In a series of short stump speeches last night to a group fiercely opposed Mayor Bloomberg, four Democratic mayoral contenders delivered abbreviated versions of their visions for the future of education in New York City.
Given just five minutes to speak, the candidates didn’t have much time to get into specifics — something that, 10 months before the primary election, most are being careful about doing.
If anything, the night was an opportunity to make a good first impression for New Yorkers for Great Public Schools, the group formed by union and progressive community leaders to oppose the Bloomberg administration’s schools policies in the mayoral election. Interspersed among the candidates’ speeches, parents and religious leaders criticized the co-locations, budget cuts, and school closures that have taken place under Mayor Bloomberg.
The appearance was also an important one to make for candidates who hope their path to victory includes a coveted endorsement from the teachers union.
As each candidate was being introduced, he or she took a seat next to United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew in the front pew. Then each candidate had five minutes — which sometimes stretched closer to 10 — to make his or her case to the audience of more than 1,000 parents, community leaders, and activists who had crowded into Harlem’s First Corinthian Baptist Church.
The first candidate to speak was Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, who criticized the Bloomberg administration’s handling of school closures and co-locations.
“Are we actually trying to save schools, or are we taking the cheap way out and closing schools that could be saved?” de Blasio asked. (De Blasio has previously said he supports school co-locations, though not in the way Bloomberg has handled them.)
But de Blasio did not go as far as two other contenders, Bill Thompson and Comptroller John Liu. Both said they would put an immediate end to closures, while Liu called for a moratorium on co-locations as well, promises that went over well with the spirited crowd.
City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, an early favorite in polls who is seen as Bloomberg’s closest ally, received the chilliest reception of the night. Her stump speech drew booing, led by Donny Moss, an activist who is one of Quinn’s fiercest detractors, not normally on education issues.
Quinn focused her speech on making kindergarten mandatory, something she encouraged legislators to do this year, and on the council’s efforts to boost middle school quality. She did not speak about school closures or co-locations, both of which she has said before that she supports.
“Quinn was dragging around the ball and chain of Michael Bloomberg, which will help her with some audiences, but clearly didn’t help her with this one,” said David Bloomfield, a professor of education at Brooklyn College who attended the event.
Organizers said after the event that they had come away optimistic that all of the candidates would represent a change from the status quo.
“All of the candidates started spelling out ways they will take the schools in a new direction by unifying New Yorkers around a positive agenda for reform,” said Zakiyah Ansari, a parent activist who is part of New Yorkers for Great Public Schools. “Each in their own way focused on supporting neighborhood schools which offers a clear difference from the divisive assault on communities of forced school closings.”