highlight reel

Beyond pre-K: Here’s what you need to know about de Blasio’s education record this election day

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Mayor Bill de Blasio released a school diversity plan that calls on a working group to come up with additional ways to encourage integration.

If asked to describe Mayor Bill de Blasio’s education agenda, most New Yorkers would likely give a two-syllable answer: pre-K.

As voters head to the polls Tuesday, when de Blasio is widely expected to sail into a second term, the mayor is surely pleased with that answer. His expansion of free pre-kindergarten to 50,000 additional four-year-olds has proven to be his clearest victory as mayor, earning praise from advocates, researchers, parents — even Hillary Clinton.

In fact, universal pre-K and its unexpectedly smooth rollout have proven so popular that de Blasio recently announced plans to launch a parallel program for three-year-olds.

“Our obligation is to come up with new solutions,” he said at a breakfast talk Monday with business and political leaders. “And so, we did that with pre-K and we look forward, with everyone’s help here, to doing that with 3-K.”

Pre-K hasn’t just provided de Blasio a happy talking point — it’s also helped him steer the discussion away from more controversial education issues, from charter schools to school segregation to his expensive support program from struggling schools, which has so far achieved mixed results.

“In many respects,” said Aaron Pallas, a professor at Teachers College, pre-K has “overshadowed virtually all other features of the education agenda.”

But another reason education has been a marginal issue in this year’s sleepy mayoral election — it didn’t come up at all during the first debate — is that, even apart from pre-K, de Blasio has overseen a period of relative stability and incremental process for the nation’s largest school system. Two of the most closely watched indicators of the system’s health — the high-school graduation rate and grade 3-8 test scores — have edged up.

The school system, Pallas added, “does seem to be generally moving in the right direction.”

Below, we recap de Blasio’s education record beyond pre-K and tell you what to watch for in his (expected) second term.

A grab bag of initiatives meant to strengthen schools

Defining de Blasio’s vision for the city’s schools hasn’t always been easy.

Besides pre-K, much of his agenda has been a repudiation of the policies of his predecessor, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who closed dozens of low-performing schools, encouraged the growth of charter schools, and clashed constantly with the teachers union.

De Blasio has mostly halted school closures, instead flooding troubled schools with extra social services and academic supports. He’s been lukewarm about charters, drawing criticism that his administration has been slow to provide them space. And he revived City Hall’s relationship with the teachers union — which endorsed his reelection bid — agreeing to a significant pay bump in the new contract he negotiated.

In another union-backed effort, he’s funded over 215 “community schools,” which have embedded social-service providers, extended school days, and teams devoted to combating chronic absenteeism.

He’s also rolled out an assortment of initiatives called “Equity and Excellence for All” which, among other things, includes promises to make Advanced Placement classes available to all high-school students by 2021 and to provide computer-science courses to all students by 2025.

Besides some raised eyebrows about the long timeline, the plans mostly enjoyed a warm reception. They also fit within de Blasio’s education philosophy: If Bloomberg’s view was that the city school system was fundamentally broken and needed to be rebuilt from the ground up, de Blasio’s approach is to strengthen a system he says is in overall good shape.

The “Equity and Excellence” plans “were kind of presented as add-ons, instead of turning the whole system upside down,” said Clara Hemphill, director of education policy and Insideschools at the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs.

De Blasio said as much in his annual “State of the City” speech this February, when he touted the city’s record-high graduation rate, the new AP classes, and — of course — pre-K.

“The state of our schools,” he declared, “is stronger than many of us ever could have imagined.”

Setbacks and crises force adjustments to the agenda

As much as de Blasio prefers basking in the strengths of the school system and his efforts to enhance them, some dark spots have proven inescapable.

Having vowed not to shutter troubled schools — but under state pressure to overhaul them — de Blasio was forced to come up with a turnaround program during his first year in office. He called the program “School Renewal,” and promised “fast and intense improvement” in the 94 bottom-ranked schools that would receive extra money and resources.

Three years later, the $582 million program has achieved mixed results — providing fodder for critics who say the effort is “mired in failure.”

Evan Stone, co-founder of Educators for Excellence, a teacher advocacy group, said he welcomed the investments de Blasio has made in Renewal schools but added: “The success has not been there.”

Some of the Renewal program’s critics — many of them charter-school backers who argue that charters are a better alternative to “failing” district schools — have also pounced on de Blasio’s school-discipline reforms.

De Blasio has made it harder for schools to suspend students, instead pushing schools to adopt  “restorative” practices where students reflect on their misdeeds and make amends. The new policies have continued to drive down the number of suspensions, but critics say they’ve made some schools less safe and orderly.

Those concerns flared up in September when a Bronx high-school student stabbed two other teenagers during class, according to police, leaving one dead.

City officials point to better attendance and academic performance at some schools in the Renewal program, and a record-low number of major crimes across the school system. And in the wake of the school stabbing, de Blasio’s schools chief, Carmen Fariña, unveiled a suite of new anti-bullying initiatives.

The stabbing wasn’t the only school crisis that forced de Blasio into action.

The number of homeless children has swelled during his tenure, with one in ten students residing in temporary housing at some point last school year — a grim new milestone that has left the de Blasio administration scrambling to help homeless students make it to school while trying to create more affordable housing for their families.

Meanwhile, since de Blasio rode into office in 2014 with promises to end the growing inequality that he called New York’s “tale of two cities,” advocates have pressed him to attack the city’s severe school segregation. After repeatedly insisting that the problem was a relic of historic housing policies largely beyond his control, he finally gave into the pressure and released a “school diversity” plan this June — which left many advocates underwhelmed.

“I hope that without the prospect of reelection,” Stone said, referring to de Blasio’s likely second term, “the mayor can be much more bold on desegregation.”

What’s next?

If de Blasio’s first term has been about unveiling “transformative” education plans, his second term will hinge on executing and expanding those efforts.

That will include building out the new “3-K” preschool program, which the mayor has said will be even more challenging than the pre-K expansion.

He’ll continue to grapple with struggling schools in the Renewal program, which was billed as a three-year intervention and is now approaching its third birthday. De Blasio has said additional schools will close or be merged, while others might graduate out of the program, though the exit strategy for those schools isn’t yet clear.

And integration advocates are unlikely to let up. Even as they hold de Blasio to the goals laid out in his diversity plan, they also have signaled a desire to push him further — for instance, to revamp the high-school admissions process or invest in diversity-related teacher trainings and classroom materials.

It remains to be seen whether de Blasio will announce any major new education initiatives in the coming years — or a new chancellor to oversee them.

Among education insiders, there has long been speculation that Fariña — who was plucked out of retirement three years ago — will not stay on for a second term. If she does leave, her replacement could push the mayor in new directions, observers say.

“A new chancellor coming in could conceivably be more creative or bold,” said Pallas, the Teachers College professor, pitching ideas to the mayor “that are different from just, ‘Stay the course.’”

In a statement, a City Hall spokeswoman pointed to the higher graduation rate and test scores, lower dropout rate, and growth of free pre-K during de Blasio’s first term.

“The facts here are clear,” said spokeswoman Olivia Lapeyrolerie, “New York City public schools are the strongest they’ve ever been.”

Decision makers

5 things to know about Austan Goolsbee, the high-powered new addition to Chicago’s school board

PHOTO: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
In 2013, Austan Goolsbee testified before the Congressional Joint Economic Committee on Capitol Hill about the nation's economic recovery

Chicago’s school board is once again complete after outgoing mayor Rahm Emanuel chose a University of Chicago economist to fill a long-vacant seat.

Austan Goolsbee, an economics professor at University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, will round out the seven-member, mayor-appointed board that sets education policy in the city.

Here are five things to know about Goolsbee:

  1. Like Emanuel, he served in the Obama White House. Goolsbee was as a close adviser to President Barack Obama, eventually becoming chair of his Council of Economic Advisors. The Chicago Teachers Union see this tie as a liability. “Mr. Goolsbee comes into a board responsible for students and their schools being starved of resources for the last eight years by the man who appointed him,” the union said in a statement. “Those same neighborhoods continue to struggle from the consequences of a foreclosure crisis that the administration he served in Washington failed to address.”
  2. He has weighed in on education before. A prolific opinion writer, he has written favorably about the economic arguments for universal prekindergarten, a priority for the outgoing mayor, saying that expanding early childhood education is a bargain over the long term. In a 2015 survey of economists’ positions on public issues, Goolsbee expressed optimism about “value-added” measures that try to isolate the impact of individual teachers on student test scores — though he qualified the approach as having “lots of noise and unobservables.” Expressing uncertainty about vouchers, Goolsbee said he fears that letting parents use public funds to pay for private school tuition could harm public schools, which have fixed costs cannot easily be reduced when students leave them. (A tax-credit version of vouchers launched in Illinois last year but now faces an uncertain future under a new Democratic governor.)
  3. He’ll bring a focus on fiscal policy to a board that oversees a big and uncertain budget. A close economic adviser to President Obama and prolific commenter on matters of economic policy in the national media, he’s joining a board that oversees $8 billion in outstanding debt. Chicago has credited the passage of an equitable funding bill, in 2017, for helping stabilize its finances. But the district’s economic future is uncertain, especially as families continue to leave the city.
  4. His personal public school experience is limited. He attended an elite private high school in the suburbs of Boston where he grew up, and his children attended the University of Chicago’s Lab School both before and after the family’s time in Washington, D.C., he has said in interviews.
  5. He’s got a following, and a sense of humor. For proof, check out his Twitter feed, which has 80,000 followers, and his October appearance on the popular NPR quiz show “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.” Plus, his official University of Chicago profile lists a special interest in improv comedy. That sets him apart from the rest of the school board members, who tend to keep a low public profile.  

How long Goolsbee serves could depend on what happens after Emanuel leaves office in early 2019. Chicago’s mayor has controlled the city school board since 1995, but Emanuel’s decision not to seek a third term has heightened debate about whether the city’s schools have benefitted.

In 2011 and 2015, voters backed non-binding resolutions that would make the board democratically elected. Now, two of the leading candidates in the mayor’s race, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and state comptroller Susana Mendoza, have said they’d support an elected school board — reducing their own power over education if they become mayor.

How soon a change could happen is unclear, but state lawmakers who would have to sign off on such a change have an ally in Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker, who has said he supports the call for an elected school board.

The issue was a point of debate at a Chalkbeat Chicago event this week at Malcolm X College. At the event, titled “Education for All? Chicago’s Next Mayor and the Future of Public Schools,” some panelists voiced concern that elections would be dominated by well-organized factions, such as the teachers union, that would have the ability to outspend other candidates.

Super Search

The pressing question at Denver’s final forum: How will Susana Cordova tackle inequity?

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Susana Cordova poses for a portrait in December 2018.

The challenges that Susana Cordova will face if she’s hired next week as superintendent of the Denver school district were laid bare at a public forum Tuesday night.

Standing in a high school cafeteria with a microphone in her hand, the deputy superintendent and sole finalist for the top job faced tough questions about why struggling schools have high numbers of inexperienced teachers, whether she would commit to removing all police officers from schools, and what she would do about what one student called the “charter-ization” of Denver Public Schools — that is, the district’s practice of replacing low-performing district-run schools, sometimes with charter schools.

The most heated and emotional exchanges, however, were about inequities: Why is the district not serving black, Latino, and Native American students as well as white students? Why do test score gaps exist between students from poor families and those from wealthier ones?

Onecia Garcia, a senior at East High School, the city’s largest school and one of its most diverse, told Cordova there is a noticeable gap at East between the kids whose parents have money to pay for tutors and SAT prep courses, and the kids whose parents don’t.

“I want to know what your plan is to get that gap in order,” Garcia said.

In response to Garcia’s question and others like it, Cordova acknowledged that institutional racism exists in Denver Public Schools and has contributed to those gaps. She said the district needs to do a better job informing families about opportunities such as free SAT help and concurrent enrollment classes that allow students to earn college credit while in high school.

Cordova, who grew up in Denver and climbed the district ranks from teacher to her current position of deputy superintendent, talked about making it mandatory for all teachers to undergo training on bias and being culturally responsive, instead of allowing some to opt out.

Cordova said one of her top priorities would be to take the myriad and disparate efforts the district has started over the years to address specific inequities and combine them into one comprehensive plan. She called it “an equity plan that is for all kids, but that also has the specifics for African-American kids, for Latino kids, for low-income kids.”

“It is important that we’re not introducing too many things that you can’t keep a focus,” she said. “I think that’s a valid criticism of the work that we’ve done: We’ve introduced too many things that have made it hard to understand what is the progress that we’re trying to get at.”

But after the forum, Garcia said she didn’t feel Cordova had fully answered the questions. Other students who attended said they felt the same way.

“She wasn’t willing to commit to anything,” said Jonathan Bateman, a freshman at George Washington High School, where the forum was held.

“She answered questions like a politician,” said Carlye Raabe, also a freshman at George Washington.

Cordova emphasized that if she’s hired as superintendent, she’ll approach the job differently than her predecessor, Tom Boasberg, who stepped down in October after nearly 10 years of leading Denver Public Schools. Boasberg was often criticized for not listening to the community.

“I believe deeply in the power of relationships,” Cordova said. “I think it’s really important that we’re not just listening to people who think like I think or who sound like I sound, but who have different experiences, because Denver is an incredibly diverse place.”

The school board is expected to vote Monday on whether to appoint Cordova to the top job.