Sen. Flanagan, right, celebrates with the governor (Governor's Office via flickr)
Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan has made it no secret that he lacks confidence in Mayor Bill de Blasio's handling of the New York City schools. Made clear when the state recently extended de Blasio's control of city schools for just one year, on Monday in a New York Post op-ed Flanagan sent another shot across de Blasio's bow.
Seizing on The Post's reporting about grade fixing in city schools, Flanagan reminded de Blasio that he not only expects the mayor to make himself available for hearings, but wants to see major improvements in the education system before he considers renewing mayoral control again next year.
"There are still unanswered questions about de Blasio's plan to fix New York City's 91 failing schools and the city's commitment — both financial and otherwise — to the students who attend those schools," wrote Flanagan. "Before we move forward, the mayor and chancellor must agree to hearings so we can examine this grade-fixing scandal and mayoral control...[R]eal reforms must be enacted before mayoral control can be extended any further."
Flanagan, a Republican from Long Island and former chair of the Senate education committee, published his column in the middle of an escalating feud between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and de Blasio and months before the start of next Albany legislative session, which is sure to be dominated by political posturing in preparation for the 2016 elections when the entire legislature will be on the ballot.
Last year, rather than renewing mayoral control for multiple years as it had under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Senate Republicans teamed with Cuomo to limit the extension to just one year. Though Cuomo and de Blasio are both Democrats, they have differing philosophies on education, with Cuomo supporting the so-called education reform movement and supporting the expansion of charter schools.
Both Flanagan and Cuomo have indicated they want to see significant improvements from city schools under de Blasio. "Next year we can come back, and if he does a good job, then we can say he should have more control," Cuomo said of de Blasio and mayoral control of schools at a press conference in July. The Cuomo administration did not return requests for comment for this story.
The posturing by Cuomo, Flanagan, and others begs questions: How much improvement can possibly be seen in one year? And exactly what kind of data points would demonstrate it?
When asked what would constitute significant improvements for Flanagan, spokesman Scott Reif, of the Senate's Republican Majority, referred Gotham Gazette back to the op-ed. Reif also said he expected the Senate's education committee to get deeper into the details in the next session.
Reif stressed that de Blasio must make himself and city education chancellor Carmen Farina available for hearings. Flanagan wrote in his op-ed that de Blasio only agreed to make Farina available for an hour last year. Leading up to the one-year extension, the de Blasio administration said that Flanagan failed to return the mayor's calls and was combative.
De Blasio administration officials stress that they think mayoral control should be judged over the long haul as a governmental system, not on incremental progress over a short period of time made by one mayor or the other. Administration officials say Flanagan's office has not communicated any specific concerns they want addressed, or benchmarks they want hit.
Senate Republicans did propose a host of changes to the system in bills last year, including one that would have given the legislature the ability to approve the city DOE budget. That measure is totally unacceptable to the de Blasio administration and did not fly with Assembly Democrats, who are more aligned with the mayor.
The administration clearly views Flanagan's position on mayoral control as designed to hurt the mayor rather than to boost the city's educational system. They point to a week's worth of New York Post articles attacking the DOE and Flanagan's op-ed as a strategy designed to blunt the good news contained in the test scores revealed this week.
On Wednesday, de Blasio and Farina announced that the city's students in grades 3-8 have made improvement on Common Core-aligned English and math tests. In touting mostly across-the-board gains, they also noted that 41 of the city's 63 struggling "Renewal Schools" saw an increase in their English scores and 36 saw an increase in math. These schools, identified by the state as the most unsuccessful, will likely be at the center of what de Blasio must answer for when he faces state lawmakers next year.
De Blasio said Wednesday that the city's test scores beat out increases seen in the state's other "Big 5" urban school districts and stressed that the city is closing its performance gap with schools across the state in general. "We now have the smallest-ever gap between New York City's scores and the rest of the state's scores," said de Blasio. "It's less than a one percentage point difference, and we intend to close that gap. This is an indication of how quickly things are changing in our schools."
An administration press release on the scores said that they demonstrate "the effectiveness" of the "Mayoral Control system and strategies to raise achievement."
Still, de Blasio downplayed the importance of "high-stakes testing" during the press conference, stressing instead the need to make sure children receive a practical education. "Our schools must deliver real preparation for the real world," he said. "Education determines economic destiny." De Blasio is likely to make his community schools push, whereby schools become hubs that provide social and medical services, central to his case for renewing mayoral control.
Jasmine Gripper of the Alliance for Quality Education, a union-supported group with close ties to the mayor, said that test scores shouldn't be used as a measuring stick on de Blasio's success with mayoral control. "The data points shouldn't be test scores but parent engagement, the amount of [student] suspensions, and the improvements made at struggling schools."
Gripper said AQE is paying attention to whether community schools are looking after the overall wellbeing of their students, examining the plans they submit to make sure students are getting eye exams and have access to guidance counselors and psychiatrists. "One year is just not enough time to see significant gains," said Gripper. "Three to four years would be more like it."
But de Blasio doesn't have three or four years. Instead, he faces the potential political embarrassment of having mayoral control stripped away by his enemies, which could leave him extremely vulnerable during the next mayoral election, in 2017. That's why many Democrats and education advocates see the one-year extension as a political move that serves both as retribution for de Blasio's attempts to win the state Senate for Democrats in 2014 and to prevent him from getting openly involved in the 2016 legislative elections.
Flanagan and Cuomo also both appear to be interested in quieting de Blasio's criticism of charter schools. "The grade-fixing scandal, along with the earlier attacks on charter schools, show exactly why we took such a cautious approach to mayoral control," Flanagan wrote in the Post.
But mayoral control isn't as simple as one side against the other. Many Democrats in both the Assembly and Senate, who rallied to de Blasio's side last year to support a minimum three-year extension of mayoral control, do harbor major concerns about the system. Some of them are concerned about creating more checks and balances on the city Department of Education's spending, while others want to increase parental involvement while weakening the mayor's ability to make appointments to the Panel for Educational Policy.
Sen. Diane Savino, of the Independent Democratic Conference, said she felt one year to show improvement in mayoral control is "reasonable."
"It shouldn't be that hard," said Savino. "Since the inception of mayoral control we've had a host of issues raised every year by just about all the major Democrats, including the mayor himself. Just pick some of them and get to work."
Savino, who said she hadn't read Flanagan's op-ed, said she wants de Blasio to get to work dealing with the grade-fixing scandal that sparked Flanagan's column. "What is a diploma worth when no employers take it seriously?" asked Savino. "We need to take action quickly against anyone who is rigging grades and we need to figure out what we are doing that leaves students without enough credits to graduate."
The mayor and his schools chancellor responded to new grade-fixing allegations by creating a new task force within the DOE to investigate and uphold academic integrity. Supporters of de Blasio note that credit-recovery problems have been at play in city schools for years, if not decades, and that there are a relatively small number of students involved. Regardless, anything happening with city education is de Blasio's responsibility now. And the mayor has repeatedly argued that mayoral control makes clear that he is ultimately accountable for the city's schools, and that voters will hold him so come 2017.
Savino and Flanagan both point to the fact that 77 percent of city high school students entering CUNY need remedial math or English. Savino said she'd like to bring CUNY officials to hearings on mayoral control to get their take on what kind of education city students are getting. "Test scores are just a piece of this," Savino told Gotham Gazette. "We need to involve CUNY because they are the best judge at whether we are providing our students with a sound education that holds up once send them out into the world."
During Wednesday's press conference de Blasio was asked whether he felt pressure to accelerate improvements given that he will have to go back and face the legislature to win renewal in less than a year. The mayor responded that "since day one" he felt the pressure to improve the city's schools regardless of Albany.
"So, no," de Blasio said. "The pressure I feel as the person accountable for our schools is to make sure our kids are getting what they need, and I'm accountable to their parents. That's my focus."
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette