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John Liu, former mayoral candidate, speaks at a protest in 2013. (Photo by Andrew Burton | Getty Images)

John Liu, former mayoral candidate, speaks at a protest in 2013. (Photo by Andrew Burton | Getty Images)

We talked to longtime city politician John Liu about his priorities for the Senate’s subcommittee for NYC education

Education was already poised to be an area of high interest in Albany this year, with several hot button issues up for consideration and in the wake of the Senate’s recent flip to Democratic control.

Now education will also play a role in John C. Liu’s political comeback.

The senator-elect and former New York City comptroller was named chair of the state Senate’s subcommittee on New York City education. Newly minted Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Yonkers Democrat, tapped him last week for the role, which can influence the fate of legislation by holding hearings on bills, pushing them for full voters, or holding them up in committee.

We chatted with Liu, also a former city councilman and mayoral candidate, about several of the more popular education issues affecting New York City: mayoral control, the specialized high school admissions test, and charter schools.  He was wary of sharing great detail on where he stands or what he’s hearing, citing the need to speak with his colleagues before the press “from the outset.”

But he did share some insight on what we can expect to come up after he arrives in Albany in January.

On the Specialized High School Admissions Test

Some education observers are curious about how much air time legislators will devote to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to diversify the city’s most sought-after high schools, since other issues might feel more pressing — like the question of extending the mayor’s control over city schools.

De Blasio’s plan to scrap the specialized high schools admissions test at all eight of the elite schools, in favor of a different system, requires changing state law. A bill to get rid of the test was filed last session, but it failed to progress, with Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie saying lawmakers needed more time to weigh it.

And the issue didn’t even make it to the Senate education committees, where de Blasio likely would not have had majority support anyway.

But this year, Liu said the debate over specialized high schools is an issue that he and his colleagues “have strong feelings about” and will be “directly addressed and comprehensively addressed in my subcommittee.” Liu envisions holding hearings in coordination with the full education committee, chaired by state Sen. Shelley B. Mayer, a Westchester Democrat.

For his part, Liu, a graduate of one of the specialized high schools, is against de Blasio’s proposal.  

“I have and continue to believe that de Blasio’s plan is a non-starter,” Liu said.

The city has proposed scrapping the admissions test and instead granting admission to the top 7 percent of middle school students, using metrics that include GPAs and performance on state assessments.

There are groups of parents — many from white and Asian families — who have fiercely opposed the plan. Sixty-two percent of Asians make up the student bodies at specialized high schools.

While Liu, an Asian-American, agrees that these schools have a segregation problem, he has said that de Blasio’s plan does not do enough to prepare students of different backgrounds in elementary and middle school (a critique shared by other opponents, too). He has also criticized the mayor for not getting feedback from the Asian-American community before announcing the proposal in June.

Mayoral control

When asked what some of the subcommittee’s top priorities will probably be, Liu immediately noted the issue of extending de Blasio’s control over city schools, since there’s an expiration date coming up: June 30, 2019.

“That is weighing heavily in the minds of my colleagues in the Senate,” Liu said, “especially since the issue of mayoral control has been thrown around as a political football for so long.”

De Blasio needs state approval to retain his control over the school system. But the Senate’s narrow Republican majority only granted him short-term extensions in the past, using it as a bargaining chip for other issues and a way to punish de Blasio for campaigning against them.

It’s likely that de Blasio will get an extension, and perhaps for even longer than he has in the past, but some progressive Democrats could challenge what control looks like.

Liu stopped short of saying how he currently feels about mayoral control, but has supported it in the past, including when he ran for mayor against de Blasio. However, he suggested that the biggest concern lies in how to keep the top leader accountable for school performance.

Lawmakers will probably explore how mayoral control would get extended, Liu said, and “what kind of changes would be part of that extension.”

Liu said he supported mayoral control in 2002, when state lawmakers first switched the schools power structure. But he noted that for him, mayoral control means “school accountability, as in, one person being held accountable for New York City schools.”

On chairing the education committee

Liu said the New York City education subcommittee will be his no. 1 priority among committee assignments, mostly because he is keenly interested in education.

As city comptroller and mayoral candidate, Liu proposed expanding pre-school for all 3-year-olds. He champions himself as a public-school cheerleader, noting that he and his family are graduates of the city school system and he owes New York City schools a “debt of gratitude.”

Liu said he expects a range of issues to come up this session, from “charter schools to the kinds of foods that should be served in public schools, especially for children who have religious dietary requirements.” Liu, who has in the past said New York City should “get rid of” large charter school networks, wouldn’t speak further about the cap on charter schools, except to say “the cap is not the only issue related to charter schools.”

And he noted that while the state controls a lot of funding, the true responsibility for New York City schools lies with local officials.

“You know the bottom line is, the public schools take up by far the largest share of both city and state budgets, and they necessarily encompass a wide range of issues,” Liu said. “And public schools are the main responsibility of local government, which New York City is one — a local government.”