Can School Reform be Reformed?

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Photo by: William Alatriste/NYC Council

When Michael Bloomberg was sworn in as mayor of the City of New York in 2002, he became part of a wave of new mayors across the country who, by nature of their political or financial independence, rejected old political pathways and patronage in favor of meritocratic hiring practices and a management style based on private sector principles of accountability and service delivery. They sought developmental policies to buoy municipal economic vitality and attractiveness. Bloomberg’s determination to make New York City more economically viable rested largely on his own education imperatives based on President Bush’s No Child Left Behind and accelerated by President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative. The subsequent renewed emphasis on student outcomes at both the City and State level could potentially neglect the policy implementation process in New York’s highly charged political environment.

Scholars considered Bloomberg’s system of education delivery akin to a portfolio management model of school-based differentiation strategies that stressed accountability and performance commonly ascribed to the private sector, alongside greater budgetary and curriculum discretion for principals. Initial reviews were equivocal but met with optimism. Some regarded Bloomberg to be overly business-minded and technocratic in his approach with too much emphasis on test scores, and steep reductions in community input. Scholar Diane Ravitch, a frequent Bloomberg critic, called out the mayor on the lack of public forum and the elimination of checks and balances as the new education regime reflected a privatization model to the exclusion of parents, community groups and unions.

Supporters of mayoral control tout the success stories: Closing of the achievement gap, higher test scores and graduations rates, improved accountability structures and control of the budgets, the creation of new schools and closing of underperforming institutions. Changes affecting the supply of schools and the diminution of interest- group influence were preferred to inflexible and ineffective models of governance. A post-Bloomberg administration will have to strike a balance between providing substantial and sustainable outcomes in an NCLB/Race to the Top environment while appeasing the special interests that helped win the election.

Voters head to the polls this November to choose a new mayor. Six Democrats and four Republicans who seek to become the next steward of City Hall have rushed to distance themselves from Bloomberg-era policies but education has gained little relative attention despite twelve years of mayoral control of schools. While no candidate has forcefully articulated a repeal of mayoral control, there has been widespread criticism of its effect on community engagement and education equity in communities of color. Organized labor and other education stakeholders have called for steep restructuring to enhance parental involvement, community engagement and fairness across and within school districts.

But the next mayor is unlikely to be a policy entrepreneur in the way Bloomberg was an “education mayor” and thus the scope and depth of previous education reforms will be difficult to abrogate. While the efficacy of Mayoral control is being debated broadly, three potential policy changes in the next Administration may portend significant transformations to the sprawling and often unwieldy system.

First, the next mayor could reduce the role businesses and philanthropies play in the governing regime, and forego many public/private partnership opportunities in education policy. Researcher Clarence Stone wrote that urban regimes are a network of typically wealthy or well-connected individuals, groups and businesses that support policies outside of formal governance structures. The inclusion of venture philanthropists in Bloomberg’s regime such as foundations, developers and major cultural leaders, provided needed support but “[challenged] long-held notions about the allocation of power within school systems…especially the role of parents, teachers [and] schools” according to Professor Janelle Scott at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education. Substantial changes to these partnerships may hinder long-term innovation and creativity among the principals who have been granted unprecedented autonomy under current mayoral control policies.

David Banks, President and CEO of the Eagle Academy Foundation and founding Principal of the Eagle Academy of the Bronx has cultivated relationships with Bloomberg and the private sector to grow four more non-charter schools in Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan and Newark, New Jersey. Each school, a public non-charter facility, boasts a near 100 percent graduate rate. The Bronx Eagle Academy recently hosted a Mayoral forum focused on education in their own state of the art building which Banks said was the result of a “strong working relationship between the principal, community leaders, business leaders, City and State government for the results [they] get.”

Candidates have been relatively silent on both principal autonomy and the strengthening of networks that support school leaders in their ability to attract resources to their schools. But not all observers embrace this type of external influence. Debbie Meyer, a parent advocate living in Harlem has long been concerned about the impact of the private sector. She suggests that without “replicable and sustainable” results across the system, reform efforts will likely end up being experimental rather then supportable over the long term.”

Public/private partnerships, over time, can produce lasting economic benefit and improve agenda-setting opportunities by and for previously marginalized constituencies. For example, former Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson, who served three nonconsecutive terms from the mid 1970s to the mid 1990s, was quite successful at expanding urban regimes to support education reform and significantly expand the Black middle class.

The second potential change involves school choice. Tension around charter schools has created political cleavages that comprise the bulk of opposition to Bloomberg-era school reforms. The UFT and NAACP have joined forces to articulate their disapproval at the power and perception shift in education governance that Jeffrey Henig at Teachers College says “increases reliance on private modes of service delivery”. The UFT/NAACP coalition that has been somewhat successful at absorbing grassroots organizations has charged the school choice community with promoting discriminatory practices that foster re-segregation within neighborhoods and even within school buildings. Charter supporters take issue with this characterization asserting that the Administration is merely giving small innovative public schools unused or underutilized space within existing buildings.

Bill Thompson, who was President of the Board of Education under the old system, and a former City Comptroller with significant private sector relationships, received the endorsement of the United Federation of Teachers. He may be the most successful at negotiating a middle ground although no signs of such compromise have surfaced. Candidates John Liu and Bill DeBlasio call for charters to pay for space (through taxes, fees or rent) and plan a moratorium on colocation, all of which could vastly reduce the number of viable charters. This seems punitive. More than 900 public schools, 58 percent of the entire system, are co-located and of those, only 8 percent are charter schools.

James Merriman, Director of the NYC Center for Charter Excellence, is concerned about the chilling effect since real estate costs in areas where many charters are likely to locate are steep, but expresses doubt that much of the rhetoric would be actualized. “In New York where real estate is both blood sport and life blood, without co-located space, we’d have an anemic … charter school movement” according to Merriman. “We should be worried … [but] I don’t think we should be panicked”, he added.

The collective action against charter schools initially seems disproportionate to larger issues involving student completion and outcomes. Only 47,000 children out of 1.1 million students are enrolled in 136 charters schools. That amounts to 4 percent of all students in New York City at 8 percent of its schools. But the concerns have deep roots in the communities of color where most are located. An older generation of activists, whose advocacy was fomented during the fight for Civil Rights, shaped modern thinking about teaching poor and minority children. The tension around charters therefore, while recognizable as a fight between Bloomberg and communities of color, is likely a proxy for racial, generational and class-based conflict.

Consider that in New York City, the charter school student population is 60 percent African American, and 33 percent Latino. The Harlem and Washington Heights neighborhoods within Charlie Rangel’s Congressional district are home to 28 (of 136 citywide) such schools. In the ten years between the 2000 and 2010 census figures show that the white population increased 28 percent, African American and Latino populations decreased by 14 percent and 8 percent respectively though the district is still majority Latino. Median income increased 45 percent to over $37,000 and the median home priced doubled. The number of individuals with a Bachelors degree or higher jumped 67 percent. These new residents, or gentrifiers, are less loyal to existing political institutions and often reject historic place-narratives in favor of more immediate concerns making them ideal partners for governing and school-choice regimes that seek local identity and legitimacy.

The third prospective change to education policy by the next mayor would be to expand opportunities for community, teacher and parent “voice,” defined by economist Albert O. Hirschman as an opportunity for individuals or groups to express displeasure or influence outcomes by engaging in protest against management or governing structures. Bloomberg opponents argue that his management of the Panel for Education Policy (PEP) and indifference to school closures exemplifies institutionalized system-wide restrictions on community engagement. Mr. Thompson proposed to appoint only seven members instead of eight to reduce the Mayor’s influence on the panel though this change is more symbolic than conducive to practical reductions in Mayoral autonomy.

This September, the Department of Education will open 78 news schools – among the 656 schools opened and 164 closed during Bloomberg’s twelve years in office. Some candidates have called for a moratorium on closures also. The NAACP and UFT filed suit to block the rapid shutting down and re-opening of schools, which ultimately failed. Consternation from some African American leaders focuses on these historic and prominent organizations promoting their own voices while admonishing parents who seek alternatives for their children. Controversies of school closures and co-location cannot be extricated from parent and community voice arguments and, in fact, are closely intertwined. But while previous Mayors have championed voice publicly, many leaders here and in other cities behave in ways that signal a fear of over-democratization of important policy decisions and the ceding of control to local power structures, further diluting institutional authority.

Ultimately, for whoever wins in November, a clear vision matters most according to Joe Williams of Democrats for Education Reform. “If you are in charge of the school system you need to be able to say to the parent ‘I want to make sure we are putting more great teachers in the classrooms.” “I don’t hear anyone talking about great teachers and great schools. I hear them talking about Bloomberg, and it has become irrelevant at this point.”

The sustainability of rapid reforms in New York and other mayoral control cities over the last 20 years may be forestalled by changes in local and national political leadership over the next five years. A leveling off of graduation rates and test scores may arise as districts grapple with balancing new credit-claiming imperatives and electoral interests through formation of new governing and political regimes. In the meantime, emboldened coalitions are finding political wedges, arguing that a sense of paternalism and marketization has dominated education policy. These coalitions have grown adept at showing how alliances with gentrifiers who are likely to exit the system, and the movement of school choice advocates from governing regimes to electoral regimes, has disrupted local political and cultural identity.

But as special interests seek to maintain their hold on electoral outcomes, groups like the UFT and NAACP should not engage in the politics of blocking but rather offer real solutions to the next Mayor. Accountability and choice have had some positive impact, though perhaps not as pervasively as many had hoped. The most detrimental obstacle to reform occurs, however, when coalitions steeped in historic significance conflate slowing or eliminating reform efforts with offering proactive policy solutions.

Mayor Bloomberg erected a reform structure during twelve years in office, which, though widely pilloried, has left a policy edifice not easily disassembled. The next Mayor of New York City, while engaging labor, community advocates and a vast array of education stakeholders including parents, will need to manage processes and outcomes using a deftness that avoids the attenuation of both critical components of education policy.

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