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What Republicans said about education in their mayoral debate

For most of the mayoral race up to now, the focus has been on developments in the crowded Democratic field. On Wednesday night, three Republican contenders had a chance to distinguish themselves on a number of policies and issues during their first debate of the 2013 campaign season, hosted by NY1.

On education, the candidates — billionaire businessman John Catsimatidis, former MTA Chairman Joe Lhota, and Doe Fund founder George McDonald — spoke vaguely about problems facing the school system. There isn’t enough parent voice, they said, the dropout rates are too high, and teachers aren’t adequately trained to do their job.

The candidates also did not offer many new proposals, with one exception. McDonald said he’d use city funds to open a $50 savings account for every child who registers for kindergarten. The accounts would be matched occasionally throughout the course of a student’s public education and allow for contributions from private donors. When the student is 18, he said, “there’s sufficient money” for college under the plan.

“Because this is New York City and we have all of these financial wizards, we can actually have a college fund that this money goes up into that can be invested at a greater rate than … the return that the individual person could,” McDonald added.

Catsimatidis suggested that many students do not belong in a traditional school setting because they are not likely to go to college. “We are not going to be able to save all of the kids,” he said, adding that students who want to pursue trades, music, and the arts should be separated from those “who want to go to college.”

He said, “We have to be able to use the talents of all our students and develop the talents of all of our students.”

There were plenty more opinions expressed during the education segment, which begins at around the 38:15 mark of the hour-long debate. Here’s a round-up:

Retroactive raises for teachers

Joe Lhota said definitively that he would not negotiate contracts for the United Federation of Teachers and the more than 100 other labor organizations that include retroactive raises. But, he said, public employees “are entitled to a fair wage from this point going forward, and there’s money in the budget to be able to do that.”

Catsimatidis declined to answer the question, saying he didn’t want to negotiate in public, an evasion that McDonald, a frequent sparring partner during the debate, said was a copout. McDonald said it was the unions’ fault for not negotiating with Bloomberg and agreed with Lhota that no back wages should be awarded.

Giving the schools chancellor final say to fire staff accused of sexual misconduct

McDonald cut off a discussion about career and technical education to specifically inject his opinion on this issue, saying that he supported the push by the Bloomberg administration and former CNN anchor Campbell Brown to pass a law that would give the chancellor final firing power over teachers and other school staff who are accused of sexual misconduct.

Lhota, who was criticized in a Daily News editorial two weeks ago for being “vague” on the issue chimed in quickly to echo McDonald: “Totally agree with everything he just said.”

Mayoral control

Unsurprisingly, the Republican candidates joined their Democratic rivals to say they’d like to hang on to the power to control the school system if elected mayor.

“I believe somebody has to be boss,” Catsimatidis said.

Only Lhota elaborated on tweaks that he’d like to see happen to the spirit of mayoral control.

“I’m all for strong mayoral control, but mayoral control does not say we’re not going to listen,” said Lhota, alluding to criticism of the Bloomberg administration’s top-down approach to decision-making. “So that’s something I would change.”

Charter schools

Charter schools were only mentioned twice, each time by a candidate who volunteered his thoughts rather than responding to a specific question about them. Lhota said that “the core of why charter schools are doing a better job than our regular public schools” was the way their teachers are prepared and evaluated. “Teacher development is a very, very important thing and it’s going to be the key to success moving forward,” he said.

Later, McDonald cited charter schools as one area where he disagrees with Bloomberg in education. McDonald said Bloomberg, who allowed charter schools to operate rent-free inside public school buildings and lobbied Albany to allow more charter schools, hadn’t done enough to advocate for them.

“I think the mistake is that we don’t have enough charter schools. I don’t think we’ve advocated hard enough for this change in our educational policy,” said McDonald. “And I think that one of the things that’s very important about it is to be able to fire teachers who don’t perform.”