How different are the mayoral candidates from Bloomberg on education, actually?

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P.S. 9 in Brooklyn. ()
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Have 11 years under Mayor Michael Bloomberg improved education in New York City?

That was the last question posed to five mayoral candidates during 90-minute forum on education last week. The answer from two of them, current and former comptrollers John Liu and Bill Thompson, was a fairly emphatic no.

The answer from one of them, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, was a hedge: Bloomberg did well in the first term, followed by two terms in which the system "slid hugely backwards."

Only two of the five would-be mayors gave an answer that in any way approximated a yes.

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One of those was media executive Tom Allon, a former Stuyvesant teacher who's mounting a longshot bid as a Republican and who said Bloomberg had perhaps improved education a little bit, though not "enough."

The other yes came from City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, whose mission from now until September (or thereabouts) is to appeal to Democratic primary voters without squandering the tacit backing of Bloomberg and the city's business establishment that she’s worked so hard to secure.

”I think we have a lot further to go," said Quinn. "But yes, I do think we’ve made progress under Mayor Bloomberg, but not progress which I am satisfied with ...”

The crowd seated in Baruch College’s Mason Hall, most of them members of a union that sponsored the event, the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, booed and hissed. But she pressed on.

“Remember, we now have mayoral control, which is a great foundation to build off of," Quinn said. "But we’re not there.”

It sounded like she was saying the opposite of the other Democrats on the stage, who had said Bloomberg's education legacy was a flop. But in terms of the substance, she might as well have been speaking for all of them.

Every candidate on that stage—including Thompson, de Blasio and Liu, all of whom had faulted Bloomberg's work on education—likes and plans to keep mayoral control of public schools, which was a product of a 2002 legislative victory by which Bloomberg wrested direction of the city's schools and education policy from the old Board of Education.

It's that very mayoral control that raises the stakes this year, in what will be the first open mayoral election in decades in which the winner will exert near-supreme control over education policy in New York City. 

Notwithstanding a perennial effort by some particularly close allies of the teachers union to reinstitute the old board model, that debate is effectively over.

“What’s funny is they might disagree with Michael Bloomberg’s version of mayoral control, but they’re not gonna give that up,” said Liz Willen, the editor of the Hechinger Report, who was one of the two moderators of last week’s forum.

The litmus-test issues on education for Bloomberg's would-be successors are, broadly speaking, charter schools and their co-location in buildings with district schools, teacher evaluations, student testing, and school closures.

Here, too, the policy prescriptions, at least on the Democratic side, are broadly similar: a diminution of the privileges accorded charter schools under the Bloomberg administration and a closer alliance with the teachers union, a less-pronounced reliance on standardized testing for students and teachers, fewer school closures, a more expansive pre-K program and a greater emphasis on public feedback in the formation of policy. (The word "collaborate," in its various forms, got thrown around quite a bit during last week's forum.)

The early consensus among the candidates, as Columbia political science and education professor Jeffrey Henig described it, is that New York City needs “a kinder, gentler mayoral control of schools.”

The differences among the Democratic candidates are mostly a matter of degree, with Quinn generally the least inclined to make major changes to Bloomberg's policies.

The top-polling Republican candidate, Joe Lhota, hasn't spoken extensively about education, but seems inclined to follow the Bloomberg model. 

(Lhota described himself in a previous interview with Capital as "very pro-charter." He also said that co-locations aren't ideal but that he has "no problem with them," and that standardized tests are a "very, very important" metric but shouldn't be the "sole criteria" by which teachers and schools are judged, which is what pretty much everyone thinks. Also, like Quinn, he supports the idea of giving students tablets instead of textbooks. It's an idea Sol Stern, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, calls "trivial.")

The five mayoral candidates at last week's forum sat in sober colors on gray chairs, beneath a proscenium engraved with the proverb, "He that getteth wisdom loveth his own soul/He that keepeth understanding shall find good.”

Bloomberg came into office with the laudable notion of becoming the education mayor, to fix New York's public school system or fall short, and be held accountable in either case.

He was returned to office twice, but the consensus among his would-be successors seemed to be that his victories came despite the state of the city's public schools, not because of it.