Among the many challenges facing New York City’s next mayor will be the unraveling of the city’s public education system, which remains under mayoral control. Discontent with the system is not new, but in the past it generally involved questions of educational quality. Today, the city’s Department of Education is characterized by its effective abandonment of issues as basic as the importance of compulsory education, the primacy of achievement, and the need to provide feedback to students on their performance and to the public on the results of their investment in the schools. At the end of 2020, amid the ongoing pandemic, only elementary schools remained fully open for instruction, serving less than 20 percent of the system’s students. Others were completely closed or following various hybrid models of in-person instruction on some days and remote learning on others. By many accounts, remote learning has been poorly designed and unevenly implemented across schools.
Behind the system’s near-collapse is the failure of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s educational approach. Its two pillars—the search for one-size-fits-all solutions and the belief that educational quality could not be expanded but only redistributed—were not only wrong under normal circumstances but especially misaligned with the challenges posed by the pandemic. The mayor’s policies have harmed those most in need—and undermined the viability of Gotham as a place for families to raise children, with implications for the city’s long-term social and economic health. Data released by the city and state education departments at the end of January 2021 indicated that enrollment in the city’s Department of Education schools is down by 4 percent, or 43,000 students, compared with the previous year. As 2021 dawned, the Department of Education presided not over operational public schools but only their shadows.
De Blasio’s view of education as a zero-sum game—in sharp contrast with the growth-oriented approach of his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg—was especially evident during the critical first few months of the pandemic. With school buildings closed to in-person instruction, it was clear that an effective system of remote instruction was needed. By late spring, it became clear, too, that the new school year beginning in September 2020 would require some combination of in-school and remote learning. Many private and charter schools and networks spent the summer honing their approaches on this front; yet the city’s public school system still lacks a functional remote-learning system. This appears to be the result of a philosophical resistance to full engagement of remote learning as a mode of delivering schooling to youngsters because some families have greater access than others to the necessary technology and living arrangements conducive to home learning.
Yet most New York charter schools and many religious schools are now meeting the remote-learning challenge for disadvantaged students. A variety of solutions emerged across the charter and private school sectors, ranging from the decision by Success Academy, the city’s largest charter network, to stay completely remote through the end of the school year to the efforts of some private and religious schools to conduct full in-person instruction. These local solutions generated sufficient trust from teachers and parents to prove workable. The city’s public school system, on the other hand, was caught in shifting priorities and messages from city hall, culminating in a series of last-minute changes to both the calendar and to the rules under which teachers would be excused from reporting to schools. No one’s trust was won in this shambolic process. While the mayor fumbled for a citywide solution with the teachers’ union, parents, teachers, and principals were left in the dark.
The poor quality of the remote instruction is best captured by the system’s refusal to collect and publish straightforward attendance or participation data: How many students are receiving a full day of interactive instruction on days when they’re scheduled for remote learning and when they are meant to be in school? Education Trust–New York, an organization focused on “equity, opportunity, and achievement,” recently commissioned a survey of New York City public school parents on the city school system’s approach to Covid-19. It found that “only 40% of parents rate remote learning as successful”; since 20 percent of respondents said that their child was not participating in remote learning, this result means that “just half (51%) of parents of remote learners rate it as successful.”
Chad Alderman, an education-policy analyst, has completed a survey of remote-learning policies and in-person class schedules in grades 5, 8, and 11 in ten large school districts across the country. He found that, even assuming perfect attendance of students in all the instructional time offered to them, students in New York City’s district schools would be receiving less than half of what the state requires in a normal year. While Covid-19 has presented a unique challenge to all educators, he observes, six of the large districts he studied, including Houston, Chicago, and Miami-Dade, were providing far more instructional time to students than New York. Chicago was offering more than 75 percent of its state requirements, and Houston and Miami-Dade were both above 100 percent of the required time.
Perhaps New York’s poor showing on this metric explains why the Department of Education continues, many months into the pandemic, to use the looser grading policies established in April 2020. With no objective data to gauge student performance, the academic screening that had been in place in some middle and elementary schools has been halted and replaced by a lottery for next year’s entering class.
The school system has not reached this nadir because of Covid-19 alone. The unprecedented logistical challenges posed by the public health crisis have exposed the failures of de Blasio’s broader educational approach. The development of a viable strategy for maintaining educational services during a pandemic required a commitment to the critical importance of education to children; the ability to build trust among parents; and the understanding that, since the challenge varied across communities, the response needed to vary, too. Unfortunately, de Blasio has always led on different principles: that the defining condition of education in the city was inequity; that parents were the problem; and that uniformity should be prized because any variation in service provision constituted injustice. Covid or not, this is exactly the wrong way to think about public education.
De Blasio came into office believing that the system was structurally unfair and that variation in educational programming had led to this inequity. His approach in his first term was to seek universal solutions, beginning with his signature Pre-K for All initiative and variations on that theme—Algebra for All, College Access for All, Computer Science for All, and so on. The emphasis on universal access allowed him to avoid tricky questions related to redistribution of scarce educational resources. After all, to provide computer science for all does not require taking it away from those students already receiving it. Pre-K for All proved popular with parents seeking publicly provided child care for their four-year-olds, but it failed to narrow the racial achievement gap in the city’s traditional public schools, even as overall test scores improved on the New York State annual assessments. In his second term, with the appointment of Richard Carranza as schools chancellor and a leftward drift in the state legislature, de Blasio began embracing a more redistributive approach, particularly regarding the racial mix in admissions to the city’s selective middle and high schools.
This move ushered in battles about the relative access to high-quality public school options among racial and ethnic groups. It was no secret that the city’s system contained a mix of high-achieving and low-achieving schools. Obviously, those with the higher achievement levels were the most desirable and attracted the most applicants. The process of allocating seats in these desirable schools varies. The selective high schools operate under a meritocratic system laid out in state education law, with admission based on a single competitive examination. Some other high schools and middle schools use, or were using, a broader form of merit-based admissions that considered attendance, grades, and annual state tests in reading and mathematics. Most elementary schools in the city and middle schools outside Manhattan and gentrified Brooklyn remain geographically zoned, with students assigned to a particular school based on their home address. Finally, all charter schools in the city, as well as elementary schools in a few districts, use a full-choice system, in which families can apply to any school. In cases where more applicants exist than seats, a lottery is used.
The de Blasio–Carranza team made clear its intent to do away with much of the merit-based admissions policies. Its first target: the selective high schools, deemed unfair because of the small numbers of black and Hispanic students admitted. The largest group of students in these schools is Asian, many of them first-generation immigrants, lower-income, or both. The administration couched its attempts to end the use of the single admissions test for these schools in antiracist terms, but the effort alienated many Asian-Americans, who embraced the meritocratic test as a ladder of social mobility.
Moving beyond the selective high schools, the administration, along with the local Community Education Councils in District 3 on the Upper West Side and in District 15 in Park Slope and surrounding neighborhoods in Brooklyn, instituted changes to middle school admissions processes to align the racial distribution of students in individual middle schools with district-wide averages. These changes were contentious, too, as some argued in favor of the merit-based system, despite the resulting cross-school racial imbalances, with a concentration of white students in a handful of middle schools.
The administration’s embrace of a more redistributive agenda followed its well-established unwillingness to expand the number of seats available in high-performing schools. This antigrowth approach was felt most critically in the city’s large (and previously growing) charter school sector. Charters had, over the Bloomberg years, provided many low-income minority children with the high-achievement opportunities in short supply in the Department of Education’s own schools. The de Blasio administration made clear its opposition to charters and particularly to the co-location of charter schools within public school buildings—needlessly raising the costs of charters to the city, since, in lieu of co-location, Albany required the city to pay for some charter school lease costs. According to city budget documents, that cost is now $68 million annually.
De Blasio has used his influence to stop the expansion of charter school options, but no mayor can stop parents from utilizing private or religious schools or relocating to the suburbs to enroll their kids in schools there. Better-off parents continue to have many such options. Over half the white students in the city are already enrolled in private and religious schools; white children form the smallest student group in the city’s traditional public schools. Black families are the group second most likely to avoid the traditional public schools: 30 percent of black students in the city attend either public charter or private/religious schools. For middle-class parents of all races, the suburbs offer higher-achieving public schools, organized into smaller districts with the ability to design and implement local solutions to challenges like Covid-19 in line with the community’s needs and resources.
Finally, the administration also ended a dynamic process of closing low-performing schools and allowing community members and unionized teachers to design and win approval for replacement schools, largely in underserved, low-income minority communities. This further limited the supply of high-quality schools available to these communities.
The next mayor will inherit a severe budget crisis. Both the city and state face unprecedented fiscal shortfalls brought on by the economic shutdown, and serious belt-tightening will be needed to maintain and improve the quality of educational services. As of 2019, the cost of Department of Education salaries and (non-pension) benefits had grown by $4.6 billion under de Blasio, an increase of 4.5 percent per year, compared with 2.6 percent during his predecessor’s last seven years. Despite this spending increase, the system received little organized cooperation from its teachers in trying either to reopen schools in September 2020 or to implement a functional system of interactive remote learning.
The spending growth resulted from the teachers’ contract that the de Blasio administration agreed to in 2014, as well as a subsequent round of labor negotiations. The 2014 deal not only boosted annual salaries; it also awarded expensive retroactive pay hikes for the years when the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) had not agreed to a settlement under Mayor Bloomberg. Payment of those retroactive dollars was deferred to de Blasio’s second term.
The pandemic-triggered collapse in state and local revenue occurred as the final bill for those contracts was coming due. Just as Covid-19 hit, the city moved $650 million into the Department of Education’s fiscal year 2020 budget to cover retroactive payments for work done by teachers between 2009 and 2011. Additional payments of $900 million remained due in the current fiscal year, 2021, but the city announced in October that it could not make the payments. The following day, in what seemed a prearranged decision, it announced an agreement with the UFT to release half the back pay in October and delay the remaining $450 million payment until July 2021. That payment will be in the budget that the new mayor inherits in January 2022. At the same time, the city committed to paying a previously agreed-upon 3 percent raise for teachers in May 2021 and made a no-layoff pledge through June 2021. Thus, between spring 2020 and summer 2021, the city will have paid out $1.5 billion in back pay to teachers and increased the recurring teacher salary budget by 3 percent (a rough estimate suggests that this will cost approximately $150 million per year), even as it agreed to no teacher layoffs.
De Blasio’s largesse in teacher contracts built a tremendous cost increase into the school system, which he proved unwilling to scale back or eliminate, despite the city’s economic crisis. (Nor has the state invoked the financial control board to prevent these payments.) This means that the next administration will have to pursue efficiencies in the use of teacher personnel. In some ways, de Blasio recognized this reality when his proposed budget for the current year reduced general education spending by $322 million in the current year, with smaller cuts allocated to future years. More will be needed.
De Blasio has reduced the size of the Absent Teacher Reserve, but the Independent Budget Office (IBO) estimated in April 2020 that this pool of tenured staff excused from teaching duty for either budgetary or disciplinary reasons was still costing the city $250 million. The administration’s budget for the coming year anticipated a decline of $39 million in spending on these teachers. Even with those savings, though, it’s time for the city to end the retention of teachers unable to find permanent assignments.
The new mayor’s team should also engage a top-to-bottom review of all contracts within the Department of Education’s budget related to the failed Renewal Schools program, the Community Schools program, ThriveNYC, Pupil Transportation, and other expensive agreements established by the outgoing administration.
As with all city agencies, the cost of employee pensions and health benefits in education has swollen rapidly. According to IBO’s historical spending tables from 2009 to 2019, pension costs at the Department of Education fattened by $1.5 billion, or 69 percent in nominal (unadjusted for inflation) dollars. In the same years, contributions to employee health insurance rose by $73 million, or 86 percent. To protect core services, the next mayor must institute reforms in these areas.
The new administration needs to strike a different tone with the UFT—and hold the line on future wage hikes until the city’s finances recover from the economic effects of Covid-19. In line with a citywide review and rearrangement of pension and other postretirement benefits, those agreements related to the Department of Education require review and reform.
Looking forward, the next mayor must convince parents that New York City is a good place to raise their children and that the city is committed to providing the type of education that they seek for their children. Instead of lecturing parents, the next mayor needs to listen. The de Blasio paradigm of redistributing educational quality within a closed system must give way to a forward-thinking and responsive growth agenda that draws on creativity and expertise in all sectors—public, nonprofit, private, and religious.
The goal should be a dynamic system responsive to diverse families and communities while also maintaining certain performance standards in all schools. This localized approach to education will help ensure that the system’s spending better reflects the needs of schools and schoolchildren, not the pet ideas of elected officials and interest groups. An educational growth agenda can encompass the pursuit of societal goals related to fairness, justice, and equal opportunity.
What is needed, then, is educational pluralism, a philosophy in which the system recognizes the primacy of parents and embraces school choice in all its forms. Charter schools, private schools, and religious schools can all provide the same public benefits that traditional public schools do. After all, any school that delivers effective education is doing a public service. All of us benefit from schools that produce educated and functional adults.
The challenge of balancing legitimate public-policy issues and private pursuit of what families deem best for their children would be complicated but not insurmountable. A key aspect of a pluralistic system would be that schools would vary in their approach within broad curriculum guidelines promulgated by the State Education Department and Board of Regents. Not all schools would appeal to everyone—and that would be the point. Broad policy goals in the areas of educational standards and equitable treatment of all students could be written into the legislation enabling public funding of schools. Beyond those guidelines, schools could innovate and differentiate themselves. Families would enjoy more freedom to seek schools that aligned with their own goals for their children. This system would not guarantee homogeneity on what gets taught in schools, who gets to teach in schools, or what types of students are served by individual schools.
To some, this system would seem imperfect, and they would be right—but it would introduce a process of choice requiring schools and families to find common ground in ways more meaningful and effective than having such determinations handed down from on high, as is done currently. Again, local control would not be unfettered; schools would have to meet state curriculum standards, and the acceptance of public funding would require them to reject overt acts of discrimination.
The new mayor can implement some aspects of a truly pluralistic system under the existing system of mayoral control of schools and can also attempt to influence the state legislature to make changes to state law to expand further the scope of educational pluralism in the city.
The city needs to start creating new schools again to expand opportunity in lower-income communities. In doing so, it can also seek to increase the number of more racially integrated schools, through creative siting and programming in response to families’ educational priorities. The system also needs to align schools with students’ academic and career expectations. Truly advanced students require more seats in academically challenging middle and high schools. Students entering high school with low achievement records need high schools that provide a path to entry-level employment through the acquisition of additional training and certification in community colleges and elsewhere.
The mayor should once again invite new and growing charter schools to take advantage of underutilized space in public school buildings. This will not only aid these important public schools in their pursuit of greater educational opportunities for students but will also result in future budget savings by reducing the need to lease private space for charters, a cost currently borne by the city and state. The new mayor should also encourage the legislature to allow the creation of new charter schools in the city, a proven method of expanding educational opportunities for low-income children.
In response to the pandemic, many charter, private, and religious schools mounted well-designed remote-learning programs. While remote learning cannot completely replace live instruction, the pandemic has demonstrated that all schools and school systems need to have remote-learning systems in place as backup in case of future disruptions. It has also been demonstrated that well-designed remote-learning programs can work well for many children. The city school system should learn from the groundbreaking work that private and charter schools have done in this area.
A growth-oriented city administration might also look into ways that remote learning could be used to break the logjam and equity concerns regarding the undersupply and high demand for entrance to selective high schools and middle schools, as well as gifted programs in the early grades. By de-linking schooling from the physical constraints of the system’s buildings, it might be possible to increase access, at least virtually, to these or similar schools. A high number of current students in the city’s selective high schools, it’s worth noting, opted for continued remote learning when offered the chance at the beginning of the current school year. These students are the most likely to be able to handle remote learning effectively, as demonstrated by their documented high levels of achievement and motivation.
One lesson of the apparently low participation rate in the Department of Education’s remote-learning efforts is that students need the structure and motivation created by modest assessment and reporting of their own performance. At a minimum, the school system must send a clear message about the importance of participation in remote learning and/or attendance in school by maintaining student-level records, incorporating attendance or participation rates in student report cards, and providing the public with aggregate summaries of these data. City data indicate that achievement levels on state assessments decline severely for students with lower attendance rates. Students considered to be “severely chronically absent” (lower than 80 percent attendance) pass the state exams at much lower rates—20.7 percent in English language arts and 10.9 percent in math—than do students with “good attendance”—51.2 percent and 48.2 percent, respectively. The system must also ensure that all students are assigned and graded upon meaningful assignments.
The new mayor’s Department of Education should return to a fair, easy-to-understand method of evaluating schools. In order to open the space for new and better schools, the next mayor should learn from de Blasio’s failed Renewal Schools program and reinstall a process of closing schools that fail to meet minimal standards.
The new administration should end the divisive practices of employee trainings segregated by race; the undermining of the importance of academic achievement in the service of “antiracism”; and current efforts to rearrange school zoning in pursuit of a centrally designed racial mix in each school. Instead, it should commit to genuine improvement in school quality in the city’s many underserved communities. Maintaining and promoting safety in schools for students and teachers alike requires a levelheaded approach to the deployment of school safety officers and metal detectors. Grand gestures—like a blanket removal of safety officers and metal detectors from schools—may please activists, but these measures would certainly make students less safe.
Close to 20 percent of children in the city attend private or religious schools, and one-third of these students are nonwhite. Religious schools have struggled financially because of the pandemic. New York cannot afford to lose these schools. To help maintain these critical institutions, the new mayor should support a state-level tuition tax credit for contributions made to nonprofits providing scholarships for youngsters attending private and religious schools. The issue here is not defending a dysfunctional district school system from competition but ensuring that families have access to various educational options.
The next mayor should resist legislative attempts to undo the requirement that admissions to the city’s selective high schools rely on a single exam. Even if the legislature and governor were to remove this state mandate, the mayor should maintain the use of a single exam as city policy.
New York City currently finds itself back on its heels. Now, more than any other time in the last 40 years, our elected leaders must demonstrate that they are committed to working with families to give them the schools that they want for their children—rather than treating those children as wards of the state and targets of social experimentation.
Top Photo: Mayor Bill de Blasio and recently resigned schools chancellor Richard Carranza attempted to address what they saw as inequities in the school system by, among other things, doing away with merit-based admissions policies. (FRANCES ROBERTS/ALAMY LIVE NEWS)