Politics & Policy

A Vote for Schools

Tomorrow’s New York mayoral election will be crucial for education.

On Tuesday, New Yorkers will head to the polls to elect Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s replacement. Barring a Miracle on Ice–type turn of events, Democrat Bill de Blasio — who has led Republican Joe Lhota by as much as 45 percentage points — is expected to take the helm.

This will be no small change: Bloomberg has been in office for the past twelve years. But beyond just a new face and a new political party, a de Blasio mayoralty would have very real policy implications. This is most apparent in education, where de Blasio’s public comments and campaign platform place him diametrically opposite to Bloomberg.

Since taking office, and especially during Joel Klein’s tenure as New York City schools chancellor from 2002 through 2010, Bloomberg made revamping the Big Apple’s school system a hallmark of his agenda. Among his more noteworthy efforts were implementing an A-through-F report card to grade school performance, shuttering over 160 schools deemed failing, and expanding charter schools. These hard-charging reforms have attracted widespread attention, including praise from President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and criticism from union leaders, including American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten.

In stark contrast, de Blasio has openly declared that he will eliminate letter grades for schools in his first year of office and will convene a panel of “educators, experts, and parents” to determine if progress reports are the right way to evaluate schools. Calling Bloomberg’s school closures “an excuse to not address ways to help struggling schools,” de Blasio instead plans to create a new Office of Strategic Support to intervene in underperforming schools instead of closing them. And, of particular import during the last few weeks of the campaign, de Blasio has advocated making charter schools pay rent to use city buildings and putting a moratorium on co-location, in which multiple schools are housed in the same building.

De Blasio’s views appear to be catching on. In a recent Siena College/New York Times poll, almost 60 percent of those surveyed said his policies would improve public education. Only a quarter of respondents said the same about Lhota’s platform, which doubles down on the Bloomberg plan.

And yet it’s worth asking if the rhetoric meshes with the facts, and trying to imagine what a de Blasio mayoralty would mean for New York City schools. Nowhere is this better seen than with the issues of charter schooling and co-location. Based on the hysteria stemming from charter-school critics, you’d be forgiven for thinking that charter schools are the primary culprit in gobbling up precious city resources from traditional public schools. In fact, according to the New York City Charter Center, over 900 public schools — 58 percent of the entire system — are co-located. Only 8 percent of these are charter schools. It’s quite simply the inevitable solution in a city with limited physical space.

Charging public charter schools rent and ending co-location is likely to have a chilling effect on the growth of charter schools across New York City. While their vociferous critics might applaud, New York parents shouldn’t, because the city has cultivated an excellent charter-school segment.

A 2013 study by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Educational Options (CREDO) found that 63 percent of New York City charter schools show larger growth in math than their district-school counterpart. The study also found that across New York City, a typical charter-school student gains five more months of learning in math, and one more month of learning in reading, than students in traditional district schools. The city is home to such leading operators as the Success Academies, the KIPP schools, and Democracy Prep. Success Academies, in particular, posted superb scores on the most recent — and significantly more challenging than before — New York State assessments: 82 percent of students in math and 58 percent in English were rated proficient, compared with 30 percent of students in math and 26 percent in English in traditional district schools. Such results should be praised, not discouraged.

New York City, of course, is also home to some bad charter schools. It is home to some bad district schools, too, despite gains under Bloomberg. But the good news is that the current model has a way to grade and then close underperforming schools in both categories.

And isn’t that the best solution of all? Allow students more options to attend high-quality schools, including charter schools; treat good charter schools equally with traditional district schools in terms of facility use; and shut down underperforming schools. Bloomberg’s system isn’t perfect, but it has made important steps. Bill de Blasio would do well to take note: If he follows up on his current rhetoric, he risks taking New York’s schools a giant step back.

— Daniel Lautzenheiser is the education-policy program manager at the American Enterprise Institute.


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