Four years ago, candidates running for mayor saw an ailing public school system riddled with politics and failing most of its 1.1 million students. Many New Yorkers believed outgoing Mayor Rudolph Giuliani had done little for the city’s schools other than browbeat them. While some aspects of life in the city had improved in the previous decade, the schools had not. In fact, many parents believed public education had gotten worse.
In 2005, no one â€“ not even his harshest critics â€“ can say that Mayor Michael Bloomberg has ignored education. He made gaining control of the system one of his top priorities -- and accomplished the feat. Since then, he has remained active in school issues, selecting the chancellor, eliminating the Board of Education and community school boards, moving education headquarters across from City Hall, instituting policies to end so-called social promotion, and so on.
All of the major Democratic candidates, as well as Conservative Thomas Ognibene, praise the mayor for taking on education and trying to improve city schools. But they fault him on the effects of his reforms and question whether the changes have improved what takes place in tens of thousands of classrooms across the city every day. Among themselves, the Democrats differ largely in emphasis. While they all, for example, want smaller classes (so, the mayor claims, does he) Gifford Miller makes it his number one priority while C. Virginia Fields includes it as part of a larger package of changes that also include such items as improving vocational education.
The biggest difference among the candidates comes over funding for the system. All of the Democrats support the court’s ruling in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit which ordered that city schools receive billions of dollars more a year to provide students with a “sound basic education.” But they disagree over how much of this money â€“ if any â€“ should come from the city and how the city should pay for that share.
ASSESSING THE BLOOMBERG CHANGES
Success in education can be difficult to measure, particularly over the short term. When he won control of the city’s schools, Bloomberg reportedly said, “"If reading and math scores aren't significantly better, I will look in the mirror and say I've failed. And I've never failed at anything in my life."
Most test scores are up , but the mayor’s rivals argue the increase may not result from the mayor’s changes and that, in any event, tests scores may not accurately reflect what goes on in the schools. Eva Moskowitz, chair of the City Council Education Committee and a Miller ally, held hearings in June where experts questioned the reasons for the increase in test scores. They note that, while New York City had seen a sharp rise in scores on the fourth grade state-wide English test, scores had gone up even more sharply in Rochester, Syracuse and Yonkers â€“ school systems that had not had the benefit of Bloomberg’s leadership.
And others dispute how much weight one should give the scores. "The focus on test scores in the early grades and the rise in the test scores in the early grades is a very narrow measure," Ferrer said in unveiling Ferrer's education reform package last month. "The right measure for the success of our school system is how many kids who graduate on time have the tools they need to go on to higher education and get a steady job."
Miller still sees a litany of problems. “Attendance is down, teachers are leaving the system in droves, violence is an increasing problem in our schools, and parents feel more disconnected than ever,” Miller said this spring.
IN THE CLASSROOMS
More than any of the other Democrats, Miller has tried to carve out education as his issue. And Miller has focused largely on class size, calling for a 20 percent cut in the number of students in a class. This would mean, for example, a maximum of 17 children in all kindergarten through third grade classrooms in the city. "Every teacher, every parent and every principal can tell you that kids can't learn in classrooms that are bursting at the seams from overcrowding," Miller has said.
Miller has called for putting a proposal aimed at reducing class size on the November ballot. Bloomberg, though, will probably block the measure from going before voters this year. It could appear in 2006, though, by which time Miller will either be mayor or out of office entirely.
Ferrer would focus on reducing what he calls the “educational dropout crisis we have in New York City.” Ferrer's plan calls for a series of changes, starting at the pre-K level, because, he says, “children begin dropping out of high school when they start falling behind before school and in the early grades.”
So, like the other candidates, Ferrer would cut class size. He would also improve the system for tracking children’s progress as they go through the system, offer counseling and extra help for middle school students, provide all high school students with a laptop computer, and strengthen the high school curriculum in social studies, sciences and the arts. At one end, he would offer more challenging classes; at the other he would provide more math and literacy programs for struggling students.
Weiner, who frequently reminds listeners his mother was a long-time public-school teacher, has proposed a three-part program focusing on making schools safer; attracting and keeping good teachers; and spending money in the classroom, not at school headquarters in the Tweed courthouse. In going after spending on school bureaucracy and what he terms “political pet projects,” Weiner aims at two of Bloomberg and School Chancellor Joel Klein’s prized initiatives: the parent coordinators in every school and the “leadership academy” to train principals.
Fields has offered a plan dubbed SMART. The acronym covers smaller class sizes, massive interventions at the earlier levels, academic partnerships with universities, recruitment and retention for teachers, and technology and tutorial help.
All of the candidates call for reaching a new contract with teachers, something Bloomberg has failed to achieve in the two years since the previous accord expired. Weiner notes that teachers in New York receive far less money than their suburban counterparts, leading the Scarsdale school system to raid the city for teachers. Whatever the intrinsic merit of giving more money to teachers, the stand has a possible political payoff as well. The politically powerful United Federation of Teachers has not yet announced who it will back in the mayoral race, and all the candidates would undoubtedly like their support. This may explain Bloomberg’s apparent shift on the teacher’s contract. He has stopped publicly demanding sweeping changes in work rules, such as ending tenure, and instead says teachers will get a raise.
Lesser known candidates weigh in on education as well. Democrat Chris Brodeur’s 100 innovations for New York City only touch on education (there’s more about ending corruption, making more things free and requiring bathroom doors to open outward instead on in), but he does want to end bullying.
Minor party candidates chime in on some of the mainstream issues â€“ but include a position or two reflecting their affiliations. And so, along with smaller classes, Green Party candidate Theo Chino wants to “include ethics, nonviolence, and environmental conservation in school curricula.” Libertarian Audrey Silk calls for more discipline, increased vocational training and, as befits a Libertarian, more free-market style competition. “We do a great disservice to our children by removing competitive sports and competitive academics,” she says on her Web site.“Similarly, we do a great disservice to our children when we force them to solve problems and reach solutions â€by committee’ instead of teaching them self-reliance."
One candidate takes this a step further. Seth Blum, who teaches math at a public high school in Manhattan, has declared himself the candidate of the Education Party. Blum's platform would decrease the emphasis on tests, institute a curriculum written by city schoolteachers, and get money for education both through a surcharge on tickets to events held in new stadiums and a voluntary tax check-off for education. The group’s slogan trumpets, "The strongest democracy arises out of a most educated society.” For now, though, the party must grapple with New York democracy and get enough signatures to win a place on the ballot.
RUNNING THE SYSTEM
None of the Democratic candidates want to return to the days before mayoral control. But most charge the system has become too centralized and undemocratic.
“I hear the same complaint over and over again,” Fields says in a statement on education on her Web site. “No one at the Department of Education cares what we think and no one is listening.”
To change this, Fields said she would have an annual conference for parents and also pay more attention to the various education councils set up to replace the community school boards.
More than any other candidates, Ognibene focuses on the running of the system. He would cut the bureaucracy and give more power over budgets and some educational issues to individual principals. To ensure that this worked, all schools would be evaluated annually. But Ognibene would not surrender mayoral control. “If I were mayor, nobody would overrule me,” Ognibene said at an education forum. “That's the whole point of being mayor, isn't it?”
FUNDING THE SYSTEM
While the Campaign for Fiscal Equity ruling calls for an additional $14 billion for schools over the next four years, it does not dictate how much of the money should come from the state and how much from Albany. Bloomberg, though, has been adamant that the city will not pay a penny. Ferrer has staked out the opposite ground, saying the city will have no choice but to pay 20 to 25 percent of the $14 billion.
Weiner has criticized Ferrer on this, arguing that the former Bronx borough president could undermine the city’s negotiating position with the state. “Our position should be we don’t put in money because we’re the ones who have been victimized,” Weiner said at a forum ponsored by the Citizens Budget Commission. “Mr. Ferrer, you’re 100 percent wrong.”
“If you think zero is a sound negotiating strategy, that has gotten us exactly zero,” Ferrer said at the same forum. “And it will continue to get us zero.”
To fund the city’s share, Ferrer has proposed a small tax on stock transactions. While not committing himself to paying any set portion of the CFE settlement, Miller has proposed keeping the tax surcharge on people earning more than $500,000 a year. This, he says, would pay for smaller classes and would also put the city on the road to paying some of the money called for in the CFE ruling.
All the Democrats fault Bloomberg for not getting more state money for the schools â€“ for not stopping fellow Republican George Pataki from stonewalling on the CFE ruling by filing appeals and refusing to budget money for the settlement. “The same kind of passion, determination, tenacity we have seen this mayor use to fight for a stadium on the West Side of Manhattan is missing when it comes to fighting Albany for funds for our schools,” Field has said.
Given Pataki’s intransigence â€“ and Bloomberg’s apparent inability to shake it â€“ the crucial vote on education in New York may not come in the September primary or even on Election Day but on November 7, 2006, when New Yorkers select their next governor.