As a teen with an unstable home, Josh Thompson says a private school helped save his life. Now, he wants to make sure more kids have the same opportunity.
Thompson, 31, is seeking the Democratic nomination for New York City mayor. He joins a growing list of long-shot candidates lining up to challenge incumbent Bill de Blasio in the September 2017 primary.
Thompson supports school vouchers, charter schools and merit pay for educators — all contentious issues in New York City, where the teachers union is famously strong. He says he admires former New York City schools Chancellor Joel Klein, who worked with Mayor Michael Bloomberg to overhaul school accountability, but Thompson suggested he wouldn’t go out of his way to antagonize the unions.
“You take what works and you expand it — whether that is vouchers, whether that is a traditional public school,” he said. “We have the resources, we have the buildings and we have the innovation. It’s tapping into those things.”
A top official at New Leaders — a national education nonprofit that trains principals and other school officials — Thompson previously worked for the mayors of Washington, D.C. and Bridgeport, Conn.
He got his first taste of politics as a volunteer for Cory Booker’s mayoral campaign in Newark and considers Booker, now a U.S. senator, a mentor.
Thompson’s support for school vouchers can be traced back to his experience at Saint Benedict’s Preparatory, an all-boys Catholic school in Newark that he credits with turning around his life. Born in North Carolina, Thompson said he spent much of his childhood bouncing around the country as his mother tried to make ends meet. St. Benedict’s, nationally recognized for its work with inner-city youth, offered him housing and picked up the tuition bill.
Thompson wants other low-income students to have access to schools like his, though he’s likely to face obstacles if he tries to launch a voucher program in New York City. If necessary, Thompson said he would create a private fund with the hope of tripling the number of low-income students attending private schools.
“Most of us want choice for everything we do in life,” he said in an interview with Chalkbeat. “But when it comes to black and brown children and inner city education, we lose our backbone when it comes to choice.”
Thompson is also challenging the mayor on charter schools. While de Blasio must, by law, accommodate new charter schools within district school buildings or pay their rent, Thompson and others have accused the mayor of dragging his feet when it comes to making such decisions.
Thompson said de Blasio often waits “until the shot clock goes off” to accommodate charter school co-locations, and that, if elected, he would streamline the process.
Thompson also advocates for incentive pay for educators and more power for principals, concepts Mayor Bloomberg also supported.
As of July, Thompson’s campaign was about $23,000 in debt, though he said a new round of campaign finance reports due in January will show significant fundraising. The July report showed many small donations, with contributions from education reform advocates and individuals affiliated with charter school networks such as Achievement First, where his wife, Julia, is the founding dean of a Brooklyn charter school.
Jamaal Bowman, an outspoken principal in the Bronx, gave a $15 donation. He said he plans on giving to other candidates, too, but praised Thompson as “a supporter of public schools.”
“I believe he has a whole-child view of education. He’s not looking at a one-size-fits-all approach,” Bowman said.
De Blasio’s approval ratings slid last spring and summer amid investigations into his fundraising tactics, and they remain mediocre. But the mayor has tallied more than $2 million for his reelection bid and recently scored the early endorsements of some city council members and labor unions.
Though the United Federation of Teachers has yet to officially endorse a candidate, former president Randi Weingarten, now head of the American Federation of Teachers, is reportedly planning a fundraiser for de Blasio in January.
Chalkbeat reporter Monica Disare contributed to this report.
Clarification (Dec. 21, 2016): This story has been updated to reflect that Thompson said the next round of campaign reports will show significant fundraising.