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At parent forum, mayoral hopefuls vow to stop grading schools

City schools’ annual letter grades would become a thing of the past if any of the mayoral candidates who attended a parent-oriented forum in Brooklyn Thursday evening takes over City Hall next year.

Sal Albanese, Bill de Blasio, John Liu, and Bill Thompson each vowed to stop issuing the grades, which the Bloomberg administration has issued since 2007. The city has used the grades — which are almost entirely based on student test scores for elementary and middle schools — to pick which schools to close and which principals to reward.

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and all of the non-Democratic candidates in the race skipped the forum, which was organized by a parent group that formed to oppose high-stakes testing and co-sponsored by the teachers union-aligned Alliance for Quality Education.

The school grading issue was one on which the candidates had not clearly staked out positions before moderator — and outspoken critic of the Bloomberg administration — Diane Ravitch asked them about it. But their unanimity reflected the tenor of the evening, in which the four men clamored to demonstrate their alignment with the parents who organized the event and against Mayor Bloomberg’s school policies.

“Diane Ravitch is one of my heroes,” Albanese, a former teacher, said in his opening statement. Moments later, de Blasio, currently the public advocate, started out by saying, “I love P.S. 29,” the school that hosted the event.

Liu, the city’s comptroller, topped Albanese by saying about Ravitch, “I’m very thankful she’s not running for mayor. Otherwise we could all go home happy.” And Thompson, who burnished his education credentials on the Board of Education before the Bloomberg era, praised Ravitch’s habit of eliciting fierce criticism. “You know you’re doing something right if so many people attack you,” he said.

Ravitch made clear where she stood on each issue as she asked about it, and audience members frequently signaled their concurrence with cheers and boos. Before she asked the candidates whether they would continue to let charter schools use Department of Education space for free, for example, Ravitch said the privately managed schools “cause overcrowding and competition for facilities and resources” and are “now moving into neighborhoods like Cobble Hill even though there’s no demand for them.”

The candidates did not all give specific answers to the question, but they all criticized the charter sector. And they all vowed to reduce class sizes; boost arts in schools; withhold city students’ data from a controversial warehouse maintained by the nonprofit inBloom; and diminish what they agreed was an excessive emphasis on standardized tests.

The candidates’ unanimity meant that the event “functioned almost more as an accountability session” than a forum for debate, said City Councilman Brad Lander. He said parents needed a space to let candidates know what was important to them.

Some of the parents who packed P.S. 29’s auditorium said they were relieved to hear that there are mayoral candidates who share their concerns.

“I think there were good comments about putting a halt to the testing mania,” said Jamie Mirabella, a P.S. 29 mother whose third-grader “opted out” of last month’s state tests. “It’s an expanding issue that needs to be solved for everything else that needs to happen to happen.”

But others said they had felt alienated by the way the event was structured. “The forum was a pep rally for those who share the same point of view,” Douglas Hanau, also P.S. 29 parent, wrote in a comment on GothamSchools in which he characterized his view as “more nuanced [and] less dogmatic than Ravitch’s. “I was very disappointed.”

The event was not the last time that parents will put policy questions directly to those who are seeking to be the city’s next mayor. The Chancellor’s Parent Advisory Committee, a legally mandated elected parent council, is sponsoring a candidate forum in June.

And candidates could go a lot further toward explaining what they would do as mayor, instead of just saying what they would not do, Lander said. The logical question after hearing the candidates say they would do away with the city’s school grading system, he said, is,”What kind of accountability system would you put into place to evaluate, support, nurture the well rounded schools?”