Mayor de Blasio at school (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)
When he first ran for Mayor, Bill de Blasio portrayed himself as a leader who would make a host of progressive changes in our schools. He promised to be a far different leader than Michael Bloomberg, who had expanded high-stakes testing, proceeded to grade teachers and schools primarily via test scores, closed dozens of public schools displacing thousands of students, and helped charter schools expand in their place.
Bloomberg and his schools chancellors had done all this by ignoring community opposition, and despite any tangible evidence that this was the right way to improve education, particularly for disadvantaged students. Though Bloomberg had promised during his campaign to lower New York City schools’ excessive class sizes, they increased sharply during his administration, and by the time he left office he said he would “double the class size” if he could, and that would be “a good deal for the students.”
De Blasio said he would do things differently: to listen to and be responsive to parent and community concerns, de-emphasize test scores, and focus on improving public schools rather than providing space and funding to help charter schools expand. Instead of closing schools, he pledged to increase equity and strengthen learning conditions, including by lowering class sizes.
And yet his record on each of these issues was decidedly mixed. He did attain his primary goal in education – to provide universal, publicly-funded pre-kindergarten to every four-year-old, but in a manner that could have been better achieved, as will be discussed later.
There were some bright spots in the de Blasio record, including the Community Schools initiative, begun in the fall of 2014, in which schools partnered with community-based organizations to provide after-school programs, mental health supports, and other resources. By 2018, more than 200 community schools had been established. An independent study found that in these schools, there were lower rates of chronic absenteeism, more students graduating on time, and in elementary and middle schools, higher math scores and fewer disciplinary referrals.
In the area of parent voice, de Blasio said he would allow parent-led Community Education Councils to cast advisory votes on school closures and charter school co-locations, and that their input would be formally discussed and considered by the Panel on Educational Policy before their votes on these proposals. This did not happen, and school closures and co-locations continued to occur, if not at the same pace as during the Bloomberg era. In fact, de Blasio closed 82 schools during his administration.
De Blasio also pledged to give his appointees on the Panel for Educational Policy two-year terms and would not fire them when they opposed his decisions, as Bloomberg had, and yet he did fire one of his appointees for not voting in lockstep on school closures and co-locations. And during his eight years in office, the PEP remained a largely rubber-stamp body, with his appointees almost never rejecting a spending proposal, contract, or school closure.
The rapid growth of charter schools continued at the same rate after his election, aided by the fact that he agreed to the charter cap being raised in 2017 in exchange for the renewal of his mayoral control over the public schools. He also helped charters recruit more students, by giving them access to student names and addresses via DOE’s mailing house, despite protests from parents that this violates their family’s privacy. New York City is the only district in the nation that voluntarily helps charters expand in this manner, while the sector’s rapid growth now means that the city spends more than $2.7 billion a year funding charters.
In addition, the Department of Education overspent on lease payments for 39 charter schools by $21 million in 2019, and despite a state law that requires that public schools receive matching funds for facility upgrades equal to the spending of their co-located charters, the city owed at least $15.5 million in matching funds to 127 public schools between 2014 and 2019.
Instead of the enhanced efficiency promised by the supporters of mayoral control, the effect has been the opposite: de Blasio micromanaged the DOE, and repeatedly delayed and reversed many critical decisions, including when and how schools would reopen during covid, so much so that this led to even more chaos and uncertain conditions for students and teachers, forced into overcrowded schools during a pandemic, without sufficient staffing or space for social distancing.
New York City schools remain among the most segregated in the nation, in part because of housing patterns but also because most middle and high schools rely on high-stakes exams and other data points to screen and sort students. When he ran for mayor, de Blasio said, “increasing diversity needs to be a strategic initiative by the DoE…I will make sure that all children, regardless of SES [socioeconomic status] & race/ethnicity have access to our city’s selective and specialized high schools.” The enrollment at these highly-selective high schools, based on a single high-stakes exam that has never been analyzed for either racial or gender bias, is primarily white and Asian, while Black and Latino students make up 63% of the overall city student population.
While state law controls admissions at three of the eight specialized high schools, the mayor controls the admissions at the five other schools, but de Blasio never moved to alter the process at them. In 2017, he appointed a School Diversity Advisory Group that made other proposals, including removing middle school admission screens and replacing gifted classes, admissions to which are based on a high-stakes exam given at age four, with a universal enrichment model. De Blasio rejected the panel’s most significant proposals and only decided to revamp the gifted program during the last few weeks of his eight years in office – making this decision so late it will be quite easy for the new mayor, Eric Adams, to reverse it, as he has said he will do.
De Blasio also promised to improve the transparency of the DOE, by producing fully detailed and itemized breakdowns of the education budget, and ensuring that Freedom of Information requests would be responded to promptly. Neither of these reforms occurred. Instead, the education department’s ever-expanding budget remains unacceptably murky, and the DOE often delays responses to FOIL requests for a year or more. When official documents are finally produced, they are too often nearly completely redacted.
The de Blasio administration barred advocates from attending agency oversight meetings held by the Office of Management and Budget, a practice allowed during the Bloomberg years, and closed meetings of School Leadership Teams to the public, the latter restriction overturned only when a retired teacher sued, along with Public Advocate Letitia James and Class Size Matters, and won in court.
During his initial campaign for mayor, de Blasio pledged to reduce class sizes significantly and if necessary, raise funding to do so, a critical reform as New York City class sizes are 10% to 30% larger than those in the rest of the state. During one of the debates, he said that "Nothing will help our schools more than reducing class sizes.”
Once he was elected, however, he reneged on this promise. Though the DOE told the State Education Department that they would lower class sizes in the program for struggling schools known as Renewal, most of these schools continued to have class sizes of 30 students or more. It was no wonder that this initiative was seen as unsuccessful and was terminated after five years at a cost of $773 million.
De Blasio said he would lower class sizes in a more systematic manner in all schools when New York City received the full, equitable state school funding due from the Campaign for Fiscal Equity decision. Yet when the State Legislature and Governor finally delivered these funds in last spring’s state budget, with a first-year payment of $530 million that is set to increase to $1.3 billion annually, de Blasio rejected the notion that he should use a major portion of these funds for smaller classes.
He spurned the City Council proposal to spend $250 million in this year’s budget on lowering class sizes, and instead agreed to only a small-scale “pilot” project costing $18 million in a limited number of elementary schools. Instead, the DOE chose to spend millions more on unreliable computerized tests and social-emotional screeners.
Subsequently, when the Council then pushed for a law that would limit class sizes by amending the administrative code to require more space per student, to protect health and safety as well as strengthen academic support, the de Blasio administration called the proposal “disruptive” and with the help of Council Speaker Corey Johnson blocked the measure from ever coming to a vote.
Even de Blasio’s most successful venture in education, expanding early childhood education to tens of thousands of more children each year, could have been better implemented. Instead of maximizing the use of neighborhood-based Community Based Organizations, the DOE siphoned off many students they customarily served, assigning them to new public school classes, which led to worse overcrowding in 352 elementary schools that enrolled about 236,000 students.
His administration’s preference to place pre-K students in overcrowded public schools made little sense, given two tools used to evaluate their quality: the Early Childhood Environmental Rating Scale—Revised (ECERS-R) and the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS). According to these tools, there was no significant difference in the quality of CBO and DOE-run pre-K classes, as judged by their CLASS ratings; while according to the ECERS rating system, pre-K programs run by CBOs displayed “stronger classroom and organizational quality than school-based programs.”
De Blasio also spent more than $1 billion building stand-alone DOE pre-K centers, some of which remain half empty, including one on the ground floor of a parking garage in Brooklyn that cost $6.5 million in renovation costs for annual classes of about 18 pre-K students.
De Blasio’s single-minded focus on expanding pre-K to the exclusion of so much else was unfortunate, especially given the mixed research on the benefits of pre-K alone. Researchers from Vanderbilt University followed a thousand randomly-selected, economically-disadvantaged pre-K students through third grade, comparing them to a control group who did not attend pre-K. Not only did students who missed pre-K catch up within a year or two, but the students who attended pre-K had actually fallen behind their peers on several measures of achievement by third grade.
Indeed, as the researchers wrote, “The idea that a year of pre-K can close the achievement gap for at-risk children is appealing to policymakers, school administrators, businessmen and law enforcement officials, but this kind of magical thinking doesn’t benefit children.” As one of them concluded, more “attention [is] needed to the quality of experiences children have and what happens to them in K-12." Indeed, if students are not provided with favorable classroom conditions as they move through school, all the gains they made in pre-K may melt away.
During the de Blasio administration, test scores have been flat or declining, as measured on the most reliable exams called the NAEPs, given every two years throughout the country in 4th and 8th grade in English and math. Though test scores cannot tell the full story, they are one of the few quantitative indicators we have to determine progress, and they tend to be more dependable when they are low-stakes, as are the NAEPs.
According to these national assessments, the gap between students of different economic and racial groups has actually widened. When student scores are disaggregated according to race, ethnicity, economic and special education status, no group made significant gains between 2013 and 2019 (the tests were not administered in 2021 due to covid). To the contrary, Hispanic students and students with disabilities showed a significant drop in fourth grade math scores over this period, and economically disadvantaged students suffered a significant drop in both fourth grade reading and math. Worse yet, Black students exhibited a significant decline in all four categories: fourth grade and eighth grade reading and math.
In the end, many of the promises made by Mayor de Blasio were left unfulfilled -- in education as well as other areas. If New York City students are going to receive the equitable and high-quality public schools they deserve, they will have to wait for another administration to deliver them.
Leonie Haimson is the Executive Director of Class Size Matters. On Twitter @leoniehaimson.