spreading the love

In a polarized education climate, Bill Thompson appeals to all

Bill Thompson stumping at an education event earlier this year.
Bill Thompson stumped at an education event earlier this year. Thompson, seen as a strong contender for the UFT’s endorsement this week, has also cozied up to charter school advocates during the primary season.

Even as Bill Thompson has continued to criticize the Bloomberg administration’s education policies, he has courted the mayor’s education allies.

Thompson has privately dined with charter school backers and assuaged their fears about what his mayoralty would mean for them. He’s taken thousands of dollars in campaign donations from a Success Academy board member and won the fundraising support of Merryl Tisch, a top state education official who helped expand the charter school sector.

Most recently, he has distanced himself from some Democratic rivals by refusing to oppose a key education policy that the Bloomberg administration has used to help non-union charter schools thrive.

Thompson has managed to stay in favor with these groups even while getting support from Randi Weingarten, an old friend, and emerging as a favorite to get the United Federation of Teachers endorsement, which is scheduled to come on Wednesday (The principals union, a close UFT ally, is endorsing him on Tuesday). His ability to cultivate support from advocates who are often at odds with one another on education is a testament to his political savvy and his experience as a schools policymaker in New York City, political observers say.

“He’s been around a long time, he knows the political landscape and he has a lot of education cred,” said Jeffrey Henig, a political science professor at Teachers College Columbia University, referring to Thompson’s tenure as president of the Board of Education.

It also doesn’t hurt that Thompson’s odds of making it to a run-off in the crowded Democratic primary look increasingly good, said Doug Muzzio, a professor of public affairs at Baruch College. “The UFT doesn’t want to back a loser and the smart money is that Thompson is in the run-off,” he said.

But the balancing act has drawn criticism from his rivals, including a Democratic opponent who is competing for the UFT’s endorsement.

“I think any organization wants to know if a candidate is consistent,” said Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, who said Thompson had changed his opinions on education to placate certain interests. “If you can’t believe in someone’s position, why would you feel comfortable endorsing him?”

In a brief interview last week, Thompson disputed the notion that support from certain groups would sway where he stands on education.

“I just continue to put forward what I believe is right for New York City schools, for our education system,” he said. “And I’m going to continue to do that no matter who finds that acceptable.”

A power breakfast

Throughout the early stages of the mayoral campaign, Thompson was doing what de Blasio and other Democratic candidates had also done: cozying up to the UFT and bashing Bloomberg’s record on education. In late January, Thompson stood with UFT President Michael Mulgrew and called for a temporary ban on charter school co-locations. A few weeks later, Thompson told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer what he thought about Bloomberg’s legacy on schools.

“In so many ways his administration has really had a failed approach to education,” Thompson told Lehrer on Feb. 15.

But just days later, Thompson had an intimate breakfast meeting with a small group of New York City’s deep-pocketed and influential charter school backers. The venue was Tisch’s home. The Regents chancellor would not publicly endorse Thompson for another two months but was already working feverishly behind the scenes to build support.

“Come January 1, 2014, the world is not going to end,” Thompson told the group, according to Gideon Stein, a Success Academy Charter Schools board member who attended the meeting.

Stein said it was the second time he’d met with Thompson and came away “impressed and encouraged with his evolution in thinking on a number of things that I care about in education.”

Stein said he took Tisch’s presence in the campaign as a strong indicator about how Thompson would govern the city’s school system. As New York State Board of Regents chancellor, Tisch appointed two commissioners, David Steiner and John King, who have overseen sweeping changes to state education policies, and was part of a lobbying effort that doubled the number of charter schools allowed to operated in the state.

“While I don’t agree with Thompson on every position, he has shown flexibility on the issues and, given the fact that Merryl is so involved in his campaign, I believe that he will be a real champion for all kids in New York City,” said Stein, who later gave nearly $5,000 to Thompson, the maximum allowed under the city’s public campaign finance rules. (Stein is the board treasurer of the Education News Network, GothamSchools’ parent organization.)

Thompson declined to discuss the meeting in an interview. “Bill’s had scores of meetings with people interested in improving education for kids across the city, because nothing is more important,” said Jonathan Prince, Thompson’s campaign manager.

Campaign officials also pointed to Thompson’s education speech for an idea of where he stood on the issues relating to charter schools.

Where he stands

Thompson didn’t talk much about charter schools in his speech, except to say that he’d hold them to the same standard as district schools, a pledge he’d have difficulty following through on since much oversight of charter schools take place at the state level.

A review of Thompson’s positions expressed at forums and in interviews suggest that he’s harder to pin down than as being in the UFT’s pocket or a serial Bloomberg critic, as he has been portrayed at times. He opposes school closures and has said he’d cede some of the mayor’s control, notably pledging to give up the majority on the city school board. But he supports expanding the charter school sector, supports giving charter schools space in city-owned buildings, and opposes requiring them to pay rent.

The February breakfast at Tisch’s home seemed to relieve others in attendance, who included New York City Charter School Center CEO James Merriman and Democrats for Education Reform Executive Director Joe Williams. Neither would comment for this story, but a political memo that Williams’ group released to supporters in May noted Thompson’s viability and Tisch’s role in reviving his campaign.

“His recent surge in momentum has surprised everyone but Merryl Tisch, who has been working behind-the-scenes to secure support for his race for months,” the memo says. “He is a real candidate who seems to be pacing himself well for the entire race.”

A tightrope act

Thompson’s ability to please — and frustrate — different sides of the education camps was on display last week. On Tuesday, Thompson angered many charter advocates when he skipped a mayoral forum hosted by a group that organizes charter school parents.

“I thought it was telling that he didn’t show up for the forum,” said Bill Phillips, president of the Northeast Charter School Association, one of the groups that sponsored the event. “I think if you wanted to show an interest in education that served all public school students in New York, you don’t cancel at the last minute. I don’t know how you take that as a positive sign.”

On Friday, Thompson showed up at a mayoral forum and was asked if he would require charter schools to pay rent in city-owned buildings. He said no, a response that drew some gasps from the charter-averse audience and a rebuttal from de Blasio.

“Lotta respect for Bill Thompson,” de Blasio said, “but totally disagree with his answer about rent for charters.”

De Blasio piled on after the forum ended. “He clearly is not willing to demand that they pay their fair share of rent and I was struck by the fact that DFER feels comfortable with him.”

Privately, charter school advocates say they still have reservations about Thompson, but he might just be the best option they have to work with. One of them paraphrased former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s comments about the U.S. Army to characterize his support for Thompson.

“You go into the campaign with the candidates you have, not the candidates you want,” said the supporter. “What are your alternatives? There’s some cause to say that he might be okay.”

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede