Education ‘Reformers’ Wage A Misdirected War On Mayor De Blasio

Jeff Bryant

In New York City, this school year opened with a historic event: Every child who wanted to start pre-kindergarten was given a seat.

As the New York Daily News reports, “Some 65,504 four-year-olds are now enrolled in full day pre-K.”

A more recent article from the same news outlet reports, “More than half of the four-year-old kids who live in city shelters have signed up for universal prekindergarten programs … a whopping 1,175 kids.”

The person most responsible for these incredibly good developments, virtually everyone agrees, is Mayor Bill De Blasio.

Among other positive new education initiatives de Blasio has launched this year is an effort to create community schools to support high-need neighborhoods with mental health services, vision testing, physical wellness, tutoring, job training and family counseling. And since the opening day of schools, de Blasio has also introduced an ambitious education plan for the city that goes beyond pre-K. As Chalkbeat New York reports, de Blasio called for bolstering reading instruction with new specialists in schools for students who struggle the most and new curriculum options in computer science, algebra, and advanced courses for college preparation.

Supporters of public schools have generally embraced these new efforts coming from the mayor. In an independent news outlet, public school activists Zakiyah Ansari, the advocacy director for the Alliance for Quality Education, says, “Reading specialists and Advanced Placement courses are pieces in the puzzle for what our students need and have been required to do without for far too long. Combine these with pre-K and community schools, and we can finally see a working vision for school reform taking shape under Mayor de Blasio’s leadership.”

But if you listen to advocates for “education reform,” de Blasio and his education plans are to be regarded with high suspicion, at best, or flat out rejected.

Who Hates De Blasio

The editorial board of The New York Times questioned de Blasio for not making school closings the centerpiece of his policy as former Mayor Michael Bloomberg did.

Writing at The New York Post, Campbell Brown – a former CNN news anchor who now runs a media outlet funded by the Walton Family Foundation and other wealthy corporate backers – chastises the mayor for not being “radical enough.” Calling his efforts to support struggling schools “confused and under-imagined,” Brown snidely remarks, “It may be naive to think that Bill de Blasio will ever become serious about education.”

“The central problem,” argues an editorial on the website operated by Brown’s organization, “is that these new policies are built on flawed foundations. The community school model as a way to improve student achievement is unproven.”

Really? There’s no proof students who are hungry, sick, emotionally traumatized, or who can’t see what’s written on the whiteboard are less apt to learn in the classroom? A recent review of the research, and just plain old common sense, finds that providing an array of academic and nonacademic supports in a coordinated fashion is an approach “solidly based in the literature on child and youth development, practitioner experience, and studies of education.” By the way, that research review, as a report from Education Week explains, was paid for by ex-mayor Michael Bloomberg, the city leader the editorial staff of Brown’s media operation pines for.

Charter school advocates have been especially vitriolic critics of De Blasio, accusing him of, according to one press outlet, “forcing minority students to attend ‘inferior’ schools.”

Regardless of what critics of de Blasio and his education plan say, this is not an argument “about the kids.” It’s about money.

Mad Scramble For Cash

For sure, de Blasio’s proposals demand new sources of funding.

The cost of de Blasio’s effort to enroll every four-year-old in the city into pre-K is $409 million this year. His community schools initiative is reported to cost the district $52 million. And his new ambitious plans announced this year carries a price tag of $186 million in new annual spending. According to a report in The New York Times, the initiatives for reading specialists will cost $75 million a year. More Advanced Placement classes carry a price tag of $51 million. Algebra for every eighth grader requires $19 million. “And $15 million was proposed to provide more than 16,000 students with dedicated counselors from sixth through 12th grade.”

Understand that de Blasio’s desire to ramp up funding for new education programs comes at a time when powerful forces who control state education policy in New York state are convinced public schools need to make do with less. As a recent article in The Nation explains, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo “has banked his gubernatorial legacy” on refusing to adequately fund his state’s public schools.

Reporter George Joseph traces Cuomo’s stubborn refusal to abide a court-ordered overhaul of the Empire State’s education finances to a “coalition” of extremely wealthy people – principally, only nine individuals – who back an organization, Families for Excellent Schools, and operate a Super PAC that has smashed almost all lobbying records in Albany, the state capital, and influenced elections with massive campaign donations.

Joseph finds that FES – combined with New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany, another powerful organization financed by the same individuals – now largely shapes education policy in the state, a policy that strongly opposes the legally required equitable funding of New York public schools.

“The state owes its schools a whopping $5.9 billion, according to a recent study” Joseph points out. “Yet somehow in this prolonged period of economic necessity, billionaire hedge-fund managers continue to enjoy lower tax rates than the bottom 20 percent of taxpayers.”

The state’s stingy attitude toward education funding flies in the face of recent research studies showing funding levels for education have real consequences for students. Even people who are politically conservative recognize this.

A recent analysis from Brookings, a conservative-leaning think tank, finds, “The latest research suggests that money does matter. Of course, it matters how and where it is spent and it needs to be combined with accountability for results. But the whole notion that we can reduce spending on education and do no harm or that new resources don’t have the potential to improve both the level and the distribution of student outcomes is just plain wrong.”

Another research study published in Education Next, a politically conservative education policy journal, finds “compelling evidence that money does matter, and that additional school resources can meaningfully improve long-run outcomes for students.”

The study looked at instances where increased spending induced by court ordered school finance reforms, the very thing Cuomo and his allies are resisting, and found that the increased spending had positive effects on educational attainment, especially for low-income children. Further, the positive effects of increased funding lasted into adulthood, producing higher average wages and lower poverty rates. The study concluded, “Improved access to school resources can profoundly shape the life outcomes of economically disadvantaged children and thereby reduce the intergenerational transmission of poverty.”

Nevertheless, the selfishness of powerful, rich people, who have outsized influence on New York education policy, has thrown school districts full of low-income kids, like New York City, into a mad scramble for a diminishing amount of cash.

When de Blasio announced his ambitious pre-K program, he wanted to pay for it by raising marginal tax rates on New York City residents making half-a-million dollars or more each year. Governor Cuomo refused and Republicans in the state legislature, along with a faction of centrist Democrats, refused to do that. A new allotment of money given by Cuomo and the legislature to pay for pre-K across the state was not nearly enough to support universal access in New York City alone, so de Blasio was forced to find money in the budget he had.

Left without the ability to raise taxes on the wealthy, de Blasio has clearly chosen to spend the money he has where it’s needed most: on direct interventions for students who are struggling. Those who oppose de Blasio want the money to go toward something else – primarily, charter schools.

Kids Or Charters

Last year when de Blasio was forming the budget to pay for his pre-K program, he reached into coffers that had been intended for charter schools.

As The New York Times reported, district chancellor Carmen Fariña, with the mayor’s support no doubt, “redirected $210 million that had been reserved for classroom space for charter schools and other nonprofit groups … to create thousands of new prekindergarten seats.”

Continuing into this school year, de Blasio has refused to bend to every demand from charter school advocates, earning him their boundless outrage.

Ironically, Families for Excellent Schools, the very organization lobbying in the state capital against increased school funding, is the leading organization demanding the mayor direct more money to charter schools. Most recently, FES produced a new television ad accusing de Blasio of “forcing kids into failing schools.” The ad, reports Politico’s New York outlet, costs “hundreds of thousands of dollars” to distribute, a strikingly disturbing contrast coming from an organization opposing any increased funding for education.

Supporters of the mayor have called the ad “racist,” arguing, according to the Observer, “The rhetoric of this ad, and the people and money behind it, are part of the problem.”

Charter school advocates have vowed to rally as many as 150,000 of their supporters to oppose the mayor. Charter school leaders who claim their schools are starving for cash have miraculously found huge amounts of money to staff event organizers, pay for many thousands of bright red tee-shirts, and provide bus transportation for the protestors. Many of the schools, including the largest chain, Success Academy, plan to close and “strongly encourage” parents to go to the rally with their children – something no public school would ever be able to do.

Thunderstorm warnings have persuaded the charter rally leaders to postpone their event. But an alternate date has been planned.

“Stealing Possible”

Observing the back-and-forth, New York City classroom teacher José Luis Vilson writes at The Progressive that opponents of the mayor have created “a perception that the pro-charter lobby fights for the educational and political interests of people of color.” But if these advocates are sincere, Vilson questions, then why do they use their considerable funding and lobbying power to fight for the interests of African American and Latino students only when the interests of charter schools are central to the conflict?

Specifically, Vilson points to the “heated debate” happening now in New York City on the rezoning of the DUMBO district where two public schools –  white P.S. 8 and predominantly black 307 – are being pitted against each other in a stand-off over resources.

At the center of the controversy: P.S. 8 is an overcrowded, mostly white school deemed “successful” by assessment guidelines defined by the reform community, namely, standardized test scores. On the other hand, predominantly non-white P.S. 307 was deemed “failing,” by the same flawed guidelines, some time ago, and its enrollment has been decline steadily under the pressures of competitive charter schools. Proposals by the school district to combine the two schools have drawn opposition from parents from P.S. 8 who don’t want to send their children to a “failing” school, while parents from P.S. 7 are reluctant to open their building to families who have openly disparaged their school.

“P.S. 307 is a great school,” Vilson maintains. But “they also haven’t shaken the perception of having low academic standards because of low test scores” – a condition perpetuated by misguided and flawed reforms of the past administration.

Where is the pro-charter movement in all this?

“Families for Excellent Schools (an awkward name since everyone wants excellent schools surely) prints ‘Don’t Steal Possible’ on red shirts and hands them out across the city,” Vilson argues. “When a whole host of inequitable conditions, including the stratification of rich and poor, steal possibilities (and lives) from children and adults of color on a daily basis, we won’t see similarly impassioned rallies for their rights. When parents have to take off work for a rally or risk their student getting transferred to a local public school that was stripped of funds for losing students to charter schools, that’s also stealing possible.”

What’s entirely “possible” of course is for the state of New York and its current governor to come up with the necessary funding to help ensure every student, everywhere, has access to equitable opportunity to learn, regardless of the form of governance operating the school.

But instead of joining Mayor de Blasio in a fight for that cause, his opponents have chosen a misguided proxy battle over charter schools foisted onto them by the rich.

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