Anthony Weiner’s views on education policy became a little clearer on his first full day on the campaign trail, when he told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer that he supports letting charter schools use space in public school buildings.
The issue puts him at odds with several of his Democratic competitors for mayor, who have said they would impose a moratorium on the space-sharing arrangements. Co-location has induced tension in many school buildings, but it has also allowed the city’s charter school sector to thrive, and whether to continue the practice is a major decision facing the next mayor.
In fact, on the issue of school choice, Weiner suggested that his support extends well beyond the public school system. He proposed helping non-public schools — he cited cash-strapped Catholic schools in particular — with publicly funded support that they are already entitled to, including technology, health care and security. He first floated the idea in his 2009 policy book “Keys to the City,” which he re-released last month.
“We’ve made it much too difficult for parish schools in this city and they are an asset and we should all mourn when they disappear,” Weiner told Lehrer, in the former congressman’s first broadcast interview since he declared his candidacy for mayor. Weiner’s political career seemingly ended two years ago when he was lied about sending sexually explicit texts to women on Twitter.
Weiner said the city had been misguided in buying and renting space from Catholic schools that have closed, as dozens have done due to dwindling enrollment, instead of helping the schools stay open.
“Rather than try to help these Catholic schools, rather than see if we can help them in purely secular ways of trying to ease some of their burdens, and rather than saying to the folks at Tweed, ‘You know, let’s see what we can do with public dollars that they’re entitled to anyway — things like book money — and see if we can figure out ways to help,’ we’ve kind of swooped in and tried to make use of the property instead,” Weiner said.
After Lehrer asked whether the plan could violate the constitutional principle of separation of church and state, Weiner said his interest in seeing Catholic schools survive in New York City comes from support for choice.
“I just think we have to … see it as more of our mission to have education as more of a cornucopia of options rather than simply one,” Weiner said. But he said he would not support vouchers that would let families use public funds to pay private school tuition.
Not much is known about what kind of an education mayor Weiner would be. But that was one of the first topics that Lehrer pressed Weiner on after he once again apologized for the sexting scandal, which he characterized as “private behavior and things that I was doing in my private life.”
Weiner repeated a plea that, at the very least, New Yorkers listen to his ideas on how he would run the city if elected mayor. He began first with some praise for the Bloomberg administration, whose policies on education have become a daily punching bag for Weiner’s Democratic rivals.
“The way I look at the Bloomberg administration is that they did a laudable thing to begin with, and they said let’s get control of the system and lets put a lot more money into it. And it’s undeniable that, frankly, it’s the only part of the budget that is really growing a great deal,” Weiner said.
Under Bloomberg, city education spending has increased from $5.9 billion in 2002 to $13.7 billion for the fiscal year that starts July 1.
But Weiner then unleashed some anti-testing rhetoric that would fit right in with the other Democratic candidates.
“I think there are too many standardized tests,” Weiner said, a complaint that he might not have all that much control over as mayor, because federal law requires that states administer annual standardized testing.
But he said that the city relied too heavily on the state tests and suggested that a better way to gauge the city’s school system would be through national assessments.
“I think we have to take a look, not how we’re comparing the Bronx to Staten Island. We got to think about how we’re comparing to Pittsburgh,” Weiner said, citing as an example the midwestern city whose skyline for some reason appears on his own campaign’s website. “And I think that taking a snapshot of those national tests is as important as anything we’re doing locally.”
On the divisive issue of charter school co-locations, Weiner said he supported them as long as there is free space inside city school buildings.
“I don’t have an objection to co-locating charter schools and public schools where there is space,” said Weiner, who did not discuss whether he supported Bloomberg’s school closure policies, which have often freed up space for charter schools. Other Democratic candidates for mayor have said they thought the Bloomberg administration too often turned to closures instead of supporting low-performing schools.
Weiner’s early campaign strategy appears to try to, as the Times put it this morning, seize a “common-sense centrism” that the other Democrats have so far ignored. In dealing with growing mandated costs tied to the city’s municipal labor force, Weiner said he would want to see workers begin paying health insurance premiums, with higher rates for smokers.
The Bloomberg administration cited both proposals last month as crucial concessions needed to keep reduce healthcare costs, projected to increase by 30 percent in three years.
“So does this position indicate that you will not be competing for public sector union endorsements?” Lehrer asked Weiner.
Weiner said that the message he wants to send to public employees, with whom the next mayor will have to negotiate new contracts, is that money saved through higher health insurance premiums could end up back in their pockets another way.
“That is money we can’t use for raises,” said Weiner, referring to the $2.6 billion that the city’s annual bill for healthcare is projected to increase by over the next four years.
Lehrer asked specifically about the UFT endorsement, which is scheduled for June 19 and has been seen as one of the most crucial for the Democratic candidates.
“If I don’t get the UFT endorsement, that doesn’t mean I’m not going to try every single day to persuade every teacher and every supervisor and every staff member that I want their vote,” Weiner said.