Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Will New York Reforms Survive?

Michael Bloomberg’s final term as New York City mayor will soon end. Will the nationally influential education governance changes he introduced end too?

From the tone of the now-concluded Democratic primary, one might expect so. The winner, Bill de Blasio, condemned recent actions by Bloomberg’s Department of Education as “a cynical effort to lock communities into permanent changes while ignoring community voices.”

It is not clear, though, just how much will change. There is still a general election in November, and though de Blasio is the front-runner, he will have to get votes from a very different constituency than voted in the Democratic primary. Union members and leftish families whom the city schools have always served well will still turn out. But so will more middle-of-the-road voters.

De Blasio will need to move toward the center, and he has left himself room to do so. In the primary campaign he promised to approach some things differently, like school closings and co-location of charters and traditional schools—but he has not said he’d stop them altogether. Both candidates will now have to face realities, including:

  • Evidence that Bloomberg’s reforms have led to significant increases in high school graduation rates, closed achievement gaps, and directed money and creative energy toward improving education for the most disadvantaged.
  • Evidence that the most controversial actions—replacing big comprehensive high schools with smaller, more focused ones and creating new charter elementary schools—had big effects on student achievement.
  • Widespread support among educators for school autonomy, including mutual consent hiring and continually increasing school control of spending decisions.
  • Strong new nonprofit organizations that can help schools in better and more flexible ways than the old central office ever could.
  • Dramatic improvement in the quality of the teaching force.
  • A constituency of parents whose children attend new district-run and charter schools, and nonprofits that operate or partner with those schools.
  • The universal expectation that families deserve real choices among schools.

Nobody can say for sure that these factors are enough to lock in Bloomberg’s reforms. Any new mayor will want to put his own brand on the schools. But Bloomberg’s reforms have created a new baseline from which his successor will start.

Reformers in other cities are watching New York closely, and there are lessons to learn. The first is that while mayoral control of schools can lead to deep changes, transition to another mayor can enable their undoing.

The second lesson is that any governance reform strategy must, as Bloomberg’s did, work with the politics of the city. The attentive public must know that profound changes are underway, and see evidence of results. Reform leaders need to build alliances with groups that benefit most from reforms, for example families in new schools, reformist teachers and school providers, and new assistance organizations. Even with the mayor’s backing, reformers can’t go it alone and hope that the results will be enough to guarantee support.

The third lesson is that opponents will organize and capitalize on mistakes, as when reformers failed to offer enough evidence that kids in a school slated for closure would get much better opportunities in a new school.

In New York and elsewhere, the results of political conflict depend on the skill and persistence of the contenders. Reform opponents enjoyed a big home field advantage in the Democratic primaries, where complaints set decibel records and reform successes were ignored. But the general election, and the next mayor’s governing agenda, should be a more constructive debate about improving opportunities for disadvantaged kids. For that to happen, both candidates need constant reminders from those who have benefitted from the past ten years about what Bloomberg’s reforms have accomplished and how.

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