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James: It's time for de Blasio to make education rhetoric reality

The city’s next public advocate isn’t afraid to raise her voice on education issues.

Letitia James’ aggressive oratory against charter schools and co-locations has earned her standing ovations in crowded school auditoriums, effusive praise from Diane Ravitch, and skepticism among charter school parents. And her increasingly vocal presence in education activism provides a clear glimpse into what mayor-elect Bill de Blasio’s closest progressive allies want from him on education.

“I think you can view me as a partner in ensuring that the mayor of the city of New York honors his commitment to reform the school system as we know it,” James said in a recent interview. “Now it’s time to put the rhetoric into action. And my role is to ensure that in fact the rhetoric is actualized.”

Currently a City Councilmember representing Fort Greene, Prospect Heights and much of Crown Heights, James will soon be the city’s second highest-ranking official. Though the power of the public advocate has historically been limited, she may end up playing a larger role given her close relationship with de Blasio.

But James, an outspoken critic of charter schools eager for large-scale shifts in the city’s education policies, has been more condemnatory than de Blasio when speaking out about the city’s public schools. “They have pretty much dismantled public education,” she said of the Bloomberg administration. “I see it wherever I go, and I just see the inequities.”

Politics will necessarily hem de Blasio in once he begins governing from City Hall, where he will almost certainly face continuous pressure to moderate the stances he took during the campaign on charter schools and school closures. And James says she won’t hesitate to hold de Blasio to account if he does.

At a transition event yesterday, James told the Observer that de Blasio is a friend—”But nonetheless, putting that aside, I have a job to do. And New Yorkers elected me to be checks and balances on Mayor Bill de Blasio,” she said.

That’s been a more natural stance for past public advocates, who have been at political odds with the city’s mayor for the position’s 20-year history. But James and de Blasio appear in public together frequently, offered strong endorsements of each other during the campaign, and share many positions.

“I don’t think, in terms of education, we diverge on much of anything,” James said, referring to de Blasio.

James’ solution to that dilemma is to remake the office, not the relationship. “The office of the public advocate could utilize more of its oversight powers. It could sue. It could hold hearings all throughout the city of New York, hearings which really focus on parent involvement,” she said. “My emphasis is going to be a lot on litigation.”

Over the course of the campaign, de Blasio made some of his own educational priorities clear: universal pre-K, a plan to charge well-financed charter school networks to operate in public space, a moratorium on school closures, and the elimination of the school letter-grade system.

More broadly, James said she and the mayor-elect agree on the need for “a more comprehensive idea of education,” meaning more resources for schools, smaller class sizes, and what she termed “disbanding standardized testing.”

The desire to de-emphasize testing is why she said she would be consulting Carmen Farina, the former second-in-command at the Department of Education who later criticized the use of test scores to measure schools, during her transition. (Farina, whose name has been floated as a possible chancellor, has been informally advising the de Blasio campaign.)

If charter school advocates are hopeful that de Blasio can be swayed toward more pro-charter positions as the governing process begins, they definitely won’t find such flexibility from James. She speaks of “charter schools” and “public schools” as separate entities, and repeatedly referred to what the money the city spent supporting charter schools could do for other parts of the school system.

James attended Brooklyn public schools—P.S. 39 and M.S. 88 in Park Slope, and Fort Hamilton High School in Bay Ridge. At Fort Hamilton, she recalled being offered Spanish, Latin, and French, and having school nurses, guidance counselors, and afterschool programs available.

That wealth of options is not available in many district schools, she said—a problem she says was caused by the Bloomberg administration giving charter schools space in public buildings.

“Charter schools obviously provide so many things to so many children,” she said. “It just appears that charter schools have basic services and beyond … and public schools just have basic services, if that.”

Given that the budget of the public advocate’s office has been slashed in recent years, James is counting on de Blasio’s sympathy for her cause and her ties to councilmembers to give her office more cash—and more influence—on education issues citywide.

“I think this is an opportunity to form an alliance when necessary, to continue to provide oversight, and to be critical from time to time as well,” James said.

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