My former colleague Jacob Gershman is very good at raising subjects everyone is talking about but nobody says in print. He did so with today’s piece on Comptroller William Thompson Jr., who is making school issues a big part of his mayoral campaign — without clarifying his positions on some of the main school issues of the day.
Gershman argues Thompson possesses a “carefully cultivated irrelevance.” But there is stuff we do know about where Thompson stands on education issues, though much of the facts raise more questions than they answer.
First, we know that he’s said he favors retaining control of the school system if he becomes mayor. It’s unclear exactly how much control he’d like to give himself (a big empty space, as we pointed out), but he’s said repeatedly that he supports the mayor having primary authority. “I may be in a shrinking group of those who support it,” he told a committee in testimony that was supposed to be off the record but which I obtained when I was at the New York Sun.
We also know the two main points of attack Thompson has selected for criticizing Bloomberg’s school efforts: He criticizes the mayor on transparency, which he says is so poor that even his office struggles to understand the school system’s finances, and parental involvement. Both of these are safe issues; they’re exactly the points conceded by one of the most prominent mayoral allies on schools, Geoffrey Canada, and they avoid the nastier battlegrounds of school closings, accountability, and charter schools.
And like mayoral control, the parental involvement point raises more questions than it answers. What would Thompson do to give parents more say? Would he suggest that parents sit on a central board of education? Would he favor making positions on a central board directly elected by all city voters? Would he favor a return to community school boards? The latter is probably out of bounds, but what is in bounds — what Thompson would actually support — is not clear to me.
Finally, we know that the quietness of Thompson’s service as Board of Education president did not distinguish him much from others who held the job. According to David Bloomfield, the Brooklyn College professor who served as general counsel to the Board, most Board of Ed presidents kept low profiles. Bloomfield argues that was probably for the best for Thompson. “After a particularly volatile period under [chancellors Joseph] Fernandez and [Ray] Cortines, when there was a great deal of strife between the board and the chancellor, that might have been the best policy,” Bloomfield said.
James Vlasto, a consultant who worked at New Visions for Public Schools while Thompson was at the Board of Education, and who before that served as an adviser to Chancellor Joseph Fernandez, said that the job of board president mainly required work conducted outside the public eye. “His job was to be the mediator between the other members of the board and the mayor. And he did fairly well,” Vlasto said. “He is not going to come up with curriculum changes or how to run the buses, how to feed the kids, tell the teachers how to teach. That’s not his job. That’s the chancellor’s.”
Of course, now that Thompson is running for mayor, tackling those questions is his job. We’d obviously be happy to interview the comptroller about his detailed education plans. Stay tuned.