Bloomberg Unveils Plan for New Schools, Mum On Education Ideas of Mayoral Hopefuls

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Sam Levin
Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott with a map of new schools opened under Bloomberg.
Yesterday afternoon, Mayor Mike Bloomberg joined Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott to unveil the city's plan to open 54 new schools this fall -- which the mayor touted as an important step in the reform efforts he began when he took control of the school system at the start of his administration.

But hours earlier at a separate event, a handful of pols who hope to replace Bloomberg in 2013 criticized some of the mayor's education policies, specifically targeting Bloomberg's controversial practice of closing failing schools.

These comments from the expected mayoral candidates, along with news earlier this week that state lawmakers want to eliminate mayoral control of the city's school system, have put pressure on Bloomberg to defend some key aspects of his education agenda. Under the system of mayoral control -- as opposed to a traditional structure with an elected board -- Bloomberg says that test scores have improved, graduation rates have increased, and that minority students are performing better.

With the announcement of new schools yesterday, Bloomberg was pushing forward with his reform agenda -- but when reporters questioned him about criticisms from those who hope to reshape the city's education policies after he steps down, the current mayor said he wasn't interested in what potential candidates have to say.

"I don't think there's any question that public schools are continuing to improve. Since 2005, our graduation rates have climbed 40 percent, compared to an increase of just eight percent among public schools in the rest of the state," the data-happy mayor said at the start of the news conference at Washington Irving, a school slated for closure. "Math and reading score tests are up...Our black and Hispanic students, I'm happy to say, have led in this process. A big factor in that success: More than 530 new small schools were opened. Their record of raising achievement levels and graduation rates has made a difference in the lives of thousands of students."

The 54 new schools that will open in the fall, which makes for a total of 589 opened under Bloomberg, will ultimately serve over 21,000 students when they grow to their full sizes. The mayor, standing in front of around 30 new school principals, spoke at the future site of the Academy for Software Engineering, a high school that will focus on technology and programming.

"Just think about that -- 54 schools is more schools than most cities have," Bloomberg said, emphasizing the importance of parents having school choice. "I couldn't be more optimistic about where we're going given what we've done so far."

His administration says that new schools typically rank higher on parent satisfaction surveys, perform better on state tests, and sometimes have double the graduation rates of the schools they replace.

Critics, though, say that the new schools serve a lower percentage of high-needs students compared to the ones Bloomberg shuts down -- a claim, which the Dept. of Education has repeatedly refuted. Yesterday, Bloomberg seemed to preemptively counter those viewpoints, saying, "Keep in mind that the student bodies of these new schools mirror those of the schools they replace with similar percentages of black and Latino students, English-language learners, and students with disabilities."

Of the new schools, 30 will be district-run and 24 will be charter schools.

At a breakfast earlier in the day, a coalition called the Working Group on School Transformation released a report that said Bloomberg's school closures in fact do disproportionately hurt minority and special needs students (Commissioner Walcott today responded that those arguments are factually incorrect).

Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, former comptroller Bill Thompson, and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer -- all expected mayoral candidates -- attended the morning event and debated the ideas of the new report, which presented a very different picture of the current state of education in the city.

The report jumped on one recurring argument of Bloomberg critics -- that an alarmingly low rate of minority students are graduating high school ready for college and also said that students across the city are still performing poorly on standardized tests. The report recommended that the city work to better involve school communities, improve its interventions and increase resources in struggling schools, and develop strategies to ensure high-needs students are not concentrated in poorly-performing schools.

Of the mayoral candidates, Thompson, who narrowly lost to Bloomberg in 2009, seemed to be the most critical of the mayor, saying that he is pushing to put a moratorium on school closures until Bloomberg steps down next year. Stringer and de Blasio didn't go as far, but still came down hard on the closure policy, saying it has failed.

Thompson also said that he's heard that the city is planning to close 75 schools next year.

Logically, reporters at the mayor's presser, many who had attended the earlier event, brought up some of these criticisms, but Bloomberg was quickly defensive and dismissive, ostracizing reporters for even asking questions based on potential candidates' ideas.

When a reporter from DNAinfo asked Bloomberg about Thompson's claims of expected closures next year, the mayor said, "I don't know where they get the number like that. How does somebody know something like that? Why would you even bother to ask the question...if someone picks a number out of the blue? They're not in the administration. We can't possibly know what we're going to do next year."

Questioned further about what the city can expect from future closures, Bloomberg responded with a dose of sarcasm: "I don't know where you get this stuff. We haven't even had a conversation about it, okay? And it's not going to happen without us. So, you know, pick a number. It's less than the total number of schools that are in the city and greater than zero. Is that a fair range? You've got 1,700 to write a story about, I guess."

One idea raised by the mayoral hopefuls was that the system of mayoral control, which they generally support, might work better if the Community Education Councils (bodies that include parents) have more power -- addressing the criticism that mayoral control leaves out important stakeholders.

When asked about this, Bloomberg interrupted a reporter's question, saying, "I don't know who was there, and so I don't want to criticize anybody." Still, he said of mayoral control, "Either you run it, or you don't...I would depend on the advice of the professionals, the teachers in our school system...I would depend on the principals...I would depend on those experts. And you do want to talk to communities...but the experts are the professionals that provide the education."

Putting it more bluntly, he added: "To say, 'I'm in favor of mayoral control but I want to turn over the power to others,' is very similar to my example of, 'I'm pro-choice, but not for women.'"

[SamTLevin / @SamTLevin]

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