5 Steps Bill de Blasio Must Take to Save NYC's Schools

De Blasio has an opportunity to undo much of the disaster wrought by the Bloomberg administration. Here's how he can do it.

Photo Credit: Bill de Blasio via Wikimedia Commons

The election of Bill de Blasio represents a major national setback for the agenda shared not only by Mayor Bloomberg, but by George W. Bush, Michelle Rhee, Arne Duncan, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange), the Koch brothers and many others. What they had in common was that they had the gall to call themselves “reformers” as they determined to replace public education with a choice system that gave preference to privatized management over democratic governance.

Make no mistake: In New York City, the drive to privatize public education has ground to a halt with de Blasio’s election.

Bill de Blasio now has the opportunity to provide national leadership to the growing movement to rebuild and strengthen public education as a fundamental institution in our democratic society. He can make clear that the past decade of relying on testing and punishment has failed and that wise policy can restore the public schools as agencies of social progress.

De Blasio understands the failure of the Bloomberg education policies. Not only were his own children students in New York City’s public schools (one is now in high school, the other in college), but he was a member of a local school board. He knows better than most, how authoritarian the mayor was, and how indifferent he was to the concerns of parents and communities. De Blasio understands that decisions about the fate of schools should not be made arbitrarily and capriciously by one man, but only after the most earnest deliberation with those most directly affected: students, parents, educators, and the local community.

De Blasio must restore trust in public education in New York City, which Bloomberg eroded. The public school system enrolls 1.1 million students, and New Yorkers made clear in this election that they want a mayor who intends to make it work better for all children, not demean and destroy it. For a dozen years, we have had a mayor whose main message was that charter schools—the schools outside his control—were far, far superior to the schools for which he was directly responsible. He looked down on the public schools that enrolled 94% of all students, and by word and deed, sought to undermine public confidence in them.

Bloomberg did his best to destroy neighborhood schools and turn all schools into schools of choice. De Blasio must reverse that policy. He should restore neighborhood schools and the sense of community that builds strong schools and strong communities. Where Bloomberg sought to eliminate the school system and make every school into an autonomous unit, responsible for nothing more than test score data, de Blasio must rebuild the school system so that every school has competent oversight and supervision.

How does a new mayor go about rebuilding a school system that has gone through a dozen years of being the target of a wrecking ball?

First, he must restore the contiguous community school districts, each of which has a superintendent to oversee the condition and progress of the schools. In a de Blasio administration, there should be neighborhood elementary schools, neighborhood middle schools, and neighborhood high schools. There should be a district office where parents can go and get an answer if they have problems, rather than trying to penetrate the secluded, indifferent, and distant bureaucracy that Bloomberg created.

Second, the restoration of neighborhood schools would eliminate the byzantine “choice” process that Bloomberg initiated, whereby parents of children applying to middle school and high school visited schools, listed a dozen choices, and hoped for the best. Choosing a middle school should not be as difficult and complicated as applying to college. Every parent should be able to count on admission to a neighborhood school. At the same time, de Blasio should retain the specialized high schools that students want to attend, even if they must leave their neighborhood. In a city as big as New York City, there is room for both neighborhood schools and a limited number of schools that students choose, like the Bronx High School of Science, Stuyvesant High School, and Brooklyn Tech (where de Blasio’s son Dante is a student).

Third, de Blasio should assemble a team of expert educators—recruited from the ranks of the city’s most respected retired educators—who will take on a double assignment. First, they should review the quality of every principal in the system because many who were appointed by Bloomberg had minimal experience as educators. Second, his council of expert evaluators should create a regular inspection process to visit every struggling school and devise an action plan to provide the help it needs for the children it serves.

Fourth, de Blasio should follow through on his campaign promise to set higher expectations for the city’s charter sector. The policy of co-location does not work. Instead, it has created a system of separate and unequal schools housed in the same building. Charter schools that are munificently funded (and that pay their executives munificent salaries, far more than the chancellor of the entire city school system) should pay rent for using public space, as the law requires. Charter schools should be expected to enroll the same population as neighborhood schools, with the same proportions of students who are English learners and the same proportions of students with disabilities (accepting students with all kinds of disabilities, not just those with the least challenging ones, as they now do). Charters should be expected to collaborate, not compete, with the city’s public schools.

Fifth, and far from last, the new mayor should de-emphasize testing and accountability. We have learned again and again that students with the greatest needs get the lowest test scores. The mayor should eliminate Bloomberg’s flawed accountability system, whose sole purpose seems to be to set up schools for closure and privatization. Most testing should be done by teachers, who know what they have taught and can use test results to learn quickly what students need and how to give them support. It would be a breath of fresh air if the mayor announced a three-year moratorium on Common Core testing while the city is restoring integrity to a badly damaged school system.

The most immediate goal of Mayor Bill de Blasio is to select a chancellor who agrees with his vision of rebuilding the New York City public school system. This should be an experienced educator who shares the mayor’s view that the needs of children really do come first and that data are far less important than the restoration of respect for learning, respect for educators, and the realization that a new day has dawned for public education in New York City.

Diane Ravitch is Research Professor of Education at New York University and a historian of education.

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