Bill de Blasio ran for New York City mayor promising a return to liberal greatness. This unapologetic defender of Nicaraguan Communists would rid the city of the dark night of the Giuliani and Bloomberg regimes and their economic growth, education reform, and lower crime rates. With a little effort, New York City could be Managua on the Hudson. Progressives across the country swooned and praised de Blasio for offering a blueprint for liberal success. It was morning in New York City again. But something happened on the road to progressive paradise.
Just weeks after he was sworn in by Bill Clinton, who had praised him for attacking the scourge of inequality, de Blasio’s ambitions were in retreat. He mismanaged the city’s response to two blizzards, appointed Giuliani’s police chief, Bill Bratton, saw his approval ratings fall below 40 percent, and was booed on opening day by fans of the New York Mets. Most important, he found himself getting schooled on education.
During his campaign de Blasio had repeatedly promised to radically curtail the city’s support for charter schools. New charter schools in a de Blasio regime would not be able to share space with traditional public schools and those that already did would have to begin paying rent. Because charter schools receive no capital funds from the state, de Blasio’s proposals would have had the effect of putting many charters out of business and deterring new ones from starting. These promises were delightful tunes to the ears of one of his most important constituencies, the teachers’ unions. Charter schools and their liberation from many of the rules binding regular public schools, including teacher tenure, had long earned the ire of the unions. Distressingly for them, New York had witnessed explosive growth in charter schools, with over 180 operating in 2013 and over 53,000 students on waiting lists just hoping to secure a lottery ticket to a better education.
De Blasio claimed that these charter schools undermined the quality of education for students at traditional public schools and stole resources from them. Unfortunately for him, the facts were not on his side. Many studies have shown that charter schools do not harm traditional public schools. And research by Marcus Winters of the Manhattan Institute showed that when traditional New York City schools lost students to charter schools, the academic performance of their remaining students improved. More damaging was a report released by New York City’s Independent Budget Office (IBO) just as de Blasio assumed power. That report found that students who stayed in the same school, regardless of what type, did better academically than students who transferred, but charter schools did a better job of retaining their students.
In our fallen political world, though, having the facts on your side is rarely enough. It was the politics that proved devastating for de Blasio. His landslide victory, with 73 percent of the vote, seemed to offer a mandate to implement his sweeping agenda. Despite this mandate, his first move on charters appeared cautious. In February he blocked the expansion of three charter schools that were scheduled to open new programs in public-school buildings in the fall. But he left the expansion of dozens more untouched, and even that small move proved to be a massive miscalculation.
Two of the three schools he attacked were part of Success Academy, a network of schools run by Eva Moskowitz, a former city-council member and longtime charter-school advocate. De Blasio had singled out Moskowitz on the campaign trail with particular vitriol. “There’s no way in hell,” he said, “that Eva Moskowitz should get free rent,” and “she has to stop being tolerated, enabled, supported.” Such language is normally reserved for sociopaths and drug addicts. But in this case Moskowitz’s only crime was to have run schools that put their traditional counterparts to shame. That kind of cheeky impertinence would not be tolerated.
One of the expansions de Blasio blocked was a Success Academy middle school in Harlem that wanted to increase its enrollment by 194 students, all of whom were low-income minorities attending a Success Academy elementary school. On the recent state assessment tests, 80 percent of the elementary school’s students passed the math test and 59 percent passed the English test. At the traditional middle school that most of the students would be forced to attend if they couldn’t enroll in the Success Academy middle school, just 5 percent of students passed the math test and 11 percent the English test.
All of this made for what the professionals call “bad optics.” Moskowitz and pro-charter forces immediately went on the offensive, spending over $5 million on advertising to skewer de Blasio. The “Save the 194” ads featured the students and their teary-eyed parents expressing dismay that the mayor would deny their children the opportunity for a better education. The ads were followed with a massive rally in Albany. The rout was obviously on when Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo showed up at the rally to let the protesters know they had his support: “You are not alone! We will save charter schools!”
While Cuomo had been considered sympathetic to education reform, he must also have been delighted at the political opening de Blasio’s crude hostility created. The parents of nearly 70,000 students enrolled in charter schools and another 53,000 on waiting lists in New York City alone represent a large and growing number of voters. And the leaders of the charter-school movement had cultivated powerful and wealthy Wall Street allies that Cuomo, with a reelection campaign coming up, was happy to accommodate. Some of Cuomo’s most important campaign donors were, in fact, longtime charter-school supporters who also funded Moskowitz’s ad blitz. And they belonged to the class of Wall Street financiers that de Blasio had savaged on the campaign trail.
After the rally, the only remaining question was how badly de Blasio was going to lose. Very badly, it turned out. By late March, he had to make penitent remarks in a speech at Riverside Church. The children shut out by his decision would in fact have space next fall at Success Academy, he said. He even felt compelled to say that “those children matter to me.” When a politician finds himself reassuring his constituents that he cares for children, you know he has made a wrong turn somewhere. Further, de Blasio said he was not really opposed to charter schools, never mind the unhinged campaign rhetoric. Instead, he said, “The idea is to create a fullness, a totality, a completeness in which our charter schools help to uplift our traditional public schools.” He also had to try to mollify supporters of charter schools on Wall Street who must have relished using their money to punish him for his antagonism toward suffering children. Since he had run against such plutocrats during his campaign, de Blasio’s humiliation was complete.
The coup de grâce came at the end of March, when Governor Cuomo signed a budget bill he had shepherded through the legislature with Republican support. The bill not only increased spending for charter schools but guaranteed free space or rent money for new and expanding charter schools. De Blasio’s only, and barely moral, victory was increased funding for pre-kindergarten programs.
Supporters of educational choice are justified in taking a moment to savor de Blasio’s lost war on charters . . .
Now that we have done that, it is worth reflecting on the larger significance of his defeat. The obvious takeaway is that charter schools are here to stay. They have become too widespread and embedded in educational practice to be stopped. At most, their growth can be slowed, but only at great political peril. Their supporters have created broad, influential, and politically savvy coalitions. Teachers’ unions can complain all they want, but if they cannot win in New York, they are going to have difficulty winning anywhere. And de Blasio’s humiliation will make it hard for the unions to convince others to attack charters. The message will be: If you don’t like charters, you don’t like children. Who wants those optics?
De Blasio’s defeat also shows that durable reform of bloated and unresponsive educational bureaucracies is possible. Certainly more needs to be done to fix New York City’s schools, but few observers thought at the time that the changes brought about by Mayor Bloomberg and his long-serving schools chancellor, Joel Klein, were possible, much less sustainable. Today, because of the reforms signed by Cuomo, charter schools have more protection and are easier to start in New York City than in almost any other city in the country. During last year’s mayoral campaign, charter-school supporters were in a panic over a possible de Blasio victory. Little did they know that they could not have asked for a better friend. Thanks, Bill!
– Mr. Dunn is an associate professor of political science at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs.