There will be plenty of questions among school reformers, both nationwide and in New York City, about whether either Democratic nominee for Mayor Bill de Blasio or Republican rival Joseph Lhota will continue the legacy of strong systemic reform that has been the hallmark of outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s 12 years at City Hall. But before one can come to any conclusions one way or another, consider what happened after the mayoral race in Washington, D.C., three years. A look at what has happened to reform in D.C. since that election should help reformers keep in mind that advancing systemic reform isn’t necessarily dependent on whose holding the top municipal office.
As many of you remember, there were fears among reformers, including yours truly, that the overhaul of D.C. Public Schools launched by then-mayor Adrian Fenty with the help of Michelle Rhee would fall apart after Fenty lost the Democratic primary that year to rival Vincent Gray. For good reason. Gray had the backing of the American Federation of Teachers and its Beltway local, which spent $1 million to back his successful ouster of Fenty from the John Wilson Building and become the next mayor. These concerns were elevated weeks later when Rhee stepped down as chancellor of the traditional district, and led to alarm after Gray announced that his transition committee on education would include Nathan Saunders, then the president of the AFT affiliate.
But three years later, one can safely say that Gray has not only stayed on the path Fenty had set for systemic reform, but even sustained it. Certainly the district is nowhere near where it should be in improving student achievement. But it is no longer the superfund site of American public education. The presence of a vibrant coalition of school reform advocates, which began developing at the turn of the 20th century with the efforts of proto-Parent Power activist Virginia Walden Ford and bolstered by the efforts of then-city councilman Kevin Chavous and Mayor Anthony Williams to expand school choice, is one reason why Gray has had to stay on course. The presence of Rhee’s protégé and successor as chancellor, Kaya Henderson, overseeing the district, along with the roles being played on the ground by organizations such as the Grassroots Education Project, media outlets such as the Washington Post, established leaders such as United Negro College Fund President Michael Lomax, and black and white families demanding high-quality education have long ago set a reform agenda that Gray cannot oppose — especially as his administration remains under the cloud of scandal related to his maiden campaign for top city office. That the Obama Administration, along with the national media, is keeping a watchful eye on D.C. affairs on the school reform front, also ensures that Gray toes the line.
But perhaps the biggest reason why Gray has stayed the course on systemic reform lies with the fact that voters three years ago didn’t elect him to put a kibosh on reform in the first place. In fact, it was the support for Rhee (who, despite her Churchillian manner and the racial politics that are always a reality in urban affairs) that led Gray to beat Fenty by a much-closer margin than one watching D.C. politics could have imagined. Most voters had enough with Fenty’s tenure, which was littered with spats with the city council, incidents of alleged cronyism, a high-profile snub of Dorothy Height, a doyenne of the city’s black political elite, and a high-profile jailbreak from the city’s juvenile detention center that left whatever reputation he still had as an effective city manager in tatters. Fenty even managed to bruise the egos of the very school reformers who were keeping his campaign afloat by failing to appear at a debate sponsored by the Young Education Professionals of D.C. But just because they were ready to give Fenty the heave-ho doesn’t mean that they wanted his school reform agenda to disappear with him.
The fact that school reform wasn’t the reason why either Gray won or Fenty lost shouldn’t have been a surprise for either D.C.’s reformers or traditionalists — and it shouldn’t be a surprise for their respective colleague in either New York City or the nation. Mayoral control may increasingly become the normal form of governance in America’s big cities. It will likely become the norm even in counties throughout the southern states, including in Maryland — home to Dropout Nation — where county chief executives such as Rushern Baker of Prince George’s County are successfully pushing for at least partial control of woeful traditional districts. But for most big-city residents, the role of mayors as school reformers-in-chief is still rather novel and recent, especially since most districts in this country are still run by independent school boards. More importantly, education is just one of many concerns on their minds. Mayors must also master the other aspects of their job: Keeping crime low; attending to quality of life issues; efficiently managing city government; and artfully keeping opponents (and sometimes, even allies) divided or placated.
Fenty’s loss three years ago has long ago proven that reform-minded mayors who fail in addressing the more-immediate quality-of-life issues on the minds of residents — or worse, prove to be arrogant and incompetent at the same time — will lose their jobs. Same with Bart Peterson’s unsuccessful campaign for re-election as Indianapolis mayor after his success in becoming the nation’s first mayor to authorize charter schools was overmatched by his failures to stem rising crime, clamp down on vagrancy and vandalism, and unwillingness to face down Democrat allies on the city-county council more-concerned with graft and race-baiting than with sensible fiscal management. For those who aspire to be municipal chief executives, two things are clear: Proclaiming themselves to be reform-minded mayors can only be done after they address the concerns that will often be more-immediate on the minds of voters. And reformers, in turn, must continually make the case for systemic reform — and look to other approaches to transforming education in big cities — regardless of who occupies City Hall.
This is particularly true in the case of the New York City mayor’s race. Big Apple reformers and their traditionalists rivals spent plenty of time listening to the sloganeering and promises of candidates such as de Blasio, Lhota, and disgraced congressman-turned-even more disgraced candidate Anthony Weiner at various events throughout the city. Reformers were brought to fears — and traditionalists to cheers — in July after the American Federation of Teachers’ local, the United Federation of Teachers, gave its endorsement (and rallied its members to support) William Thompson, a former city comptroller who had also served as president of the city Department of Education’s notoriously-inept board before Bloomberg successfully took over the district in 2001.
What both sides failed to consider is a much-bigger issue on the minds of New York City residents: The use of stop-and-frisk police procedures that had become a much-controversial (and not necessarily all that successful) aspect of Bloomberg’s crime-fighting. de Blasio successfully played upon the complaints of the Big Apple’s black and Latino communities over the use of stop-and-frisk by declaring throughout his campaign that he opposed it and would put it to an end; the fact that de Blasio is married to an African-American woman and has a son who could easily be targeted by police with the tactic, gave him a credibility that his Democrat rivals — including Thompson (a longtime supporter of stop-and-frisk) didn’t have. Reformers didn’t give stop-and-frisk much thought. But they should have. They could have at least noted how the use of the tactic exemplifies how suspensions and expulsions are overused by traditional and charter schools in the city at the expense of young black men, or even noting the connections between improving student achievement and continuing the success of Bloomberg and predecessor Rudolph Giuliani in stemming crime (and keeping New York from experiencing the bad old days of the 1970s and early 1980s).
Meanwhile voters weren’t likely worried about either de Blasio’s or Lhota’s positions on continuing Bloomberg’s systemic reforms. Why? Because it doesn’t weigh nearly as heavily on their minds as stop-and-frisk (and their general exhaustion with Bloomberg’s 12 years in office). More importantly, it is also likely that they don’t expect either man to stray far from Bloomberg’s direction in the first place. Certainly de Blasio’s declaration that he would essentially end Bloomberg’s practice of allowing charters to share space with traditional district schools in half-empty buildings is disconcerting to any sensible reformer. But it is unlikely that any of the contenders would hand back control of the district to an independent school board if they took office because it is something no Big Apple mayor would do; save for the disgraceful tenures of John V. Lindsay and Abraham Beame (the latter having had to essentially place the city into state receivership in the form of a financial control board), past New York City mayors — including the late Ed Koch, Rudy Giuliani, and Bloomberg — are renowned for their constant pursuit of accumulating power (and zealously defending it against governors, legislators, and unions). Neither de Blasio nor rival Lhota, no matter which one wins, will be any different.
No matter who wins, they would have a hard time straying from Bloomberg’s course. For one, there is the very presence of Bloomberg, who will use his considerable fortune and public stature to preserve his legacy. There’s also New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo — a strong supporter of mayoral control who has made clear he would put failing districts throughout the state under such arrangements (if not put them out of business altogether) — Education Commissioner John King, and Board of Regents Chair Meryl Tisch (who has deep pockets of her own to keep reform on the right path). Meanwhile the vibrant coterie of school reformers in the Big Apple — including the likes of Harlem Children’s Zone boss Geoffrey Canada, former chancellor (and News Corp. executive) Joel Klein, Democrats for Education Reform cofounder Whitney Tilson, Eva Moskowitz of Success Academies, as well as StudentsFirst’s New York City affiliate and the editorial pages of the Daily News and New York Post — will also make life for anyone who wins the right to sleep in Gracie Mansion to stray far from advancing reform. This, by the way, doesn’t even factor in the presence of several of the nation’s biggest institutional players in school reform, including Teach For America (where one of de Blasio’s former staffers now serves), TNTP, and the KIPP chain of charter schools. Based on the results of yesterday’s Democratic primary — with AFT-backed Thompson coming in far behind de Blasio (with 26 percent of the vote versus de Blasio’s 40 percent) — one can easily say that traditionalists have even less traction in the Big Apple than school reformers.
This isn’t to say that either de Blasio or Lhota will do well in following Bloomberg’s stead, or won’t diverge in some ways from the incumbent’s approach. Or if either man has the chops to be mayor in the first place. After all, New York City has long alternated between strong, competent mayors (La Guardia, Koch, and Giuliani), and weak, feckless incompetents (William O’Dwyer, Lindsay, and David Dinkins). The fact that the Big Apple has had two highly-regarded mayors in a row (and that three of the last four have done well by the city) is a trend that may or may not continue. Both men have emerged from what is likely the most-lackluster field of mayoral aspirants since 1973, before your editor was born. Lhota’s tenure as head of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority gives him a stronger standing on the competence front that de Blasio (who currently occupies the largely-ceremonial Public Advocate job) lacks, it doesn’t mean that either man can run the city.
It will be interesting to see what will the victor do after Election Day to keep the well-regarded Dennis Walcott as chancellor, or, if they don’t, who will be placed in Walcott’s stead. Reformers will have to lobby hard to ensure that the victor chooses a chancellor who will be the equal to Walcott or Klein — and not be another Cathy Black (whose brief tenure as Klein’s successor and Walcott’s predecessor was one of Bloomberg’s worst decisions on the education front). Reformers also must volunteer themselves to help the eventual winner in his transition just to make sure that reform remains on the right path. Most-importantly, the movement must continue to bring new voices and supporters into the fold, especially in the grassroots among families and community leaders who want better lives for the children they love. The failure to build a more-robust base of grassroots support, especially in your editor’s home borough of Queens (where charter schools have not gained traction in spite of the need for high-quality schools in New York’s most-populous and suburban-like area) has been one of the shortcomings of both Bloomberg and the movement. Bodies on the ground lead to sustained reforms for the long haul.
Meanwhile the very failure of the AFT affiliate and its president, Michael Mulgrew, to muster enough support for Thompson points to another reality: That teachers’ union clout is weakened once they must attempt to wield it in city-wide elections in which quality-of-life concerns (and the general skepticism of residents mindful of how woeful traditional schools were before mayoral control) trump their efforts to defend declining influence. This is especially true when one considers that the AFT’s decision to back Thompson ran counter to the moves by other unions such as the Service Employees International Union’s Big Apple affiliate to support de Blasio’s candidacy; the coffers and bodies of the city’s largest union put bodies dwarfed those of the AFT. The fact that the AFT chose the wrong candidate to back in the Democratic primary will make it difficult for it to win de Blasio over to his side on most matters because he owes them nothing. Particularly for Mulgrew, who has been criticized by some within the AFT’s rank-and-file for backing Thompson, de Blasio’s victory will serve as a reminder of Mulgrew’s fecklessness to both Baby Boomers within AFT ranks and younger, more reform-minded colleagues. But as Mike Antonucci pointed out today, the failure of the AFT’s endorsement to garner any success at the polls is also a sign that the continued intransigence of the union against reform may actually make its endorsements a badge of dishonor for any candidate for high office.
In any case, this week’s primary results serve as another reminder that as important as it is to transform American public education, it isn’t the only concern. Reformers must keep this in mind. They must continue to build networks to sustain reform regardless of who wins office, and find ways to tie immediate concerns with the long-term need to help all children succeed.
Photo of Bill de Blasio and his family courtesy of the Daily News.