In his first debate as a mayoral candidate, former congressman Anthony Weiner distinguished himself from his Democratic rivals and made it clear he was not going to tell the event’s organizers what they wanted to hear.
The debate Tuesday afternoon was organized by New Yorkers for Great Public Schools, a group that formed to oppose the Bloomberg administration’s school policies, and questions were tilted heavily toward the group’s agenda. Weiner and all the other Democratic candidates, except City Council Speaker Christine Quinn who dropped out over the weekend, answered questions from moderator Zakiyah Ansari, a parent activist and spokeswoman for NY-GPS.
Most of the candidates spent the debate reiterating positions they’ve taken in the past that fall close to what the group says it wants from the next mayor. They promised to refrain from closing schools and curbing school space-sharing arrangements, for example.
But Weiner stood apart from his competitors, both by rising each time he answered a question and by staking out unpopular positions. He was the only candidate to say he would not shift control of school discipline from the New York Police Department to principals and would not earmark special funding for arts education in schools.
He stood firm even where his stances have already drawn fire from groups aligned with NY-GPS. The first question of the debate was from student Cheyenne Smith, who asked Weiner about his priority to make it easier for schools to remove “troublesome students” from classrooms, a policy that critics have said could increase suspensions.
Smith asked, “Why would you focus on making it easier to suspend students instead of using proven effective ways to improve school safety and keep students in school?”
“The last thing you need is a disruptive child making it difficult for someone else to learn,” Weiner said. “We have to realize there’s a constituency among the kids that are in that classroom that want to learn and we have to make sure we at least focus on that group, like a laser beam, so that they can have their rights as well.”
Weiner also stood out from his competitors when it came to co-locations, a hot-button issue for advocacy groups who argue that charter schools moving into district schools has a negative effect on the district schools. Weiner said he would allow communities to decide how they want extra space in school buildings to be used.
Communities might choose to expand a school library, create a gifted and talented program, or open a charter school, he said, adding, “I want the competition to be fair and let the best ideas win.”
At one point, Weiner did seem to get caught up in the anti-Bloomberg sentiment that swirled during the debate. Asked to say whether charter school operator Eva Moskowitz has gotten special treatment from the Bloomberg administration, the other candidates quickly said yes. But Weiner was confused. “I have no bloody idea,” he said, to laughter. “Uh, sure. … It seems to be the answer of the day.”
Weiner fell in with the pack on several issues. All of the candidates said they would go to Albany to lobby Gov. Andrew Cuomo to give the city money it is supposed to have gotten because of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit, which found that the city receives inadequate state funding. And he and Comptroller John Liu both said they were open to the idea of recreating the Chancellor’s District, which former Board of Education President Bill Thompson, who is also a mayoral candidate, has said was crucial to improving low-performing schools instead of closing them.
“Instead of giving up on those schools, we need to turn those schools around. A chancellor’s district would allow us to do that,” Thompson said. “It would allow us to be able to focus on increasing services to those schools, capping those schools, intensive curriculum, focus on teacher development.”
Even though questions were heavily tilted toward GPS’s agenda, several questions did push candidates to explain — albeit in 30-second intervals — their constructive vision for the city’s public schools. “Everyone has criticized standardized testing but hasn’t provided an alternative,” a student from Bronx International High School asked. “What’s yours?” Later, Ansari asked, “How would you reform special education?”
Liu said that under Bloomberg, a quarter of students who need special education services do not get those services. His solution involves integrating more special needs students into “so-called mainstream classrooms,” something that the Department of Education has done in recent years.
“It’s a balance of mainstreaming the kids and it’s a balance of maintaining the special needs classrooms,” Liu said.
After the debate, Ansari said she wanted to hear more from Weiner on his education policies, especially when it comes to how to improve low-performing high schools, for which none of the candidates have provided clear solutions.
“Some issues he was a little vague on,” she said. “If you’re going to do this… then you’ve got to get on it and play catch up, so to speak.”
After the debate, Monique Lindsay, who serves on the UFT parent outreach committee and is a member of the Coalition for Educational Justice, said about Weiner, “I think that everything he said is what we want to hear,” but added, “I think that his downfall is going to be that incident, the things he did two years ago.”
Below is the full audio from the event: