program that uses various strategies, often involving online class work, that give students, who have failed a course, the chance to “recover” credits that otherwise would be lost) that pushes students through to graduation without necessarily mastering subject matter.

However, within the crowded field of Democratic candidates (Christine Quinn, John Liu, William Thompson, Bill de Blasio, Anthony Weiner, Erick Salgado, and Sal Albanese) many of the candidates have put forward different policy approaches to reforming education in the City.  Specifically, Quinn, Liu, Thompson and de Blasio have all criticized Bloomberg education policies.  The highlights of their respective positions follow:

  • Quinn has stated that the present system views the closure of a public school as an accomplishment, when it should be seen as a failure in effectively solving problems.
  • Liu regularly comments that school choice has value, but believes the deck is stacked in favor of the charter schools because these schools enroll fewer English language learners and children with special needs.  He would stop the co-locations of charters in public schools.
  • De Blasio views student performance as an important aspect of teacher evaluations but notes there has been a corrosive effect on teacher morale due to standardized testing and a curriculum based on test preparation.
  • Thompson has characterized public education under Bloomberg as a system where “parents feel shut out, teachers feel demonized,” and “too many classrooms have been turned into test-prep centers.”

So if education is important to New Yorkers and their children:  whom should we support and vote for in the mayoral primaries?

The Republican candidates will likely continue Bloomberg policies.  Choosing among the four major Democratic candidates requires a more careful analysis.  The UFT has endorsed Thompson and he might have the strongest education credentials of all the mayoral candidates, having served on the New York City Board of Education in the 1990s.  Liu has done his homework and clearly understands what public education could and should become.  De Blasio has delved deeply into education issues.  His knowledge and political style enables him to move public education debate forward in a new direction.  Christine Quinn has said a lot of the right things but has for the most part been for the status quo, by supporting many, if not most of Bloomberg’s policies.

My position is that Thompson, Liu, or de Blasio would be good for public education in New York City.   Liu, however, has a nagging campaign-finance issue that is not going away and will become more of a political problem in a general election, leaving Thompson or de Blasio who both have put forward policies that emphasize teaching, learning and more community and parental involvement in public education.  Either of these candidates would move New York City public education in a new and right direction.




  1. Indeed, Bloomberg has made little advances in the education of our city’s youth. It has been disheartening to watch testing, which was already an over-sized focus in schools, grow even more prominent in the everyday life of classrooms.

    What the education system needs is more money, better teacher training programs, and smaller class sizes. Yet as pressure mounts, funding is shrinking, teacher ed programs are increasingly scripted, and many fast-tracked, and class sizes are growing.

    I have little faith that any politician will transform NYC public education for our children. We need to begin to organize ourselves, clarify our demands for education, and work together to protect and nurture our schools.

  2. Bloombergism has indeed been a boon to the city in many ways, but we shouldn’t place value in merely getting things done if those things ignore and run counter to the needs, thoughts, and desires of NYC communities. Ruling by fiat over the past 12 years has improved health consciousness and outcomes, setup a vastly superior infrastructure for bicycling, and promoted business interests integral to the city economy. But this approach to governance has also marginalized too many communities and made them voiceless in the halls of power, especially in the realm of education, where corporate reform has become the norm. Tony is right to point out that mayoral control has meant smoother sailing for the management of a behemoth school system, but even more on point when he recognizes the misguided and troubling direction of the ship itself.

    The hallmarks of the education reform movement–expansion of charter schools, increased testing with ever higher stakes attached, and a corporate philosophy of school management–should give any parent, student, teacher, or concerned citizen cause for alarm. These trends have either directly or indirectly had the effect of vilifying teachers and their unions, alienating key stakeholders, and perpetuating the notion that the best candidates to improve and manage schools must come from outside the field of education. And yet, the portrait of education reform that dominates the mass media equates charters with improvement, mistakes testing for standards and accountability, and blames teachers and schools for many problems that are in fact rooted in longstanding inequities and inequality. Even the left-leaning New York Times editorial board applauds the mayor’s education reform as if it were an unproblematic panacea.

    Luckily, New Yorkers find themselves in a prime position to elect a candidate for mayor who will slow the rolls on some of these reforms and take the time to listen to communities and key stakeholders who have been ignored and/or silenced. Like Tony, I have the most faith in Bill de Blasio and William Thompson to carry out this agenda. That said, I believe that de Blasio, above all, will reorient NYC schools around teaching and learning. He is the only candidate who has explicitly promised to slow charter growth. He also understands the importance of a well-rounded curriculum and the profound effect that communities have on the schools in which they’re situated. What’s more, de Blasio integrates his education agenda into a more comprehensive framework for redressing inequities and addressing the glaring inequality that has increased during Blomberg’s tenure. To fulfill his objectives, de Blasio has proposed the most far-reaching idea: universal prekindergarten made available to all 4 year olds. Such a targeted investment builds on a host of research (spanning neuroscience, economics, and sociology) which demonstrates that the best way to improve education and life outcomes is to provide quality early childhood education. Some critics have declared this idea pie-in-sky, dismissing the possibility of raising taxes in our current political climate. I applaud such big thinking.

  3. If we are to improve teaching and learning in NYC, we need a mayor who will partner with and support teachers, parents, and students in this endeavor. Bloomberg was big on leaving a legacy in NYC and hoped to prove his greatness as a leader while blaming teachers and principals for a lack of progress on the increasing challenges they face (in part due to the steamroll-out of the Common Core) on an ever decreasing budget.

    It’s refreshing to hear candidates realizing the truth – educators go into this profession because we want to help students learn, grow, and succeed, and we work hard everyday to achieve those ideals. We need a mayor who will commit to listening to the experts on these issues: teachers, principals, and educational researchers rather than business people who think they know more about our profession than we do.

    Bill DeBlasio seems to have a comprehensive vision about supporting teaching and learning: universal Pre-K, after school programs, partnering with parents to help their children succeed, reducing class size, and retaining teachers, among other issues. What is equally important is what he is not in support of and that is closing schools and opening charter schools to replace them. Additionally, DeBlasio has committed to increase city funding for CUNY. Our city’s public higher education is critical for access and equity to post-secondary education for our NYC public school high school graduates.