Within weeks, Bill de Blasio or Joe Lhota—the grass-roots advocate or the "Consummate COO"—will be the 109th mayor of New York. And thanks to the 108th mayor of New York's securing control of the school system in 2002, one of them will oversee the nation's largest public-school system.
Neither man grew up in the city's public schools. But each has ideas about how they should be run—and considerable differences divide the candidates.
What to do about charter schools?
The charter school question, long a wedge, carves a wide split between the candidates: Lhota's for charters, and wants to lift the legally imposed state cap and double the number of charter schools in the city, eliminating wait lists in the bargain.
De Blasio's inclined to halt charter growth, citing concerns about the potential privatization of public ed and the sheer speed of the charter movement’s expansion. Moreover, de Blasio has said, charter schools should pay rent in city-owned school buildings, as is the case for charter schools nationwide. Presently, many charters are fitted into public school buildings rent-free.
Lhota opposes rent for charter schools. In fact, he'd like to see charters expand into underused Catholic school buildings.
Historically, charters have not enrolled as many students with disabilities or those still learning English as traditional publics, who are bound by law to enroll all eligible students. Charters enroll only about two-thirds as many special-education students as traditional public schools, and one-third as many English language learners. These groups of students need extra help—and can weigh down a school's standardized test scores.
Lhota also opposes the idea that charter schools—created a generation ago as progressive laboratories for innovation, but widely established in New York's most impoverished communities as bastions of rigor, order and test-prep –should enroll as many high-need kids as traditional public schools. De Blasio's on the other side of this coin as well, with the demand that charter and traditional-public enrollments should not differ.
Who should control the school system, and how?
Here's where the candidates can talk about sharing common ground: Both de Blasio and Lhota want to continue Bloomberg's institution of mayoral control, including mayorally-appointed members of the Panel for Education Policy or PEP (which replaced the Board of Ed more than a decade ago).
Both men also say they will bring parents and communities into ongoing dialogue with the Department of Education. Lhota wants to bring back town halls, touting his ability to listen to, and talk with, "anyone."
De Blasio, who cut his political teeth on the progressive District 15Community School Board, in Brownstone Brooklyn, says that parents must have a loud and strong voice in decisions affecting schools and their children. He supports co-locations, when schools share a building facility, only when locals approve of the arrangement. He's also for reworking the DOE's existing management and support structures and restoring a semblance of local, geographic organization, so parents have a physical resource where they can seek guidance on school questions. The city's more than 1,800 schools are now organized in networks that exist independent of district—or borough. Candidate Lhota has not yet weighed in on the mechanics of school support.
Another patch of common turf is decreasing what both candidates characterize as an over-reliance on high-stakes testing. While Lhota supports rewarding teachers with merit pay—ostensibly, for student outcomes on those same tests or for service in the city's most difficult districts—de Blasio advocates for changing the one-shot admissions exam that governs access to the city's prestigious specialized high schools. Over 30,000 students sit for the exam every fall, but only roughly 5,000 are offered seats—including de Blasio's telegenic son Dante.
Does anyone have a new idea?
Over the course of the campaign so far, candidate de Blasio has taken a strong stand on what new policies he wants to implement as mayor. There’s been little of the same from Lhota, so far, beyond the Republican’s assertion that he and de Blasio have "completely divergent" ideas and "a completely different philosophy" on education, among other topics.
A central plank of the de Blasio platform is providing full-day, universal pre-kindergarten for every family in New York City. The city currently offers half-day pre-K, which is logistically impossible for thousands of working families who cannot afford half-day child care. Additionally, de Blasio advocates for universal after-school programs, on the community school model, for middle-school students during the hours of 3 to 6 p.m.—a canny strategy to provide structure for older youngsters, who most often get into trouble in the hours after school. These initiatives will be funded, he said, by raising income taxes on New York's wealthiest—those earning upward of $500,000 a year—from 3.86 percent to 4.3 percent. (Never mind that most of these deep pockets send their children to private schools, and likely have little personal connection to the city's public schools.)
Watch Our Filmstrip: "Bloomberg and the Schools!"
Lhota supports early-childhood education, including universal pre-K, and generally supports a longer day and a longer school year. He says he will not raise taxes to fund pre-K, as he hopes to find enough trimable fat in the budget.
One broad-sighted de Blasio proposal knits together education and public safety: Building on the Bloomberg-era trend of early-college high schools, where students can graduate with high-school diplomas and Associate's credentials, he proposes a new Career and Technical Education high school, run in conjunction with John Jay College (noted for its criminal justice offerings) to train young New Yorkers to become city cops—graduating students who will be ready to enter the Police Academy or continue on to a four-year college.
Anyone else care to share?
William Thompson, the former Comptroller, five-time Board of Ed chair, and twice-rebuffed candidate for mayor, offered education ideas during the primary campaign that both de Blasio and Lhota might consider adopting.
To support high-achieving high school graduates, and to raise academic rigor at the City University of New York's community and four-year colleges, Thompson proposed granting one year's free tuition to any student who graduates from the city's public schools with a B average. (Notably, most NYC high school graduates require at least a semester of remediation when they enroll at CUNYs; theoretically, the B students would be ready for college-level work and be able to avoid the remediation detour.)
In light of the state and the city's increasing emphasis on career- and college-readiness, Thompson also proposed adding a seat for a CUNY representative to the mayor's PEP. This would permit a voice from higher ed in the conversation about K-12.
Thompson also asked for more college and guidance counselors city-wide; currently, there are more NYPD school safety officers than guidance personnel working with New York's public school students.
The view from a street corner
City Limits decided to ask voters which of the two major-party candidates would be the better Education Mayor. In an entirely unscientific, random “spot” poll of pedestrians on the southwest corner of Park Avenue and 23d Street, more than half of the people who stopped were from out of town – tourists, or from beyond the city’s five boroughs.
The news we learned from local voters, though, should concern both candidates: Of 50 self-identified New York City registered voters, 15 said de Blasio would be the better education mayor. One said Joe Lhota. Seven were undecided. And the majority of respondents on that sunny afternoon – 27 people – said they did not plan to vote.
Like that popular feature in the mayoral debates, here’s City Limits' quick look at the candidates' stance on a swath of other issues:
Class size De Blasio says classes should be smaller; Lhota disagrees.
School closures Lhota says school closures are important to promote success; de Blasio opposes them.
Arts and sex De Blasio would make arts education mandatory in all public schools, and would require sex education as well. Not the case for Lhota.
Teachers Both Lhota and de Blasio offer plans to promote, support and raise the status of teachers in New York. That said, Lhota will not agree to retroactive pay (the teachers have been working without a contract since 2009)—and de Blasio has been publicly mum on the lapsed contract, perhaps because former rival Thompson had the prized UFT endorsement before the primary vote.
Lhota and de Blasio aren't the only potential next education mayors—they're just the most likely. Adolfo Carrión, the Independence Party candidate, has a schools plan on his website, and so does independent candidate Jack Hidary.