making his case

Arguing for mayoral control, de Blasio sparks a spat over charter school funding

PHOTO: Kevin P. Coughlin-Office of the Governor/Flickr
Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo at a press conference in 2014.

As Mayor Bill de Blasio appealed to state lawmakers Tuesday to let him keep control of the city schools, he took a shot at charter schools that could hurt his case.

Without mayoral control of city schools, thousands of toddlers would be without pre-kindergarten classes and the entire system would be “fragmented and inefficient,” he said during a budget hearing in Albany.

But he also spoke out against Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s recent proposal to increase funding for charter schools, saying it would place an unfair financial burden on the city. Since Cuomo and some Republican lawmakers view the mayoral control debate as more a referendum on de Blasio’s education policies than a governance question, and both embrace charter schools, de Blasio’s remarks could undermine his argument to them.

“We hold a basic belief that every single child in this state is equally important,” de Blasio said about the proposed boost in charter-school funding, “and we do not support initiatives that take from one group of children to give to another.”

Cuomo recently proposed ending the current freeze on the public funding New York City charter schools receive for each student. That would raise funding for the city’s charter schools one year ahead of the rest of the state’s charters, which have not seen a funding increase for five years.

De Blasio said Tuesday that lifting the freeze would cost the city over $30 million next year, and pointed out that no other municipality is being asked to pay for such an increase. He said the city would welcome state money to cover the cost, but added that he would not want the state to “take away funding from other pressing needs.”

Charter advocates were quick to criticize the mayor’s comments.

“The Mayor’s position today conflicts with his recent inclusive tone around charter schools, and that is unfortunate — though not entirely unexpected,” said James Merriman, the CEO of the New York City Charter School Center.

De Blasio’s strong stance against raising per-pupil charter school funding is unlikely to please either Cuomo, who has again said he would support a three-year extension of mayoral control, or from Republican lawmakers, who are already skeptical about de Blasio’s bid.

Otherwise, the mayor’s testimony hewed closely to themes he established last year when he asked for a permanent extension of mayoral control, which had expired after a six-year stint. Legislators ultimately granted him a one-year renewal and invited him to return this year to try again.

The short extension set the stage for another debate this year over de Blasio’s education policies. Now, state lawmakers will decide whether de Blasio’s “Renewal” program for struggling schools, his vast expansion of pre-K program, and his stance on charters warrants the permanent extension of mayoral control, or at least a seven-year renewal, which de Blasio is asking for.

In making his case Tuesday, he cited the relatively smooth pre-K rollout and the city’s record-high graduation rate last year. He also gave an implicit nod to his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, who first convinced legislators to give the city’s mayor authority over the nation’s largest school system, then used the power to make sweeping changes — including disempowering local school boards, overhauling admissions systems, and closing hundreds of schools. Though Bloomberg’s policy prescriptions remain controversial, graduation rates rose and corruption waned during those years.

“Over time, we’ve seen that mayoral control works,” de Blasio said.

But the governor and some lawmakers take the position that the tool of mayoral control cannot be separated from the policies of the person who wields it.

Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan’s office said in a statement this month that he plans to scrutinize de Blasio’s long-term vision for city education, especially the city’s progress at turning around underperforming schools, and dive into specific issues like allegations of grade-fixing.

“Senator Flanagan supports mayoral control for New York City schools, but not at any cost,” according to the statement from his press office.

Since the now-annual debate over mayoral control gives de Blasio’s critics in Albany a chance to publicly evaluate his policies, it’s unlikely they will grant him a long-term extension this session, said David Bloomfield, an education professor at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.

“Why give up a fun toy?” he said.

De Blasio and his allies say the mayor’s policy positions should not influence lawmakers’ answer to the theoretical question of who should control the city’s schools system. Others say the repeated battles over the specifics of mayoral control have become a distraction.

“This is another issue that takes away from the issues that we want to focus on if we have to go back to the table each year and debate mayoral control,” said Randi Levine, a project director at Advocates for Children.

Decision makers

5 things to know about Austan Goolsbee, the high-powered new addition to Chicago’s school board

PHOTO: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
In 2013, Austan Goolsbee testified before the Congressional Joint Economic Committee on Capitol Hill about the nation's economic recovery

Chicago’s school board is once again complete after outgoing mayor Rahm Emanuel chose a University of Chicago economist to fill a long-vacant seat.

Austan Goolsbee, an economics professor at University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, will round out the seven-member, mayor-appointed board that sets education policy in the city.

Here are five things to know about Goolsbee:

  1. Like Emanuel, he served in the Obama White House. Goolsbee was as a close adviser to President Barack Obama, eventually becoming chair of his Council of Economic Advisors. The Chicago Teachers Union see this tie as a liability. “Mr. Goolsbee comes into a board responsible for students and their schools being starved of resources for the last eight years by the man who appointed him,” the union said in a statement. “Those same neighborhoods continue to struggle from the consequences of a foreclosure crisis that the administration he served in Washington failed to address.”
  2. He has weighed in on education before. A prolific opinion writer, he has written favorably about the economic arguments for universal prekindergarten, a priority for the outgoing mayor, saying that expanding early childhood education is a bargain over the long term. In a 2015 survey of economists’ positions on public issues, Goolsbee expressed optimism about “value-added” measures that try to isolate the impact of individual teachers on student test scores — though he qualified the approach as having “lots of noise and unobservables.” Expressing uncertainty about vouchers, Goolsbee said he fears that letting parents use public funds to pay for private school tuition could harm public schools, which have fixed costs cannot easily be reduced when students leave them. (A tax-credit version of vouchers launched in Illinois last year but now faces an uncertain future under a new Democratic governor.)
  3. He’ll bring a focus on fiscal policy to a board that oversees a big and uncertain budget. A close economic adviser to President Obama and prolific commenter on matters of economic policy in the national media, he’s joining a board that oversees $8 billion in outstanding debt. Chicago has credited the passage of an equitable funding bill, in 2017, for helping stabilize its finances. But the district’s economic future is uncertain, especially as families continue to leave the city.
  4. His personal public school experience is limited. He attended an elite private high school in the suburbs of Boston where he grew up, and his children attended the University of Chicago’s Lab School both before and after the family’s time in Washington, D.C., he has said in interviews.
  5. He’s got a following, and a sense of humor. For proof, check out his Twitter feed, which has 80,000 followers, and his October appearance on the popular NPR quiz show “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.” Plus, his official University of Chicago profile lists a special interest in improv comedy. That sets him apart from the rest of the school board members, who tend to keep a low public profile.  

How long Goolsbee serves could depend on what happens after Emanuel leaves office in early 2019. Chicago’s mayor has controlled the city school board since 1995, but Emanuel’s decision not to seek a third term has heightened debate about whether the city’s schools have benefitted.

In 2011 and 2015, voters backed non-binding resolutions that would make the board democratically elected. Now, two of the leading candidates in the mayor’s race, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and state comptroller Susana Mendoza, have said they’d support an elected school board — reducing their own power over education if they become mayor.

How soon a change could happen is unclear, but state lawmakers who would have to sign off on such a change have an ally in Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker, who has said he supports the call for an elected school board.

The issue was a point of debate at a Chalkbeat Chicago event this week at Malcolm X College. At the event, titled “Education for All? Chicago’s Next Mayor and the Future of Public Schools,” some panelists voiced concern that elections would be dominated by well-organized factions, such as the teachers union, that would have the ability to outspend other candidates.

Super Search

The pressing question at Denver’s final forum: How will Susana Cordova tackle inequity?

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Susana Cordova poses for a portrait in December 2018.

The challenges that Susana Cordova will face if she’s hired next week as superintendent of the Denver school district were laid bare at a public forum Tuesday night.

Standing in a high school cafeteria with a microphone in her hand, the deputy superintendent and sole finalist for the top job faced tough questions about why struggling schools have high numbers of inexperienced teachers, whether she would commit to removing all police officers from schools, and what she would do about what one student called the “charter-ization” of Denver Public Schools — that is, the district’s practice of replacing low-performing district-run schools, sometimes with charter schools.

The most heated and emotional exchanges, however, were about inequities: Why is the district not serving black, Latino, and Native American students as well as white students? Why do test score gaps exist between students from poor families and those from wealthier ones?

Onecia Garcia, a senior at East High School, the city’s largest school and one of its most diverse, told Cordova there is a noticeable gap at East between the kids whose parents have money to pay for tutors and SAT prep courses, and the kids whose parents don’t.

“I want to know what your plan is to get that gap in order,” Garcia said.

In response to Garcia’s question and others like it, Cordova acknowledged that institutional racism exists in Denver Public Schools and has contributed to those gaps. She said the district needs to do a better job informing families about opportunities such as free SAT help and concurrent enrollment classes that allow students to earn college credit while in high school.

Cordova, who grew up in Denver and climbed the district ranks from teacher to her current position of deputy superintendent, talked about making it mandatory for all teachers to undergo training on bias and being culturally responsive, instead of allowing some to opt out.

Cordova said one of her top priorities would be to take the myriad and disparate efforts the district has started over the years to address specific inequities and combine them into one comprehensive plan. She called it “an equity plan that is for all kids, but that also has the specifics for African-American kids, for Latino kids, for low-income kids.”

“It is important that we’re not introducing too many things that you can’t keep a focus,” she said. “I think that’s a valid criticism of the work that we’ve done: We’ve introduced too many things that have made it hard to understand what is the progress that we’re trying to get at.”

But after the forum, Garcia said she didn’t feel Cordova had fully answered the questions. Other students who attended said they felt the same way.

“She wasn’t willing to commit to anything,” said Jonathan Bateman, a freshman at George Washington High School, where the forum was held.

“She answered questions like a politician,” said Carlye Raabe, also a freshman at George Washington.

Cordova emphasized that if she’s hired as superintendent, she’ll approach the job differently than her predecessor, Tom Boasberg, who stepped down in October after nearly 10 years of leading Denver Public Schools. Boasberg was often criticized for not listening to the community.

“I believe deeply in the power of relationships,” Cordova said. “I think it’s really important that we’re not just listening to people who think like I think or who sound like I sound, but who have different experiences, because Denver is an incredibly diverse place.”

The school board is expected to vote Monday on whether to appoint Cordova to the top job.