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Fault lines emerge in mayoral hopefuls' consensus on schools

If education policy discussions among mayoral candidates were a song, the second verse would be the same as the first.

With two recent entrants to the Republican race absent, the lineup for Wednesday evening’s discussion, hosted by the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, was identical to the first education debate held in November, and the conversation was similar, too.

The four Democratic candidates — Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, Comptroller John Liu, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, and former comptroller Bill Thompson — and the single Republican, Manhattan Media publisher Tom Allon, rehashed now-familiar positions on school closures (most want a moratorium), educator as chancellor (almost all are committed to that), and community schools (after a visit to Cincinnati, they are all on board with the model).

But CSA President Ernest Logan told GothamSchools that he thought sharper distinctions would emerge in the coming months, particularly about which elements of the Bloomberg administration’s school policies each candidate would maintain.

“I think [the candidates] are trying to come into their own,” he said. “If you dig down deep, I think you can find some disagreement.”

Some of the disagreements broke through onto the stage at Baruch College, where hundreds of school administrators convened for the event, billed as “A Conversation with NYC’s Next Mayor.”

Public Advocate Bill de Blasio repeated his plan to increase taxes on New Yorkers earning over $1 million to fund full-day, universal pre-kindergarten and after-school programming for low-income students. He also argued that his opponents would likely not be able to underwrite their education policy proposals.

“I respectfully challenge my colleagues to put forward a realistic plan to even pay for it that would achieve the same thing,” he said. But none did, and Allon argued that the increased taxes would drive the city’s wealthiest taxpayers out of the city.

And when Thompson said the city could create community schools without spending any additional money, as Cincinnati has, de Blasio pushed back.

“The reason it’s revenue-neutral in Cincinnati is largely because of scale,” he said, noting that the Ohio district has just 40,000 students, compared to 1.1 million in New York City. “Here we’re going to need new revenue if we want to be serious about this in our schools.”

It was an approach that made him stand out, CSA members said. “Bill de Blasio took a stance and didn’t waver, and I like that,” said Laverne Burrows, an assistant principal at P.S. 160 in the Bronx.

De Blasio was also the only candidate to name names when discussing the process of having charter schools share space in district buildings, which all said could be done better.

“Another thing that has to change starting in January is that Eva Moskowitz cannot continue to have the run of the place,” he said, referring to the founder and CEO of the Success Academy network of charter schools, which the Department of Education has allowed to open in more than a dozen school buildings. “She was giving the orders and chancellors were bowing down and agreeing. That’s not acceptable.”

The candidates also were divided on whether the Department of Education’s system of providing support to schools, which connects them by affinity rather than geography, should continue under the next administration.

“I am dubious about whether this current network structure can be kept,” de Blasio said. “The way it is structured right now just through the networks doesn’t make sense,” Thompson said.

But Quinn said she thought the network structure could survive.

“Some people really love the networks they’re in,” she said. “So I wouldn’t want to eliminate that for principals and schools that are finding a good match in the network, but I would want to explore ways to bring back a geographic overlay.”

Quinn continued to navigate the fine line between supporting Mayor Bloomberg, with whom she continues to work closely, and showing that a Quinn administration would bring change to the city’s schools.

When Allon said he would introduce merit pay as an alternative to more costly across-the-board raises for teachers, Quinn quickly pushed back. “The data simply does not support that,” she said, to applause. (Researchers found that a school-wide bonus program piloted in city schools under Bloomberg did not improve student achievement.)

But when the candidates were asked to say whether schools had improved under Bloomberg, she was the only one to answer, “Yes.” Even though Quinn added, “But it’s not progress I’m satisfied with,” the comment drew hisses from the crowd.

Former Metropolitan Transit Authority president Joe Lhota did not respond to an invitation to participate, and businessman John Catsimatidis bowed out at the last moment, according to a CSA spokeswoman. Catsimatidis’s chair sat empty on the stage.

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