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Quinn says city schools need collaboration, not competition

In her first major education policy address, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn signaled that she would depart in significant ways from Mayor Bloomberg’s approach to running the city’s schools.

Instead of pitting schools against each other, as Bloomberg’s policies have, Quinn said she would push them to collaborate. Instead of directing funds to pricey consultants, she said she would look for solutions within the system. And where Bloomberg spurred rapid growth in the city’s charter school sector, Quinn said she would keep the sector at its current size.

But on other issues, Quinn suggested that she would take a cue from the Bloomberg administration. For example, she said she would improve “customer service” to help families resolve problems but said only that she would “engage parents in relevant decisions and keep them in the loop.” One of Bloomberg’s first school policy changes, back in 2002, was to add parent coordinators to each school. But he has drawn sharp criticism for excluding parents from policy decisions.

Quinn’s ambitious list of education proposals includes extending school days, coordinating city services to provide comprehensive health and social services in schools, boosting literacy instruction, slashing some state testing, and buying a million tablets to replace textbooks.

Quinn put the price tag for her proposals at about $300 million, which she said could mostly be covered by redirecting resources from elsewhere in the education budget. The tablet shopping spree, for example, could be covered using the $100 million that the city spends annually on textbooks, she said.

In an effort to redirect ideas as well as resources, Quinn said she would assess what individual schools are doing well and figure out how to replicate their success elsewhere. She said she has already recruited Columbia University to head the “Systemwide Success Study,” which would look at both district and charter schools. If more schools copied programs in place at Harry S. Truman High School in the Bronx, she said, fewer large high schools would need to close.

“There’s nothing wrong with New York City schools that can’t be fixed with what’s right about our schools,” Quinn said.

Quinn’s promise to treat school closure only “as a last resort when all else has failed” was welcome news for the teachers union, which has fought vehemently to keep schools open. “I want to applaud Speaker Quinn for a speech that was full of great ideas,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew said in a statement.

Quinn’s proposal to create “community schools” that offer social services to their students is another union priority. All of the Democratic candidates for mayor joined UFT officials to tour community schools in Cincinnati last year, and Quinn spoke glowingly of her visit to a school where students could get a dental exam, have their eyes checked, or receiving counseling on site.

Some of Quinn’s proposals are already in place in other forms: the Parent University she proposed has a lot in common with Parent Academy, which Bloomberg launched in November, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo has already launched a push to extend the school day. Quinn said she would start the longer days at the 100 schools with the highest percentage of poor students.

And two proposals Quinn said would reduce schools’ focus on testing wouldn’t actually be up to her, if she were mayor. She said she would eliminate “field testing” of state test questions and increase the number of schools where students create portfolios instead of taking Regents exams to graduate, but those decisions are up to the state. Quinn said after her speech that she had begun talking to state education officials about expanding the number of portfolio schools.

David Bloomfield, a professor of education policy, said he thought Quinn had taken substantial steps to distance herself from Bloomberg on education. “Her veiled criticism of the failure of the Bloomberg administration to coordinate city services was important,” he said.

Claire Sylvan, the executive director of the Internationals Network for Public Schools, which runs 17 schools, mostly in the city, said she liked the idea of spreading schools’ best practices but thought it would be hard to execute.

“We went from three schools to 17. I know how hard it is,” she said, adding that she hopes that educators, not just researchers, would help conduct the Systemwide Success Study.

Quinn said she supports charter schools as “laboratories of innovation” but would not seek to grow the charter school sector. “I think the level we’re at is a good level,” she said, a shift from her position last year. But Quinn she would not charge charter schools rent, which some have proposed. “If you make charter schools pay rent, that’s the end of charter schools,” she said.

James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center, said he did not think Quinn would actually stand in the way of charter school growth. “We’re pretty confident that anyone who becomes mayor will come to understand that it isn’t about the particular size of charter schools sector or district schools,” he said. “You want to expand the kinds of schools that are working.”

Kim Sweet, the director of Advocates for Children of New York, which represents students with special needs, said she was disappointed but not surprised that Quinn did not mention special education once. “It doesn’t tend to be something that mayoral candidates jump into right out of the box,” she said, noting that Quinn has spoken out on behalf of students with disabilities in the past.

But, Sweet said, “I was really happy about her emphasis on collaboration and coordination. I think we’ve had a system focused on competition and there’s a lot to be gained by an administration that focuses on bringing people together.”

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