highlight reel

Beyond pre-K: Here’s what you need to know about de Blasio’s education record this election day

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Mayor Bill de Blasio released a school diversity plan that calls on a working group to come up with additional ways to encourage integration.

If asked to describe Mayor Bill de Blasio’s education agenda, most New Yorkers would likely give a two-syllable answer: pre-K.

As voters head to the polls Tuesday, when de Blasio is widely expected to sail into a second term, the mayor is surely pleased with that answer. His expansion of free pre-kindergarten to 50,000 additional four-year-olds has proven to be his clearest victory as mayor, earning praise from advocates, researchers, parents — even Hillary Clinton.

In fact, universal pre-K and its unexpectedly smooth rollout have proven so popular that de Blasio recently announced plans to launch a parallel program for three-year-olds.

“Our obligation is to come up with new solutions,” he said at a breakfast talk Monday with business and political leaders. “And so, we did that with pre-K and we look forward, with everyone’s help here, to doing that with 3-K.”

Pre-K hasn’t just provided de Blasio a happy talking point — it’s also helped him steer the discussion away from more controversial education issues, from charter schools to school segregation to his expensive support program from struggling schools, which has so far achieved mixed results.

“In many respects,” said Aaron Pallas, a professor at Teachers College, pre-K has “overshadowed virtually all other features of the education agenda.”

But another reason education has been a marginal issue in this year’s sleepy mayoral election — it didn’t come up at all during the first debate — is that, even apart from pre-K, de Blasio has overseen a period of relative stability and incremental process for the nation’s largest school system. Two of the most closely watched indicators of the system’s health — the high-school graduation rate and grade 3-8 test scores — have edged up.

The school system, Pallas added, “does seem to be generally moving in the right direction.”

Below, we recap de Blasio’s education record beyond pre-K and tell you what to watch for in his (expected) second term.

A grab bag of initiatives meant to strengthen schools

Defining de Blasio’s vision for the city’s schools hasn’t always been easy.

Besides pre-K, much of his agenda has been a repudiation of the policies of his predecessor, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who closed dozens of low-performing schools, encouraged the growth of charter schools, and clashed constantly with the teachers union.

De Blasio has mostly halted school closures, instead flooding troubled schools with extra social services and academic supports. He’s been lukewarm about charters, drawing criticism that his administration has been slow to provide them space. And he revived City Hall’s relationship with the teachers union — which endorsed his reelection bid — agreeing to a significant pay bump in the new contract he negotiated.

In another union-backed effort, he’s funded over 215 “community schools,” which have embedded social-service providers, extended school days, and teams devoted to combating chronic absenteeism.

He’s also rolled out an assortment of initiatives called “Equity and Excellence for All” which, among other things, includes promises to make Advanced Placement classes available to all high-school students by 2021 and to provide computer-science courses to all students by 2025.

Besides some raised eyebrows about the long timeline, the plans mostly enjoyed a warm reception. They also fit within de Blasio’s education philosophy: If Bloomberg’s view was that the city school system was fundamentally broken and needed to be rebuilt from the ground up, de Blasio’s approach is to strengthen a system he says is in overall good shape.

The “Equity and Excellence” plans “were kind of presented as add-ons, instead of turning the whole system upside down,” said Clara Hemphill, director of education policy and Insideschools at the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs.

De Blasio said as much in his annual “State of the City” speech this February, when he touted the city’s record-high graduation rate, the new AP classes, and — of course — pre-K.

“The state of our schools,” he declared, “is stronger than many of us ever could have imagined.”

Setbacks and crises force adjustments to the agenda

As much as de Blasio prefers basking in the strengths of the school system and his efforts to enhance them, some dark spots have proven inescapable.

Having vowed not to shutter troubled schools — but under state pressure to overhaul them — de Blasio was forced to come up with a turnaround program during his first year in office. He called the program “School Renewal,” and promised “fast and intense improvement” in the 94 bottom-ranked schools that would receive extra money and resources.

Three years later, the $582 million program has achieved mixed results — providing fodder for critics who say the effort is “mired in failure.”

Evan Stone, co-founder of Educators for Excellence, a teacher advocacy group, said he welcomed the investments de Blasio has made in Renewal schools but added: “The success has not been there.”

Some of the Renewal program’s critics — many of them charter-school backers who argue that charters are a better alternative to “failing” district schools — have also pounced on de Blasio’s school-discipline reforms.

De Blasio has made it harder for schools to suspend students, instead pushing schools to adopt  “restorative” practices where students reflect on their misdeeds and make amends. The new policies have continued to drive down the number of suspensions, but critics say they’ve made some schools less safe and orderly.

Those concerns flared up in September when a Bronx high-school student stabbed two other teenagers during class, according to police, leaving one dead.

City officials point to better attendance and academic performance at some schools in the Renewal program, and a record-low number of major crimes across the school system. And in the wake of the school stabbing, de Blasio’s schools chief, Carmen Fariña, unveiled a suite of new anti-bullying initiatives.

The stabbing wasn’t the only school crisis that forced de Blasio into action.

The number of homeless children has swelled during his tenure, with one in ten students residing in temporary housing at some point last school year — a grim new milestone that has left the de Blasio administration scrambling to help homeless students make it to school while trying to create more affordable housing for their families.

Meanwhile, since de Blasio rode into office in 2014 with promises to end the growing inequality that he called New York’s “tale of two cities,” advocates have pressed him to attack the city’s severe school segregation. After repeatedly insisting that the problem was a relic of historic housing policies largely beyond his control, he finally gave into the pressure and released a “school diversity” plan this June — which left many advocates underwhelmed.

“I hope that without the prospect of reelection,” Stone said, referring to de Blasio’s likely second term, “the mayor can be much more bold on desegregation.”

What’s next?

If de Blasio’s first term has been about unveiling “transformative” education plans, his second term will hinge on executing and expanding those efforts.

That will include building out the new “3-K” preschool program, which the mayor has said will be even more challenging than the pre-K expansion.

He’ll continue to grapple with struggling schools in the Renewal program, which was billed as a three-year intervention and is now approaching its third birthday. De Blasio has said additional schools will close or be merged, while others might graduate out of the program, though the exit strategy for those schools isn’t yet clear.

And integration advocates are unlikely to let up. Even as they hold de Blasio to the goals laid out in his diversity plan, they also have signaled a desire to push him further — for instance, to revamp the high-school admissions process or invest in diversity-related teacher trainings and classroom materials.

It remains to be seen whether de Blasio will announce any major new education initiatives in the coming years — or a new chancellor to oversee them.

Among education insiders, there has long been speculation that Fariña — who was plucked out of retirement three years ago — will not stay on for a second term. If she does leave, her replacement could push the mayor in new directions, observers say.

“A new chancellor coming in could conceivably be more creative or bold,” said Pallas, the Teachers College professor, pitching ideas to the mayor “that are different from just, ‘Stay the course.’”

In a statement, a City Hall spokeswoman pointed to the higher graduation rate and test scores, lower dropout rate, and growth of free pre-K during de Blasio’s first term.

“The facts here are clear,” said spokeswoman Olivia Lapeyrolerie, “New York City public schools are the strongest they’ve ever been.”

Budget woes

In budget address, Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker proposes modest education increases

J.B. Pritzker speaks during a round table discussion with high school students at a creative workspace for women on October 1, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois.

Even while calling his proposed budget “austere” and speaking plainly about the yawning deficit he inherited, Illinois’ new governor, J.B. Pritzker, struck an optimistic chord when describing how he plans to plow more money into schools.

His fiscal year 2020 budget would allocate a total of $7.2 billion for K-12 funding, including an extra $25 million in addition to the mandated $350 million annual minimum increase under the state’s funding formula.

“There’s a focus here on trying to not only rebuild from the damage that was done over the last four years but also to set us up for growing the economy, which happens in part because of our investments in education,” Pritzker said, nodding to a nearly two-year budget stalemate under his predecessor, Republican Bruce Rauner, that left the state with billions in unpaid bills.

During Wednesday’s speech, the governor said the long-term solution to the state’s budget deficits  was a progressive income tax that would take more money from Illinois’ wealthiest residents.

In the shorter term, though, Pritzker’s budget proposal includes an additional $25 million for Illinois schools, an increase of $21 million in special education grants, and a $5 million boost for career and technical education programs for high school students.

Also in the proposal: $50 million in need-based college grants, another $35 million in university scholarships, and $2 million to cover waived fees for low-income students taking Advanced Placement tests.

Pritzker’s budget would allocate an additional $100 million to the Early Childhood Block Grant. That would bring the state investment in early childhood education to $594 million next year.

The governor Wednesday also proposed freezing a tax credit for businesses and individuals who contributed scholarships for private schools. Critics argued the program cut into state income taxes that would otherwise help fund public schools. Supporters, including Rauner, said it was one of the few ways struggling families could afford private schools.

Pritzker noted that given Illinois’ economic reality, there is a limit to how much cost-cutting alone could do. Instead, he promised to pass a budget that would include an increase in funding across the board as a way to invest in the state’s future, with a particular focus on education.

“We must stop slashing programs that build future prosperity,” Pritzker said in his budget address. “Over the long term, we must make investments in education, livable wages, innovative human service programs and job training.”

In unveiling his budget, the governor spoke plainly about the state’s dire fiscal situation: a $3.2 billion budget deficit and $15 billion in debt from unpaid bills — an amount that is equal to funding “free four-year university tuition for more than 12,000 students,” he said.

Nearly two years without a state budget under the previous governor prompted a massive backlog of funding in the K-12 education budget that the state is still struggling to fill, on top of an $8.1 billion backlog of unpaid bills across state agencies.

A 2017 overhaul in the formula Illinois uses to fund schools put the state on a 10-year path to closing the more than $6.8 billion gap between what it spends on K-12 public schools and the projected cost of adequate school funding. In January, the state board of education asked for $15 billion in public schools funding.

“It’s a very teensy step and better an increase than not,” Wendy Katten with Raise Your Hand Action, a parent group advocating for public education, said of the increased funding for K-12 schools. “But that’s nowhere near the $7 billion that’s needed for basic adequacy, let alone the $2 billion needed for [Chicago Public Schools].”   

Pritzker’s proposed additions are modest, to be sure, but unions representing teachers in Chicago and statewide, as well as disability advocates, said any additional investment in education is most welcome.

“It’s clear that he understands the importance of great public schools and higher education and is committed to fulfilling the state’s responsibility to invest in them,” the president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, Dan Montgomery, said.

And the Chicago Teachers Union asked that Chicago Public Schools to use any extra state funding to lower class sizes and increase special education staffing.

“The increase in evidence-based funding over the statutory minimum recognizes that Illinois’ challenges with education funding equity are fundamentally rooted in the need to drive more resources to students, like those in CPS, who have suffered from decades of insufficient and unequal school funding,” Jesse Sharkey, president of the union, said.

Chris Yun, the education policy analyst with Access Living, which advocates for people with disabilities, said she was heartened to see a bump for special education funding, noting: “Students with disabilities are often forgotten because the number is much less than general education students. We have a long way to go, but this is just step one.”

Pritzker told Chalkbeat in October that contributing more money to education would require solving the state’s longstanding budget woes. At that time, Illinois was expected to enter fiscal year 2019 with a budget deficit of more than $1 billion. That figure has now more than tripled.

Its problems are compounded significantly by its pension responsibilities, making it increasingly difficult to allocate money to other needs, said Ralph Martire, director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability.

“The payments are jumping at levels our system can’t afford,” Martire said.

Pritzker on Wednesday said he would “smooth the pension ramp by modestly extending it,” which hints at a plan to push payments off further.

While Pritzker’s progressive taxation plan has a steady thrum of support from Democratic lawmakers, the measure has not yet passed the state legislature.

Pritzker acknowledged that his 2020 budget was built on a tax structure that he still considered regressive and said he hoped to change that going forward.  

“Not only is our tax system unfair, it’s also inadequate to solve our long-term financial challenges,” he said. “Make no bones about it, I choose to stand up for working families and will lead the charge to finally enact a fair tax system in Illinois.”

Cassie Creswell, a board member of public education advocacy group Raise Your Hand Action, said the budget address was a positive indicator of Pritzker’s support for revamping taxation, but feared “the rates that will be proposed to make it politically palatable won’t make it the rate we need to fund stuff in the state.”

interview time

Four candidates left make their case before commission for open Shelby County Schools board seat

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Interim school board candidate Aubrey Howard presents before the Shelby County Commission.

Four remaining candidates for a vacated Memphis school board seat had their chance to tell the Shelby County Commission why they are the right person for the job on Wednesday afternoon.

They were the remaining viable candidates after six applicants were disqualified for living outside of District 2, the area the interim board member will represent in Shelby County Schools. Chalkbeat reported on Monday that six of the candidates live outside of the district. The appointee will fill the seat Teresa Jones vacated following her recent appointment as a municipal court judge, and will serve until the term expires in August 2020.

The four applicants are (We’ve linked to their full applications.):

  • Erskine Gillespie, an account manager at the Lifeblood Mid-South Regional Blood Bank.
  • Althea Greene, a retired Memphis educator and pastor of Real Life Ministries.
  • Aubrey Howard, the executive director of governmental and legislative affairs in the Shelby County Trustee’s Office.
  • Charles McKinney, the Neville Frierson Bryan Chair of Africana Studies and associate professor of history at Rhodes College.

The interim member will join the school board at a crucial time, amid the search for a new superintendent to replace Dorsey Hopson, who left the district in December. Currently, Joris Ray is serving as interim superintendent.

Commissioners peppered the candidates with questions on big issues facing the district, including school choice, the budget process, managing the district’s aging buildings and underenrollment, and how they could improve the relationship between the district and the county commission, the funding body for schools.

In their pitches to commissioners, applicants touted their previous experiences with K-12 education, such as work with nonprofits and curriculum development, and their ties to Memphis schools. “I’m a product of Memphis schools,” was a phrase said again and again.

Most applicants expressed general support for charter schools, which have grown significantly in recent years in Memphis, but Gillespie said he believed “the influx of our charter school program is an issue that must be addressed.” McKinney sits on the board of a charter high school, and Greene and Howard said they had no issues with charter schools as a way to serve individual needs of students.

On the relationship with the county commission, Greene said: “I think it’s important that as a school board member, I’m at county commission meetings. And work as a bridge to educate children and give them the best education we can, and we know that costs money.”

Gillespie was asked by Commissioner Willie Brooks what he thinks of alternative schools, which serve students who have been expelled or suspended from traditional schools for behavioral reasons. There are several alternative schools in District 2.

“I think alternative schools are truly something necessary,” Gillespie said. “They can provide a trauma-informed response for our students.”

The questionnaire given to each candidate asked about TNReady, the state’s embattled testing system. Commissioner Michael Whaley, who chairs the education committee, asked Howard to expand on his answer that the test “didn’t work.”

“Those decisions about testing and teacher evaluations would be better met if they were local and not state controlled,” Howard replied. “For sure, the state wasted a huge amount of money with the companies they hired that failed us.”

Gillespie and McKinney described aging and often near-empty school buildings as a large issue facing the district. The interim board member would help analyze a massive district plan left by former superintendent Hopson that would consolidate 28 Memphis schools into 10 new buildings.

McKinney said the school board should be having regular conversations with the commission and the neighborhoods it serves on how demographic shifts have impacted the county, creating underenrollment in some schools.

“For the school board, those conversations need to be ongoing, so when it comes time to make a decision about whether or not to close a school, it’s not coming as a surprise,” McKinney said.

Three people from Memphis Lift, a parent advocacy group, spoke in support of McKinney. The group’s leader, Sarah Carpenter, said he’s been a consistent figure in her neighborhood of North Memphis.

Shelby County Commission
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Commissioner Willie Brooks (left) asked candidates about how they would work with the county commission.

“I’m tired of people coming to our community when they want a seat and we don’t see them anymore,” Carpenter said. “Our children’s lives are on the line.”

Commissioner Edmund Ford, himself a former teacher, said after the interviews he would like to see an educator on the board.

“There were a lot of things I saw as a teacher, when I would go to the school board to ask for their assistance, that I would not receive,” Ford said. “Personally, I would like to see someone who has been there and done that.”

After hearing from the candidates, the commission voted to move the item to its Monday meeting, where commissioners will vote on a successor.

For more details, see our Twitter thread from the hearing.