De Blasio vs. Everyone Else

New York’s mayor takes on charter schools, and the national education debate hangs in the balance.

Bill de Blasio
New York City’s first lady Chirlane McCray and Mayor Bill de Blasio laugh during a roundtable discussion with parent bloggers in the Blue Room of City Hall on March 7, 2014.

Photo by Susan Watt/Pool/Getty Images

While running for New York City mayor, Bill de Blasio could count on applause for attacking unpopular charter school co-locations, where charters that need space are squeezed into public school buildings alongside other schools. Instead of extolling the promise of the charters, de Blasio provided a spine-stiffening defense of the “common” school, and his base ate it up: The unions loved it, parents whose kids were not in charters loved it, and many of de Blasio’s fellow Park Slope progressives loved it. De Blasio went on to win more than 73 percent of the vote and was sworn into office with a mandate to lead.

So the new mayor must be feeling whiplash after the outcry that met him as he began to carry out a popular campaign pledge: slow down the charter co-locations and shift more money to traditional public schools. That the charter community opposed the mayor wasn’t a surprise. It was their political strength, organization, and popularity that caught de Blasio off guard.

From the rhetoric, you’d think de Blasio had personally bounced kids out of charter schools across all five boroughs. In fact, in his first executive action on the issue, he blocked only three expansions, but in the process managed to anger charter supporters with his tactics and allowed centrist Democrats such as Gov. Andrew Cuomo to score points by portraying him as an ideologue. De Blasio also finds himself in a pretty lonely situation: By going after the charters, he is attacking one of the most promising urban school reform strategies available to Democratic mayors across the country these days, and he’s doing it without offering a clear alternative.

De Blasio’s not completely on his own. He’s part of the national “pushback” movement against school reform, which saw the progressive mayor’s election as validation of its views. Charter schools are a high-profile target of these anti-reform activists, but they are also fighting against standardized testing, the new Common Core standards, teacher evaluations based on student outcomes, and reforms to teacher tenure and pay. In other words, most of the popular ideas to improve schools today. Overall, the pushback movement is still more noise than signal, but in de Blasio it has found a high profile elected official who embraces its cause and takes its advice. However, if he can’t wring real academic gains out of the traditional public schools he’s favoring, he’ll deal it a high-profile setback. Unfortunately for the movement so far, de Blasio is proving to have two political left feet.

The mayor’s first misstep was going after one specific charter network, Success Academy, run by Eva Moskowitz, a former city council member who has clashed with de Blasio in years past over city education policies. He singled out Moskowitz on the campaign trail with harsh personal rhetoric. “There’s no way in hell that Eva Moskowitz should get free rent” was a favorite line.  At a teachers union event last spring he went even further, saying it’s “time for Eva Moskowitz to stop having the run of the place. She has to stop being tolerated, enabled, supported. I have seen her schools have a destructive impact on the schools they’re going into.”

De Blasio and his schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, developed a four-point evaluation system for deciding which charter seats to block. It sounded sensible but had a serious flaw: It put only Success Academy schools in the crosshairs, and the criteria were not about school quality.

The fallout from that misstep was immediate. Among the 870 Success Academy seats blocked was a modest 194-student expansion for Success Academy students in Harlem to move into a new middle school. That triggered days of searing press coverage pointing out that those 194 students, all low-income minorities, were coming from a school, Success Academy 4, that killed it on the new state test scores, with 80 percent of the students passing the math test, and 59 percent the English test. The co-located middle school the mayor is protecting and where many of those 194 charter students would end up: P.S. 149, where 5 percent of students passed the math test, and 11 percent the English test.

Wasn’t de Blasio supposed to be the champion of improving education for have-not children, his critics asked? 

In Albany, Cuomo was more than ready to grab the low-hanging political fruit left by the mayor and position himself as the foremost elected education reformer in the state while bolstering his national credentials. Cuomo’s instincts are generally reformist—he’s also a smart enough politician to know that what gets applause in Park Slope can be political kryptonite in the rest of the country. He made a boisterous appearance before a Moskowitz pro-charter rally in Albany to tell charter parents he has their back.

The rally drowned out the mayor’s efforts to get Albany to focus on preschool expansion and, with his approval ratings tumbling into the 30s after just a few weeks on the job, de Blasio effectively cried uncle late last week. His schools chancellor Fariña flip-flopped on the co-location decision, saying she would find seats for the 194-student expansion elsewhere so that the school could operate. Still, neither Fariña nor de Blasio have given any hint that they understand the bigger problem they are facing: What do they have up their sleeves to help schools like P.S. 149?

De Blasio appears to be ruling out strategies used by fellow Democratic mayors. For example, consider the four prominent mayors now on a tour to talk about education innovation: Mayor Julian Castro of San Antonio, a rising Democratic star and the keynote speaker at the 2012 Democratic National Convention; Kevin Johnson of Sacramento, Calif., the upcoming president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors; Denver Mayor Michael Hancock; and Providence, R.I., Mayor Angel Taveras. All support cooperation with charter schools and ideas at odds with de Blasio’s.

In Denver, Hancock endorsed the “reformers” at recent school board elections, all of whom won. Denver is closing low-performing schools and doubling the number of charter schools. “What charters give,” Hancock told us in an interview “is a capability to be more nimble. They bring in best practices and challenge traditional school thinking.” Denver schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg, who draws strong support from Hancock, entered into a compact with local high-performing charters: We will give you space if you take a fair share of special-education students, agree to a common application process, and, most importantly, act as collaborators when you get space in our buildings.

Creativity like this makes Denver a darling of education analysts, but politicians get it, too. Another fan of Denver-style solutions is Sacramento’s Johnson, who is closely watching New York developments. “New York is the home of some [of] the best charter schools in the nation” he says, referring to the various studies that show New York’s charters are stronger collectively than charter schools in many other states. Winning an election on a platform of income inequality, as de Blasio did, should be an ideal jumping-off point for pursuing greater equity in education, Johnson says. That includes great preschools, as advocated by de Blasio, but goes far beyond, Johnson told us.

“Mayors have to support any schools serving poor and minority students well. There aren’t enough of those schools. We need more.” And charter schools, said Johnson, have to be in the mix. “Mayors around the country, no matter how centrist or progressive, get that charters have become one of several good options for parents to choose from, if they are performing well.”

Not all mayors. De Blasio says nothing about compacts and collaboration. On the contrary, he wants to cap building-sharing and slow the expansion of charters while at the same time has not articulated how doing so will improve the situation at schools like P.S. 149. About the only school improvement initiative de Blasio and his chancellor have unveiled is a vow to talk nicer to teachers and principals. But a “tone shift” won’t turn around P.S. 149.

For now, about all de Blasio is turning around are his opponents’ political fortunes. Just a few months ago Moskowitz couldn’t buy good publicity and even leaders in the charter community privately griped about her. Now, after she stood up to de Blasio, some New York political observers are already talking about her as a viable mayoral candidate in the next election. Cuomo, meanwhile, was viewed skeptically by many in the education reform community. Now he’s beloved for siding so strongly with the charter parents against the mayor.

Besides making new political foes, de Blasio is exposing the growing rift over education policy among Democrats. The party’s progressive wing views government ownership and control as the touchstones of common education. Schools are considered public if they’re run by school districts (ideally with unionized teachers) and private if they’re not, even if they’re operated by idealistic nonprofits. Democratic centrists by contrast worry more about whether schools are public in their mission, operations, and goals, but they believe common public schools can be run by nonprofits or groups of teachers just as well as by school districts. Progressives see teacher evaluations as a backdoor way to rid the system of expensive veteran teachers. Centrists see effective teacher evaluations as key in a labor-intensive field like education. Progressives see standardized testing as a strategy to discredit public schools. Centrists see accountability as necessary in improving them.

These are not academic debates. At stake is what comes next after two decades of progress improving American schools. Neither faction in the education dispute has an interest in peddling good news so you don’t often hear about it in the toxic back and forth of education politics, but schools are doing better now with a more diverse group of students than they ever have. Scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress—a no-stakes test given to students across the country—continue to rise, especially for disadvantaged students. High-school graduation rates are higher than they’ve ever been. Plenty more remains to be done, especially in urban and rural communities, but the progress is real and stems from bipartisan ideas and education reforms in states and from Washington. The debate now is over what to do for the next generation of education reform.

Most American parents know nothing at all about Bill de Blasio, but they should. New York has an outsized importance in the education world. “What does or doesn’t happen in New York reverberates throughout the country,” Sacramento’s Johnson told us. The charter fight is a test case for both sides—can progressives push the charters back or are the reformers too strong now? That question explains why so much energy was invested by both sides in a battle over a handful of schools.

If de Blasio can figure out how to regain momentum and harness progressive support to improve schools in New York City—taking the rough edges off of Mayor Bloomberg–era policies and hewing a different path from reformist Democratic mayors—that would change the terms of the national education debate. If de Blasio can’t produce political and educational results, he will deal a devastating blow to the national anti-reform movement. That’s why so much is riding on who comes out on top.