In South Carolina, he boasted about boosting funding for needy schools to a roomful of teachers. Next, a tiny crowd in Nevada gave him a standing ovation after touting his push to make free pre-K available for all of the city’s 4-year-olds. Then he heralded that same signature education policy as he sat around a long wooden table with about 20 culinary union members in downtown Las Vegas.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has traveled the country in recent months as he flirts with a possible 2020 presidential run, and the city’s public school system is among his most reliable talking points.
Though his frequent trips have drawn scorn locally — a recent poll found 76 percent of New Yorkers don’t think he should pursue the Democratic nomination — his education agenda could resonate nationally. Unlike some other Democratic candidates, such as Sen. Cory Booker, who supported education reforms that have since fallen out of favor in the party, de Blasio finds himself on the ascendant side of many education policy debates today.
He eschewed closing schools, a pet intervention of his predecessor, and instead poured nearly a billion dollars into trying to improve them. He has pushed to reduce suspensions and introduce restorative justice practices — a favored cause of civil rights and community groups. He rolled out an ambitious and costly pre-K program and ceased open hostilities with the city’s main teachers union, in part by doing verbal battle with charter schools.
A City Hall spokeswoman defended the mayor’s record, pointing to lower dropout rates and a climb in college enrollment. Proficiency rates on state tests have also trended up (though comparisons are hard to make due to constant changes to the exams), as have graduation rates.
“This didn’t happen by accident, but is the result of a clear plan to improve our schools and deliver equity and excellence to all New York City children,” spokeswoman Olivia Lapeyrolerie wrote in an email.
But looking more closely, de Blasio also has real liabilities when it comes to his education record. Renewal, his program for boosting struggling schools, has shown such mixed results that the mayor is ending it at the end of this school year. The charter sector, although capped for now, serves predominantly low-income families of color who have voted with their feet to attend the privately run schools. And his reluctance to tackle segregation more aggressively has led many to question his progressive bonafides.
His pre-K initiative has seen more success, but a union that represents a subset of teachers is threatening to strike, and providers say they are struggling. Graduation rates have also been rising across the country — meaning the jump may not be owing to de Blasio-specific policies.
“I don’t know that he’s done anything wrong necessarily, but I don’t think it’s clear he’s done anything right,” said Joshua Starr, the CEO of PDK International, an association for educators.
An end to bipartisanship
Twenty years ago, Republicans and even many high-profile Democrats seemed to agree on what schools needed: more accountability for teachers and schools, and more school choice in the form of charter schools for families dissatisfied with low-performing neighborhood schools. The suite of policies came to be known simply as education reform — and they were pursued by Republicans such as President George Bush and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and Democrats such as President Barack Obama and Booker, a former Newark mayor who is now mounting his own bid for the White House.
But the reform agenda began to fray in New York City and beyond, thanks to sustained opposition to school closures, the pressure that growing charter sectors put on traditional school districts, and backlash to standardized testing. Organized opposition sprung up from Democrats, who supported a testing “opt-out” movement and opposed charters, championing a return to neighborhood schools. This was the wave de Blasio rode into office as a self-described political progressive.
“He is someone who has been a proud progressive leader for a long time. I think this is his moment in that regard,” said Richard Buery, a former deputy mayor who worked for de Blasio and is now with the KIPP charter network.
De Blasio’s predecessor aggressively closed large high schools with dismal graduation rates, prompting long-running battles with the teachers union and the families of displaced students. After taking office in 2014, de Blasio promised a different approach to improving schools. His solution, Renewal, called for a longer school day and wraparound social services for students, such as mental health supports or even washing machines on campus for homeless families.
Five years later, the needle on student learning barely budged for schools in the program, and de Blasio has moved to shutter more than a dozen of them.
Aaron Pallas, education policy chair at Teachers College, noted that school turnaround has proved difficult for leaders across the country, but that de Blasio is still likely to get knocked for Renewal’s lackluster results because the mayor made it a centerpiece of his education agenda.
“I think the mayor will take a lot of political hits if he does enter the race based on the fact that this cost a lot of money and didn’t seem to produce much in the way of positive effects for kids,” he said.
De Blasio’s stance on charter schools also resonates with many progressives, who are enjoying a rising voice in the party, even while this view has many detractors in some Democratic quarters of the city. De Blasio has constantly butted heads with the charter sector. Operators have accused the city of withholding public space for their schools, and the mayor has discounted charter schools’ generally high test scores by criticizing their focus on test prep and repeating an often-heard claim that charters don’t serve the neediest students. (The research paints a far more complicated picture.)
His critique may not matter much, as ultimately, the mayor has little say over the sector, which is largely regulated at the state level.
A genuine victory shows signs of strain
Even those, like Starr, who have been underwhelmed by programs like Renewal, say the mayor deserves credit for his push for universal pre-K.
“You have to give him a lot of props,” Starr said. “Pre-K is something he can certainly hang his hat on.”
Early childhood education has become a rare point of bipartisan agreement, and Democratic candidates have latched onto the issue with calls to expand access and affordability. On the national stage, de Blasio has the distinct advantage of having accomplished what others have only proposed: free, universal pre-K for all of the city’s 4-year-olds.
But what should be a clear win for de Blasio has begun to show strains from a surprising constituency: organized labor and pre-K operators themselves.
Most children enrolled in universal pre-K attend community-run programs, which have seen a steady drop in enrollment — and the funding that comes with it — as the city opens its own classrooms. Operators have also complained of what they say is dismally low per-student funding.
Teachers also say they are struggling. Those who work in community-run programs make up to 60 percent less than their counterparts who work in public schools, and are often women of color — an important base of the Democratic party. They have voted to strike in May if their demands for higher pay are not met.
Low salaries are an issue nationally for teachers of the country’s youngest students. Notably, Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren’s proposal for affordable childcare also calls for early education teachers to earn salaries comparable to their K-12 colleagues.
In New York City, the threat of a work stoppage overshadows not just de Blasio’s most high-profile and successful education push. It also clashes vividly with his insistence that he wants to make New York City the “fairest big city in America.”
Kim Medina, who heads District Council 1707, which represents about 7,500 teachers in community organizations, said the pay gap her members are protesting represents “a policy that is dishonest, misogynistic, and racist.”
“My members understand that this administration only gives lip service to women of color,” she said at a recent rally on the steps of City Hall.
The question is whether any of these tension points matter to a broader electorate, especially when de Blasio has enjoyed almost universal praise for launching pre-K, and doing it in just two years. So far, the program has earned high marks for quality both locally and nationally. Parents have indicated they’re satisfied with the care and education their children are receiving — and that their families are now saving real money on childcare.
“It’s a winning issue and he definitely has a strong track record,” said Shael Polakow-Suransky, president of the Bank Street College of Education. “There’s a lot of demand for quality childcare in the country, whether you’re in a red state or a blue state.”
Integration progress — or a plan designed to fail?
The education story on the mind of many New Yorkers, however, has to do with the small number of students, disproportionately white and Asian American when compared to demographics citywide, who attend the city’s elite, specialized public high schools.
De Blasio has only reluctantly taken on efforts to spur more diversity in classrooms, even while overseeing one of the most segregated school systems in the country.
Early in his tenure, he described segregation as an intractable problem borne of “400 years of American history” and said the city should “ respect families who have made a decision to live in a certain area oftentimes because of a specific school” — an argument that seems to dismiss the need for redress.
Then he appointed a new chancellor, Richard Carranza, who in his first year has wasted no time calling out policies that have long been blamed for segregating students. Soon after Carranza’s arrival, the mayor proposed a contentious plan for integrating the city’s specialized high schools, which enroll only 10 percent black and Hispanic students. Citywide, those students make up almost two-thirds of enrollment.
Some cynical observers have mused that his ambitious proposal seems designed to fail: It relies on state officials to act and has been met with a court challenge. Lawmakers and the public have fought bruising battles over whether to overhaul admissions to the schools, with accusations of racism lobbed on both sides: A majority of specialized high school students are Asian. Meanwhile, the city hasn’t enacted any significant reforms that fall squarely within the mayor’s power to decide — though locally driven efforts have recently gained ground.
His stance on integration has ignited a firestorm locally. Although many progressives support integration, and some would knock him for not going far enough, it’s not clear how the issue would play among the different factions within the party nationally.
“I can’t even remember in my lifetime any presidential candidate saying anything about integration,” said Matt Gonzales, an integration advocate with the nonprofit New York Appleseed. “I don’t think it’s going to be relevant enough to make an impact.”
Alex Zimmerman and Sara Mosle contributed reporting.