Bill de Blasio’s revisionist history on New York City education gains
While announcing New York City schools’ modest test-score gains in August, Mayor Bill de Blasio stated that previous administrations “never even tried to create consistent equity across all demographic groups.” A few weeks ago, he similarly noted: “We were all sold a bill of goods in the past – for generations – that there was a serious effort to create equity in our school system. There wasn’t.”
These statements are terribly unfair to Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his team, who fought hard to improve educational equity in New York.
Before Bloomberg, no mayor in generations had much authority over the city schools, which were characterized by dysfunction and inequity. Bloomberg pledged to be “the education mayor,” won control of the schools from the state Legislature, and moved the new Department of Education next to City Hall. Joel Klein, Bloomberg’s first schools chancellor, reorganized the system to give principals more autonomy, holding them accountable for results.
Bloomberg showered money on the schools: the operating budget nearly doubled, from $12.9 billion to $24.7 billion; per-pupil spending rose to over $20,000, well beyond the state average. The city spent an additional $25 billion in capital funds on new and renovated schools. More than 126,000 classroom seats were added, including 164 brand-new school buildings.
A 2005 contract with the teachers’ union provided a 43 percent increase in pay in exchange for ending “forced placement,” the practice of placing teachers in jobs based on seniority. Principals could now select their own staffs. Unplaced teachers were put in an Absent Teacher Reserve pool. Last month, the city announced that it will force ATR teachers – half of whom no principal has deemed fit to offer a position for over two years – into classrooms, a policy that surely will not serve educational equity.
Before Bloomberg, students were often trapped in low-performing zoned schools. His administration significantly expanded choice at the high school level by creating an application and assignment process, which isn’t perfect but is more equitable than before. Choice was expanded at the elementary and middle school level via support for charter schools, which were given space in city school buildings.
During the Bloomberg era, more than 150 low-performing schools were closed, reconfigured, and given a fresh start; the city opened 650 new schools – more than the number of schools in Boston, Newark, Washington, and Baltimore, combined. Struggling large high schools were broken into smaller academies that raised graduation rates for low-income students.
Between 1960 and 2003, no new vocational education schools opened in New York. The Bloomberg administration added 28 new career and technical education schools, including several 9-14 “P-Tech” schools that are now looked to as a national model.
Other Bloomberg-era educational equity reforms include: transfer schools giving older students a second chance to graduate; a fairer school-funding formula weighted by such factors as poverty; school safety policies that cut suspensions and violence in half. Bloomberg launched the Young Men’s Initiative, partially funded by his foundation, to improve education and economic outcomes for young minority men. The list goes on.
Most importantly, student achievement improved. Before Bloomberg, the high school graduation rate was under 50 percent for decades; when he left office, it was 66 percent. City kids steadily closed the achievement gap with the rest of the state and now outscore state averages in English and are near parity in math. When students’ socioeconomic backgrounds are factored in, city schools substantially outperform statewide averages.
Test scores and graduation rates have continued to improve over the past three years. The de Blasio administration deserves credit for its expansion of full-day pre-K and other efforts to expand access to computer science and advanced placement courses. But the administration’s major educational initiatives – PROSE Schools, Community Schools, Renewal Schools – haven’t produced markedly positive results.
Charter schools are the city’s best weapon against inequality: on the 2017 state tests, economically disadvantaged charter students outscored their district peers by 19 points in math and 12 points in English. Mayor de Blasio recently softened his anti-charter rhetoric but charter leaders are waiting for results. Currently, the administration has 27 space requests from charters.
As the de Blasio administration anticipates a likely second term and works for a more effective and equitable school system, here’s hoping that it notes the sense of urgency and focus on outcomes that existed during the Bloomberg years.
An apology to Mike Bloomberg wouldn’t hurt, either.
Charles Sahm is director of education policy at the Manhattan Institute.