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Big Schools Questions That Need Candidates’ Answers

As they make their way through dozens of debates and hundreds of interviews, the candidates for New York City Mayor have fallen into predictable mantras on charters, school closings, teacher evaluation, and parent involvement, usually citing cautious support for each, with “cautious” being the operative word for fear of alienating potential primary voters.

Trouble is, these high-profile issues, while important, have little to do with the ultimate success of city schools. The city’s schools face harrowing problems: inadequate school leadership, disgraceful student achievement, and crushing child poverty that undermines learning. Rather than attack these shortcomings, the Bloomberg administration created tiny, competitive oases as alternatives while most students and teachers are starved for academic resources required for widespread academic success.

The next mayor will face big, interconnected educational challenges. But politicians avoid nuanced positions in a hard-fought campaign. Voters must demand more than a contest of simplistic responses to rack up easy points. New York’s school system is too complex, our students too diverse, for yes/no answers to our most pressing problems. In electing someone to govern, rather than merely win, candidates should be made to answer these and other hard questions to earn their place in City Hall:

1. How would you meet or reduce the Department of Education’s stated annual need for 150 to 200 new principals and 350 to 400 assistant principals?

By tripling the number of schools, Bloomberg created a crippling shortage of school leadership, a crucial factor for school success. In its recent report , the Wallace Foundation quoted the DOE’s stated need for this unsustainable infusion of new talent. The problem is worse than the number suggests since, with so many new assistant principals serving under inexperienced principals, the profession has lost institutional memory and instructional acumen. A department insider told me that, in piloting the new state teacher evaluation system, few principals could suggest better instructional strategies when conducting observations. Whether to consolidate schools or make the job substantially more attractive, something must be done to stop the hemorrhaging of school leadership.

2. What actions would you take for improved instruction and graduation rates for English language learners (ELLs), especially those needing special education?

According to 2013 data, public school ELLs number 159,162 or 14.4 percent of the city’s entire student population. Yet the graduation rate for this large group is below 50 percent, well under the department’s official overall graduation rate of approximately 62  percent. Only 7 percent of ELLs from the 2006 cohort graduated on time college and career-ready, according to city data. Disproportionately identified as requiring special education services, over 20 percent of ELLs are classified for special education, with over 34 percent in Staten Island and 25 percent in the Bronx. Few of these children with special needs ever graduate. By targeting ELLs and especially those in special education for increased academic attention as required by state law, significant progress in overall system performance would result.

3. Which is the big-ticket funding priority: pre-kindergarten or class size reduction?

Mayoral candidate and current Public Advocate Bill de Blasio advocates full time pre-K for all children 4 years and up at a cost of almost half a billion dollars a year. But experts believe pre-K should start at 3 or before, as provided by most upper income parents. Programs like Educare, serving even infants from low-income families, cost approximately $20,000 per child per year. According to education reporter John Merrow and the 2012 NAACP report, “Finding Our Way Back to First,” Educare has produced huge payoffs in student achievement and social service savings. On the other hand, there has been proven success through class size reduction programs like Tennessee’s successful Project STAR . But this initiative, too, would be expensive, costing hundreds of millions of dollars for more teachers on top of increased capital costs for new classrooms. Though not mutually exclusive, these two broad reforms, while promising maximum positive impact, are likely too expensive for full implementation individually, let alone in tandem.

Instead of concentrating on school wars where battle lines have long been drawn with candidates burrowed deeply into their trenches, voters need to ask hard questions that go to the root of system success. If candidates would constructively address these issues, we would have keys to far-reaching reform and a strong basis for choosing a real education mayor.

David Bloomfield is Professor of Education Leadership, Law, and Policy at Brooklyn College and The CUNY Graduate Center.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.