State of the City

Mayor de Blasio’s second-term education agenda? More of the same.

PHOTO: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio earlier this year.

In the wake of his decisive re-election in November, Mayor Bill de Blasio signaled that education would be a top priority during his second term.

“We need the school system to look entirely different in the coming years,” he said the day after the election. “That will be the issue I put my greatest passion and energy into.”

But if education is at the top of the mayor’s agenda, it did not form the centerpiece of his State of the City address Tuesday night. Instead, the roughly 70-minute speech highlighted other aspects of his agenda such as affordable housing and criminal justice reform, while casting President Donald Trump as a threat to the city — a reflection of de Blasio’s ambition to be a voice for progressives on the national stage.

His limited mention of the nation’s largest school system included a new $7 million civics-education program (a fraction of the city’s more than $24 billion education operating budget) and the ongoing expansion of his signature education program — pre-kindergarten — to include three-year-olds.

However, he offered no bold new vision for the city’s schools or even a clear argument for how his existing initiatives — a grabbag of programs ranging from computer-science classes to school-based health clinics — will push the system to new heights. While de Blasio’s cautious approach has allowed him to trumpet education-related successes while avoiding controversy, it’s also created challenges as he seeks a new schools chief and has some ostensible allies questioning his strategy.

Universal pre-K is “critical and I want to see the rollout of 3-K,” said Mark Treyger, chairman of the city council’s education committee, in an interview days before the speech. “But what’s the plan beyond?”

Rather than spell out a new plan, de Blasio doubled down on his existing initiatives Tuesday. He leaned heavily on his early-learning efforts, arguing that providing free preschool for three-year-olds would be “seismic.”

“To defeat structural racism and overcome this achievement gap we have to flip the script — we have to do something different when it comes to education,” de Blasio said during his speech at Brooklyn’s Kings Theater, before promoting his pre-K expansion. He added that his “next big goal” is to ensure all students are reading on grade level by the third grade — a promise he first laid out in his first term.

For the city’s older students, de Blasio touched on just one new policy initiative, an effort dubbed “civics for all.” The new program will encourage teachers to develop “rapid-response lesson plans” about current events, allow 17-year-olds to register to vote at school, and give every high school $2,000 that students will be able to spend through “participatory budgeting.”

The mayor did not mention some of the highest-profile elements of his current agenda, including his controversial “Renewal” program for struggling schools, a half-billion dollar initiative to infuse dozens of struggling schools with social services and academic support. It’s little surprise the mayor didn’t highlight the program: It has achieved mixed results, and the city recently announced that it will close nine of the schools, sparking opposition among some school communities.

De Blasio also skipped over some key pillars of his “Equity and Excellence” education agenda, including efforts to make computer science classes available to every student and expand access to AP courses.

It’s not the first time de Blasio’s annual State of the City speech focused primarily on issues outside of education, which covers roughly one-third of the city’s budget. Last year, for instance, his speech devoted just three of 94 paragraphs to the topic.

The perception that the mayor has not put forth a clear vision for the city’s schools could complicate his search for a leader to replace Chancellor Carmen Fariña, who plans to step down in the coming months. De Blasio said the city is conducting a national search, yet some observers have warned that candidates eager to influence the city’s education landscape might be wary of joining an administration that has already set out its education agenda and does not appear interested in launching new initiatives.

For their part, city officials said they were not having trouble recruiting candidates for the post, and broadly defended the mayor’s education agenda.

City schools “are stronger than ever with the highest-ever graduation rate, lowest-ever dropout rate, record-high college enrollment and college readiness,” city hall spokeswoman Olivia Lapeyrolerie wrote in an email. “This didn’t happen by accident, but is the result of a clear plan to improve our schools and deliver equity and excellence to all New York City children.”

Time crunch

Specialized high schools lawsuit could delay admissions decisions, New York City says in court filings

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Asian-American parents and community leaders gathered in Brooklyn to learn about a lawsuit against part of the city's plan to integrate specialized high schools.

New York City students may have to wait longer than usual to learn where they’ve been accepted to high school as the city prepares for a ruling in a lawsuit challenging integration efforts, according to court records filed Wednesday.

The city asked Judge Edgardo Ramos to rule by Feb. 25 on a preliminary injunction to block admissions changes aimed at enrolling more black and Hispanic students in the city’s prestigious but segregated specialized high schools.

A decision would be needed by then in order to meet the “latest feasible date to mail offer letters,” which the city says would be March 18 given the tight timeline around the admissions process.  The delay would apply to all students, not just those vying for a seat at a specialized high school. 

“DOE is mindful that a delay in the mailing of high school offers will increase anxiety for students and families, cause complications for those students considering private school offers, and require specialized high schools and non-specialized high schools to reschedule and restaff open houses,” the letter said.

A spokesman for the education department said the city will “communicate with families when a final offer date has been determined.” Letters were originally scheduled to be sent by March 4.

Filed in December, the lawsuit against the city seeks to halt an expansion of the Discovery program, which offers admission to students who scored just below the cutoff on the exam that is the sole entrance criteria for specialized high schools. The Discovery expansion, slated to begin this year, is one piece of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to diversify the elite high schools.

Asian-American parents and community organizations say the expansion unfairly excludes their children. Asian students make up 62 percent of enrollment at specialized high schools, but comprise only 16 percent of the student body citywide.

The suit calls for a preliminary injunction, which would put the Discovery expansion on hold while the case winds its way through the courts — and would disrupt the admissions cycle already underway for eighth-graders enrolling in high school next year. The process of matching students to specialized high schools was scheduled to begin this week, the city’s letter states.

The plaintiffs wrote a letter supporting the city’s timeline for a decision on the preliminary injunction, saying their aim is to stop the proposed admissions changes “before they can have the anticipated discriminatory effect.”

Hitting pause on the Discovery program expansion would mean the education department has to recalculate the cutoff score for admission to specialized high schools, consult with principals, work with the test vendor to verify scores, and generate offer letters to send to students, city attorney Marilyn Richter wrote in a letter to the judge.

The education department “has never made such a significant course adjustment midstream in the process before,” she wrote.

Education Inequalities

Is Michigan ready for a ‘grand bargain’ to improve its struggling education system?

PHOTO: Lori Higgins/Chalkbeat
Teresa Weatherall Neal, superintendent of the Grand Rapids school district, speaks during a panel discussion that also featured, from left, Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti and former U.S. Education Secretary John King.

A new political dynamic in Lansing has put Michigan in a position to potentially see the kind of education transformation that helped catapult Massachusetts to its status as the top-performing state in the nation, says a former U.S. Secretary of Education.

That bit of optimism from John King, who served as education secretary from 2016 to 2017 and is now the president and CEO of The Education Trust, came after nearly three hours of sobering discussion during an event Wednesday about the need to address inequities in education in Michigan.

Several times, King used the term “grand bargain” to describe what Michigan needs. It’s a term many Detroiters will remember from the Detroit bankruptcy and the deal that was a key part of getting the city out of bankruptcy.

As it relates to education, the term “grand bargain” has been used to refer to the bipartisan agreement struck more than two decades ago in Massachusetts that had broad buy-in from business and education groups, teachers, and parents, to improve academic achievement. The gist: The state invested more money in schools. In return, standards and accountability were increased.

King said Michigan is poised to reach the same consensus and invest more money in education, in particular investing money more equitably so the highest-need students are getting the most funding. He said there needs to be a thoughtful approach to accountability, as well as more investments in teacher preparation and support.

He sees it happening because of new leadership at the state level, including Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and new Republican leaders of the House and Senate.

“This is a moment where the new leadership in Lansing could come together … and it could be truly transformative.”

The event Wednesday, which took place at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, was organized by the Education Trust-Midwest, a Royal Oak-based education advocacy and research organization. The topic was inequities in education and the need to provide equitable opportunities for children regardless on where they live.

Amber Arellano, executive director of the organization, said Michigan ranks 43rd out of 47 states for the funding gap between poor and wealthy school districts.

“Students and families pay the price for this under-investment,” Arellano said.

She said the experiences of states like Massachusetts that have seen striking improvement provide hope for Michigan because they show transformation can happen over five to 10 years.

Michigan has been falling behind other states in performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a national exam that tests a representative sample of students in each state. The state’s performance, in fact, has shown little to no improvement over the last decade.

“We rise and we fall together. In Michigan’s case, we’re falling together,” Arellano said.

The audience at the event’s two panel discussions also heard from speakers such as Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of the Detroit school district. He said that often, when K-12 educators talk about the need for more resources, “you see the rolling eyes of lawmakers.”

But, Vitti said, “It takes funding to educate children. And it takes more funding to educate children who enter … with more challenges.”

Panelists agreed that Michigan is at a pivotal moment because of its new leadership. And they came up with solutions they think will make a difference.

Melody Arabo, outreach specialist at EdReports.org and former Michigan Teacher of the Year, said the state needs to address a lack of resources for educators. She said that in a classroom of 30 students, a teacher can have some reading at the kindergarten level and others “who can read better than I can.”

The materials that teachers have “are not meeting those needs. Teachers spend an average of 12 hours a week going online looking for resources.”

David Meador, vice chairman and chief administrative officer of DTE Energy, said Michigan should look at what successful states have done and adopt best practices. Just as important, he said:“Stick with it. Don’t change it every year.”

For King, the solution to improving schools is simple and starts at a young age.

“If Michigan is going to improve, it will need a surge in high quality early learning that prepares every child for kindergarten or beyond,” King said.