I’m a progressive Democrat. I care about widening inequality, would like my government to more actively redistribute money from the very wealthy to the very poor, and find the racial implications of policies such as Stop and Frisk deeply troubling. Most media narratives suggest that these positions would lead me to support Bill de Blasio. Indeed, I find much of his rhetoric about inequality in New York appealing and compelling.
Unfortunately, de Blasio has declared war on the high quality schools that are actually making a difference in the lives of low-income children in New York City. I am not a New Yorker. If I were, however, I would not be voting for Bill de Blasio. Truly progressive New Yorkers shouldn’t either.
One of the hottest button issues in the New York City education debate centers around co-location of charter schools in districts. Charter schools are public schools open to any New York City student who enters a lottery process. Though not every charter school has been a success, most of the best schools serving low-income students in New York City are charter schools. Despite this success, charters are funded at considerably lower levels than traditional districted schools. Their funding does not include facilities, leaving them at a disadvantage as high as $2,000 per student. In expensive real estate markets such as New York City, this understandably creates a significant barrier to expansion.
In an effort to support the expansion of high quality charters, the Bloomberg administration has offered these schools access to unused facilities owned by the Department of Education. This technique, known as ‘co-location’ because parts of the same building are generally used by other schools, has become deeply divisive. The education establishment and New York United Federation of Teachers, avid and frequently vicious opponents of reform, have bitterly opposed this and any other effort to expand access to high quality charters. Following their lead, Bill de Blasio has become a vocal opponent of these high performing charters and the co-location they need to expand.
Let’s be clear about what’s at stake here. The schools under discussion are a lot, not a little, better than the alternatives. Eva Moskowitz’s Harlem Success, which has come under particular fire from de Blasio, serves the very student population that New York public schools have failed for generations: low-income students of color. On the most recent statewide exams, now built around Common Core State Standards tracked to college readiness, Harlem Success students ranked in the top one percent of all New York schools in math and in the top seven percent of all schools in reading.
Equally important, these high quality charters do more than raise test scores. New research reveals that they drastically increase the likelihood that students will attend college. In short, they help break the cycle of poverty. Until New York City’s districted public schools can achieve the same results for all students, progressive values dictate that we give a better shot in life to as many students as we can.
There is simply no way that a candidate primarily interested in the best outcomes for poor children would be fighting the expansion of high quality schools. As a progressive, I find it incomprehensible that every Democrat in the city is not focused on how to expand this success to other schools. De Blasio might have any number of motivations for attacking schools that successfully serve low-income students. Early in the election he was vying (ultimately unsuccessfully) for the endorsement of the United Federation of Teachers. De Blasio’s opposition to charter schools may also bolster his credentials as the cleanest break from Mayor Bloomberg’s administration. Furthermore, the attacks on Moskowitz, a former city counselor and potential future political opponent, have at times seemed deeply personal.
Ultimately, I don’t know why de Blasio has taken the position that he has. What I do know is that it is not based on what can best help the low income New Yorkers for whom he professes so much compassion. If de Blasio is set on being outraged about something in the New York school system, he could redirect his anger from personal and political concerns and focus on the fact that the most recent state exam showed fewer than 20 percent of Black and Hispanic students in New York City public schools were on track for college readiness.
The true test of progressive values is not merely the ability to speak eloquently about inequities in America life. If it were, Bill de Blasio would easily clear the bar. Rather, it is a demonstrated commitment to the solutions that will have a positive impact on the lives of people who most need government’s assistance. A real progressive would have the backs of school reformers who are changing the lives of low-income kids in New York City. Bill de Blasio will be busy sinking a knife into them.
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