New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s first 100 days—a partnership between The Nation and City Limits.
Few things are as endearing in a politician as a self-deprecating sense of humor. Do any of us recall a moment (OK, except for the evening of 9/11) when we felt warmly about then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani when he wasn't in drag? It's a struggle. In every day parlance, Bill de Blasio is a bit more fluent with the laugh lines than his immediate predecessors, but his performance this weekend at the annual Inner Circle dinner was still a welcome break from a decidedly unfunny couple of weeks, with buildings blowing up in Harlem and the charter school issue blowing up in the mayor's face.
There was little effort to be funny when the mayor spoke Sunday at Riverside Church. There, the goal was to do what City Hall had failed to do until now, which was articulate—or at least do so loudly enough to be heard over the well-funded charter-chain campaign to discredit the mayor—de Blasio's education vision and how charter schools fit into that.
If the mayor's speech were one of the essays my 10-year-old is writing to practice for the upcoming ELA exam on which he and his not-colocated, unionized charter school will be judged, it'd get a six out of seven (no one seems to give As and Bs anymore, except on the DOE school report cards).
He laid out a sound rationale for why he blocked the three colocations involving Eva Moskowitz schools (while approving five others of hers):
We made some decisions in the last weeks, striving for fairness. But I have to tell you I didn’t measure up when it came to explaining those decisions to the people of this city. So let me start to right the ship now. We want children to have good options. But good options have to serve both the children they are intended for while not displacing or harming other children in the schools to which they may go.
There’s a charter school with 194 children. It’s a good school doing good work, and we are going to make sure those 194 children have a good home this year. But we will not do it at the expense of our special education children.
And he had some good analysis of how the charter school idea had morphed from being a test kitchen for general public schools to being thought of as some sort of alternative system to them:
The original notion of the charter movement was to innovate, to create laboratories for new and better ideas that then they could be brought into the whole traditional public school system. That’s a positive vision that we have to reengage. The idea is not to create separation – the kind of competition that works for some and leaves others out. The idea is to create a fullness, a totality, a completeness in which our charter schools help to uplift our traditional public schools. Six percent of our children in the charters – they are our children. We need them to succeed. 94% of our children are in traditional public schools – they are our children. We need them to succeed.
There was some want of supporting details. For instance, the mayor didn't mention the word "rent" in his speech, as in "I want to charge some charter schools rent because..." But the talk was still a clearer statement of the mayor's principles than had emerged to date during the dust-up with the Eva Empire. Watch the mayor's speech or read the text here.
Read Next: Jarrett Murphy on de Blasio's "war" on charters.
Mayor Bill de Blasio on Thursday signed into law a bill dramatically expanding the number of workers who can take paid sick leave. Fans and foes seem to agree that it’s a fairly significant piece of legislation. But sick leave was not one of topics broached by Quinnipiac University pollsters when they conducted a survey of 1,200 New Yorkers a few days ago.
Quinnipiac, one of two major polling institutes that regularly cover New York City politics (Marist is the other), put out two de Blasio polls this week, one on specific policy areas and another on general opinions about the mayor. The latter found that solid majorities are optimistic about the future and confident in the mayor’s honesty and leadership, but fewer than half approve of the job de Blasio is doing.
That number appears to bolster the idea that de Blasio is losing the city. “After electing the progressive firebrand Bill de Blasio in a historic landslide last fall, New York City voters’ opinion of their new mayor, just three months on the job, is pretty much, ‘Meh,’” is how the Christian Science Monitor put it.
Meh? Ugh! Approval rates rise and approval rates fall. At this point in Mike Bloomberg’s first term, his approval rating was at 62 percent. Within fifteen months, he was at an ice-cold 32 percent. A couple years later he was re-elected by a large margin. We could spend hours talking about the unique dynamics of Bloomberg’s trajectory, but that’d be boring. The take-home message is that de Blasio’s numbers are going to go up and down for as long as he’s mayor.
The more specific questions in both Q polls may say more, albeit indirectly, about where the mayor stands. As mentioned above, sick leave was not one of the things the surveys asked about. Nor did they query about stop-and-frisk, racial profiling, the city budget, the Domino development deal or the VisionZero proposal—major decisions the mayor has taken so far.
They did ask about charter schools, horse carriages, pre-K taxes, the mayor’s motorcade and a “telephone inquiry about the arrest of a politically influential clergy member.” The answers on those all look pretty grim for the mayor. More people want more charter schools than fewer, and most people prefer Governor Cuomo’s plan for funding UPK to the mayor’s proposed high-earners’ tax. Most people oppose the idea of banning carriage horses (which the mayor supports), think de Blasio’s call about Bishop Findlayter’s arrest was “special treatment,” and don’t buy the argument that the reason for “the mayor’s car disregarding traffic regulations” was “protecting the mayor’s security.”
This is just a single poll, of course, and it’s still early days and all that, but if you want to worry about something, it’s a warning sign. The problem isn’t that the mayor faces some broad opposition to some of his agenda. Even very popular mayors sometimes do unpopular things—that sort of comes with the gig. It’s only an issue when your mayoralty comes to be defined by those unpopular things. That’s the bigger problem here—that the narrative of de Blasio’s mayoralty is being dominated by bad headlines and unpopular stances, when the real story is broader, deeper and more favorable.
When I was a kid I remember being at a family party where the grown-ups were discussing Field of Dreams. One relative talked about it as a movie about the relationship between the Kevin Costner character and his father. “Really?” said another. “I thought it was about baseball.” And yeah, if you just watch the movements on the screen, it is just about baseball, and one man’s unorthodox approach to farm economics. But it’s a way better movie if you look a little deeper.
Read Next: Who’s to blame for de Blasio’s message problem?
Bill de Blasio’s deep pass—the effort to get his UPK plan funded by a tax on the rich—appears to have been stopped short of the end zone, tackled by a governor looking to co-opt his 2014 Republican opponents and by City Hall’s limited authority over taxes. But the mayor keeps on picking up yards here and there by using one power he does have: the ability to decide when and how New York City goes to court.
Today de Blasio agreed to settle a lawsuit by 1,500 minority FDNY applicants who contended the city’s firefighter exam discriminated against them. Their suit had already forced changes in the FDNY test that led to a more diverse recent probationary class. Now the city will pay just over $100 million to settle the applicants’ personal claims and pay their lawyers. So ends one of the bitterest legal disputes of the Bloomberg era, in which a federal judge ruled that the city had intentionally discriminated against would-be firefighters on color, a ruling later tossed by an appeals court.
The FDNY settlement is the fifth major Bloomberg-era case that de Blasio has ended. First was the stop-and-frisk litigation, which the mayor moved to end within his first month in office. His administration also ended a Bloomberg-initiated challenge to a 2013 prevailing wage law and settled with folks who sued after being arrested at the 2004 Republican National Convention. More recently, he dropped a lawsuit his predecessor had filed challenging the legality of a law passed by the City Council over Bloomberg’s veto to expand the city’s prohibition of profiling.
None of these moves were big surprises; in fact, most were expected. Still, they have symbolic weight as well as policy substance, effectively closing the book on several of the divisive issues of the Bloomberg era.
Other issues, of course, will still find their way to a courtroom. De Blasio’s own decisions will start to land the city at the defendant’s table. Already, both charter school proponents and opponents have moved to sue the mayor for his limited reversal of late 2013 co-location decisions.
And some Bloomberg-era cases persist. One is a lawsuit by Muslim New Yorkers against the NYPD for its surveilance program. While a similar case was tossed out of New Jersey federal court earlier this year, the Raza case continues in the Eastern District. As recently as mid-February, de Blasio’s corporation counsel (serving, ironically, as the lawyer for named defendants Mike Bloomberg and Ray Kelly) asked the judge not to permit law students to see any of the confidential police documents that might be shared during discovery.
Will de Blasio add that case to the legal battles on which he admits the city was wrong? The mayor’s position on the legality of the NYPD spy operation has been fluid; he backed it in 2012 and denounced it in 2013.
Not every city lawsuit can be treated as a statement of political principles: Some involve issues like the separation of powers or federalism that a mayor has a duty to contest. But if shaking hands with plaintiffs is the one sure-fire way de Blasio has found to undo some of Bloomberg’s impact, he may not want to stop at five.
Read Next: How will de Blasio differ from his predecessor on surveillance?
This past Monday was not a fun day to be Mayor Bill de Blasio.
As he prepared for an appearance on MSNBC, the mayor may have read the Daily News story headlined “Horse Feathers: Liam rips stable no-show Blaz,” about a very handsome actor impugning the mayor’s manhood for not showing up to debate a proposed carriage horse ban. In the New York Post de Blasio could see himself manhandled in “Pataki rips DeB ‘abuse of power’,” “Rev. Blas preaches ‘tax the rich’” and “Blasio’s blarney.” The New York Times metro section had the lower volume but similar pessimism in articles like “In Rent Plan for Charters, Mayor Faces a Hard Road” and “Among de Blasio’s Priorities, Minimum Wage Waits Behind Pre-K.”
Then de Blasio went on the air to endure a long, hostile and not particularly well-informed grilling about charter schools on Morning Joe. The mayor’s security detail showed admirable restraint in not tackling Mika Brzezinski, whose white-hot-angry stare threatened to bore a hole in hizzoner’s skull.
That was just one bad morning in what’s been a tough month for the mayor. What’s driving all the bad ink? Is it that de Blasio (or his team) is bad at communicating? Or is it that the press is treating him unfairly?
Is “none of the above” an option?
Look, de Blasio has misplayed his hand with the press a number of times: the off-schedule visit to AIPAC, the habitual lateness to press events, the ducking out of the room when he should have answered questions and ended the dust-up over his motorcade’s disregard for traffic rules. The mayor acknowledged on Morning Joe that the PR on the charter school co-locations decision was botched.
At the same time, the press is not being easy on de Blasio. The tabloid story about the mayor’s call to the NYPD regarding the arrest of a supporter simply wasn’t front-page material, because there was never any evidence that de Blasio meant to influence the cops. Stalking the mayoral motorcade was an aggressive move by WCBS that never really considered whether, just maybe, the mayor of a large city being driven by police officers has a legitimate reason for rolling through stop signs. As noted in an earlier blog, I think the Times article about the alleged leftist occupation of City Hall was off-target. The coverage by many outlets of the charter school decision was abysmal, devoid of all context and proportion.
Still, given the small sample size just two months into his term, I don’t think the totality of coverage by the mainstream working press has been systematically unfair to the mayor. By “mainstream working press” I don’t include the editorial boards—the Daily News editorial page has been against de Blasio since day one and the Times editorial unit has offered modest doses of support and deep skepticism—or the Post, which is a right-wing publication and no more a part of the MSM than The Nation or City Limits.
I do think the media are being tougher on de Blasio than they were on Bloomberg in his early days, but I was overseas back then and can’t pretend to speak authoritatively. Over his full term I think Bloomberg got way too little criticism in the press. Comparisons aside, being tough is not unfair; it’s journalism, and it’s what we’re supposed to do. While it’s frustrating when journalistic skepticism happens to align with what the wealthy elites are saying in defense of the status quo, skepticism is an important asset for journalists. Hopefully, Andrew Cuomo and Eva Moskowitz will start feeling the sting of more of it. A more credulous press is not what progressives want, even if that means some scrapes and bruises for their causes.
Here’s what I feel is happening: Bill de Blasio is trying to do ambitious and, in many cases, complicated things—truly universal pre-K with a solid fiscal underpinning, the creation of 190,000 units of affordable housing, zero traffic deaths, a more inclusive kind of education reform and so on. These are hard things for a politician to explain, and de Blasio is not doing a great job of explaining them. They are also tough subjects for the mainstream media—with their daily deadlines and space constraints—to cover with the kind of depth and detail the stories merit, and we see that playing out, too. These mutual shortcomings are why the charter school thing blew up. They’re also why Bloomberg’s congestion pricing plan died in Albany. It happens to lots of guys. Really.
The great politicians (like FDR, LBJ—on The Great Society, not Vietnam!—and Reagan) have found a way to solve that problem through relentless communication, making it possible for the ever-imperfect media to cover them right. So, does de Blasio’s Brooklyn pad have a fireside he can chat from?
Read Next: Did Eva Moskowitz pressure students and teachers to rally for charter schools in Albany?
Yesterday was sunny and warm in New York, and Mayor Bill de Blasio was announcing his appointment of an impressive group of people to criminal justice posts. After weeks of tough headlines, “Today is a good news day,” the mayor declared, in part because of some cheery crime statistics. As the mayor explained:
During the first 10 weeks of 2014, the NYPD has driven down already historically low levels of crime. Overall, major crime has gone down 2 percent in the first 10 weeks of 2014 compared to where the levels stood a year ago. That’s overall—that’s all major crime categories—a 2 percent decline. But let’s talk about homicides. Homicides are down nearly 21 percent from this time a year ago. Shooting incidents down more than 14 percent from this time a year ago. This is extraordinary progress. It is not surprising to me, given that we have the finest police force in the world, that this progress is made. It’s not surprising to me, given that we have the finest police leader in the world, that this progress has been made. Some naysayers suggested that you couldn’t bring down crime while bringing police and community back together. I think these last 10 weeks show—yes, you can and yes, we will. And I just want to thank Commissioner Bratton and all the men and women of the NYPD for their extraordinary efforts. This is real evidence of what they can achieve and will continue to achieve.
Given the way de Blasio’s opponents in the fall predicted bloodshed and mayhem upon his taking office, the mayor deserves a little room to crow. And he was quick to give street cops the credit they deserve rather than claiming all of it for his polices.
But regardless of who gets credit or blame, it’s unwise to put too much weight on small changes in the crime rate, or on trends over a short period of time—because when the numbers turn in the other direction, the cheering will turn to panic. Time and again in recent years, the city’s tabloid press has reacted to mini-spurts of crime as if they augured a return to the “bad old days.” In the end, the trends never last, and the overall crime rate keeps falling. In fact, just about a month ago, the Post was screaming about the 33 percent increase in murders during the first month of the de Blasio administration.
The very lowness of the key crime statistic—the murder rate—only enhances the danger of playing the stats game. If I went out and killed fifteen people in 1990, it would have increased the murder count by about six-tenths of 1 percent. If I go out and do that today (which is extremely unlikely, but can never be totally discounted), the murder rate this year might go up 5 percent as a result. When the base number is low, small changes look very large.
That’s not to say something very cool isn’t happening: Over the past year, even before the federal court ruling, even before de Blasio took office, the number of stop-and-frisk encounters was collapsing but—contrary to those naysayers—crime kept falling. The ten weeks the mayor points to are part of that longer trend.
And that trend, in turn, is part of something even larger: For two decades, under four different mayors, through economic booms and busts, violence and lawlessness have been decreasing in New York and throughout most of the country.
Focusing on short-term peaks and valleys misses that broader landscape of policy success. Beyond that, the stats obsession feeds back unhelpfully into politics and, then, into policy. When the Giuliani administration began its intense focus on crime statistics, with Bill Bratton and Jack Maple taking the lead, the numbers were intended to serve as a tactical guide for police commanders. But they became a politically charged barometer for mayoral performance. It’s hard to see how that eventually led to situations like the scandal in the 81st Precinct, where a cop recorded his commanders ordering officers to take steps to discourage the reporting of crime.
This is the dark side of the ascendance in the past decade of the use of metrics in government. It’s great to hold government accountable, and the numbers can help with that—I use them ad nauseam in my reporting. But when they become the lone, nearly instantaneous indicator of whether a government is succeeding or failing, they’re dangerous. Numbers can be manipulated, and can be understood to say more than they really say. And they can go from being a tool to being a master.
Read Next: Why are subway arrests up 300 percent under de Blasio?
During an appearance yesterday on MSNBC's "Morning Joe," Mayor Bill de Blasio gave the strongest indication yet that he could live without the tax on high-earning city residents he wanted to impose to pay for universal pre-K. If Gov. Cuomo's plan to pay for pre-K out of existing state revenue offered enough money, it'd be acceptable, de Blasio said—although he was quick to add that he still disliked the uncertainty of having to get the program funded each year through the state budget process.
Caveats and all, this was a significant move on the mayor's part. Throughout the campaign and the transition, de Blasio made a point of not even entertaining questions about a Plan B, as in, "If the state doesn't pass the tax hike, what's your Plan B to pay for pre-K?" De Blasio's boilerplate retort was a brief explanation of why it's bad strategy to bargain against yourself. Now, albeit rather tepidly, he's signaled there's more than one way to slice the UPK apple.
Many smart people think the mayor should have done this a long time ago. Just this weekend, I ran into a City Council member in a pizza shop. "He could have taken the governor's money and claimed victory," the member said, shaking his head. Weeks ago, the smartest person I know emailed me: "If Bill had quickly taken Andrew's deal, some of the tabloid s--t he's taking now wouldn't have happened."
De Blasio's reputation as a shrewd political player is hailed by both friends and foes. Friends see it as the asset that allowed de Blasio to rise from afterthought to presumptive mayor in a matter of weeks last summer. Detractors say de Blasio deals in strategy more than in soul—that expediency trumps principle too often. Whatever interpretation you subscribe to, it would be ironic if the master strategist blew the game planning around his signature policy.
But I'm not convinced that he did.
The argument for taking Cuomo's offer of a "blank check" from state coffers is that it represented a huge concession by the governor during an election year and was probably the best de Blasio was going to get. Pushing further—in hopes of getting the dedicated income-tax surcharge—risked creating a rift between City Hall and the governor's office and wasting the mayor's political capital to no apparent end. Taking the UPK deal would also allow de Blasio to spend that capital on other priorities like Vision Zero and hiking the minimum wage. And it would give city policymakers that much more time to plot out the massive task of getting UPK up and running in the city.
But don't forget that Cuomo, at least initially, didn't offer an alternative way to pay for de Blasio's UPK plan; instead, he offered a way to pay for a smaller plan without raising taxes. Cuomo's budget message mentioned dollar figures that were well shy of what de Blasio needed for the city, let alone what would be required statewide. Cuomo then offered the "blank check," but de Blasio was right to point out that the state has made—and later welched on—such promises in the past. What's more, in late January and early February, de Blasio seemed to have the momentum. Cuomo had gone from lukewarm support of UPK to full embrace. Was it that hard to believe that the gov might move farther, especially given the fluid factionalism in the state Senate? I dunno.
>Compare the downsides of the two approaches. If de Blasio takes Cuomo's deal, then that's all he gets. If de Blasio pushes for more, maybe be gets more, or maybe he doesn't, but it's unlikely that he loses what the governor has already put on the table. Under almost any conceivable scenario there's a UPK program statewide next year, and there's no denying that's because de Blasio gave the issue some political luster, so the mayor can still claim a victory.
At worst the mayor looks a little foolish for playing Icarus to Cuomo's sun, but so what? Mayor Bloomberg lost some big fights in Albany (West Side Stadium, congestion pricing) but was still able to prevail on others. The losses—especially on congestion pricing—only reinforced Bloomberg's reputation as an independent thinker.
Indeed, when you read about de Blasio's missteps—and he's made some—and his sagging poll numbers, it's important to remember that he is taking flak this month in part because he's keeping his campaign promises: to end free charter school co-locations that were harmful and to seek a tax on rich people to pay for universal pre-K. I'm not saying that alone justifies the strategy, or excuses fumbles like Chancellor Farina's unfortunate "they're on their own," but it's just worth noting as somewhat unusual. Talk to turned-off voters about what turned them off, and more than likely they'll say it's politicians who break their word. So far, that's one complaint that won't stick against de Blasio.
Read Next: De Blasio and Cuomo spar over charter schools.
Under the new mayor and police commissioner, New York City is arresting fewer people overall, but way more panhandlers and peddlers. According to Joseph Goldstein and J. David Goodman in The New York Times:
In the first two months of the year, arrests of peddlers and panhandlers on subways have more than tripled over the same period last year, with the police recording 274 such arrests as of March 2. By this point last year, they had made 90 such arrests.… Police statistics also indicate a noticeable spike in arrests for low-level violations in public housing developments. On New York City Housing Authority property, arrests for felonies are down nearly 5 percent and arrests for misdemeanors are nearly flat. But arrests for violations—a category of infractions that includes drinking beer in public and riding a bike on the sidewalk—has increased by more than 21 percent.
The Times also points out that stop-and-frisk encounters, which decreased dramaticallty in 2013, fell by an incredible amount so far in 2014, from 5,983 year-to-date last year to 353 so far this year. Overall arrests are also down. And the information on subway busts is public only because Commissioner William Bratton decided to be more transparent than his predecessor, Ray Kelly, had been.
Given that stops and arrests are down overall, and that crime is lower so far this year compared to last, what does the uptick in peddler/panhandler arrests mean?
When there’s a pronounced increase in a particular kind of enforcement, sometimes it’s a response to what cops call “conditions”—problems that have been identified in a command (e.g., there’s a slew of complaints about bar patrons getting rowdy on their way home, so the cops establish a presence near the watering holes at closing time). That could be what’s behind these numbers, though subway crime overall was down last year.
On their face, of course, the numbers conjure up memories of Bratton’s first stint as top cop, in the first years of the Giuliani administration, when mass arrests around so-called “quality of life” crimes were explained as reflecting a “broken windows” theory of urban disorder, in which tolerance for minor crimes was thought to create an atmosphere in which more serious offenses were more likely to occur.
Some, of course, look back on that era of policing fondly. Others—namely the people who have protested de Blasio’s decision to bring Bratton back to One Police Plaza—recall the “broken windows” surge in arrests as the start of an era of aggressive, racially targeted policing, eventually encompassing Howard Safir’s street crime unit and evolving into the mass-arrest, stop-and-frisk strategy of the Bloomberg years.
Here’s where a little communication by the mayor would be handy. During the campaign, he made many legitimate criticisms of the Bloomberg NYPD but had little to say about what his own approach to fighting crime would be. The VisionZero effort is an ambitious redirection of some police resources. But what’s the overall approach, and how do record arrests of people asking for change or selling candy (not for any basketball team, but just to do something positive and put money in their pocket, you might say) fit into it?
Read Next: Tom Hayden dismantles the myth of Bill Bratton’s LAPD.
Last week, the de Blasio administration declared war on charter schools, at least according to the New York Post. Governor Cuomo rushed to the barricades, telling a rally in Albany yesterday: “We are here today to tell you that we stand with you.… You are not alone. We will save charter schools.” Families for Excellent Schools, who organized the rally, claimed the Mayor's decision was met with universal opposition and characterized the move as the back end of a quid pro quo with the teachers union for endorsing the mayor.
Wondering what actually happened? The de Blasio administration released a memo reviewing forty-nine co-location decisions made last fall by the lame-duck Bloomberg administration. A co-location is when two schools occupy the same building, and it’s been a controversial aspect of the charter-school movement. Many charters, which usually serve fewer special ed or bilingual students than regular public schools, get free rent on space in the regular public schools that charter advocates so often disdain--often space that the regular school needs..
De Blasio’s chancellor, Carmen Farina, set aside four of the decisions that won’t take effect until the 2015–16 school year to give more time for study. It ordered thirty-five of the forty-five remaining plans implemented. It called for one to be revised. And it cancelled nine planned co-locations. Six concerned regular public schools, which also often co-locate. Three were for charters.
All three of those cancelled co-locations were for charters proposed by Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy network. Her defenders see that as proof that the mayor, a long-time critic of Moskowitz, was singling her out. But given the aggressive expansion plans of the Success network, it’s not that surprising that she has a large presence on the list. Moskowitz will now need to find space for those students, including some already attending Success Academy’s Harlem 4, which had outgrown the two other co-located sites it was using. Given that Success Academy is rolling in money—Moskowitz reportedly pulls down $475,000, more than the president of the United States—it seems likely she’ll come up with something. Contrary to the shorthand way some have reported it, de Blasio didn’t rescind the schools’ charters—he couldn’t—he just said they can’t use public school space.
(And for the record, the teachers’ union did not endorse de Blasio but his chief rival Bill Thompson in the Democratic primary. The UFT did back de Blasio in the general, along with the rest of the universe.)
Overall, fourteen charter-school co-locations—including five Success Academy ones—got the green light from Farina.
Full disclosure: I’m a charter-school parent. My elder son attends a K-5 school in the Bronx that has its own building and, like many of New York City’s charter schools, has unionized. Despite misgivings about the charter movement, we sent him there because we hoped the school’s progressive philosophy would help him avoid the drudgery of test prep. When I’d toured a regular public school in my district to see if it was right for us, I’d seen a bulletin board of student essays… about their test prep. One kid said he visualized tackling the test and kicking its teeth out. This wasn’t what we were looking for. As it turns out, because our school performed poorly on its first round of standardized testing and had its charter threatened, test prep is now a pretty regular part of life there. But we still like it.
My big take-away from five years as a charter-school daddy, however, is that there’s nothing magic about charter schools, which serve all of 6 percent of the city’s students. Some are good, and some aren’t. There is no “charter school model,” because charters embrace a wide spectrum of educational philosophies. If a charter has a commitment to serving a diverse population and not suspending every kid who doesn’t sit up straight, it’s likely going to struggle on the tests just like regular schools. And the replicability of successful charter-school teaching strategies in regular schools—which I always thought was one of the reasons to permit charter schools—is uncertain not just because of the curriculum rules and union contracts that regular schools must obey, but also because many leading charters have far more resources than the typical public school.
For my money, charters are neither a panacea nor a plague. But whatever they are, they aren’t so extraordinary that they deserve to take space away from regular public schools that need it. Hence the logic behind the decisions rendered by de Blasio’s DOE last week.
Permitting fourteen charters to co-locate while blocking three doesn’t look much like a “war“ on charter schools. At worst, it’s a surgical strike. Perhaps the charter movement sees it as an opening salvo that it must resist or risk worse damage later. Or maybe it’s a convenient rationale to ask for state funding to cover the expense of classroom space, which they currently don’t receive; de Blasio has, after all, made clear that he is very unlikely to approve new co-locations in the future. And he did earlier in February cut $210 million in the budget for programs to help charter schools.
But mostly it seems like everyone is just playing to the script. Charter-school advocates have been waiting for de Blasio to drop a daisy cutter on them. And they’re reacting as if he did, when in fact his administration rendered a pretty modest and narrow decision, especially given the sprawling ambition of the Bloomberg-authorized co-location wave it was reacting to. The de Blasio DOE’s touch was so light, in fact, that Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Public Advocate Letitia James have said they’re going ahead with a lawsuit to challenge some of the co-locations the de Blasio administration approved.
Unfortunately, that will just perpetuate this unproductive argument about charter schools. It’d be better to move on, treat charters as the minor part of the system they are, and figure out what to do for the 94 percent of public school kids who don’t attend charters. The lawsuit just gives the governor another opening to swoop in and “save” charter schools. Yawn.
Read Next: Joseph Featherstone reviews a new book by charter school advocate-turned-critic Diane Ravitch.
In a story that ran in Saturday’s edition headlined “De Blasio Picks More Liberal Activists Than Managers for City Posts,” The New York Times declares that “In Bill de Blasio’s City Hall, it seems more and more, there is only a left wing.” It points to recent appointments of Steven Banks, “a longtime critic of city policies affecting low-income residents” to be HRA commissioner as evidence that the mayor “has built a team filled with former activists—figures more accustomed to picketing administrations or taking potshots from the outside than working from within.” The list of lefties reads as follows:
Carmen Fariña, his schools chancellor, had quit the Bloomberg administration in protest over its emphasis on standardized test scores. The mayor’s top political strategist, Emma Wolfe, rose from campus activist to organizer for the advocacy group Acorn, the health care union 1199 SEIU and the Working Families Party before helping Mr. de Blasio get elected public advocate in 2009. His wife’s new chief of staff, Rachel Noerdlinger, was the longtime gatekeeper for the Rev. Al Sharpton. And his new counsel, Maya Wiley, was most recently in the running to lead the N.A.A.C.P. Laura Santucci, his chief of staff, is a former acting executive director of the Democratic National Committee and a former political aide at 1199 SEIU. Zachary W. Carter, his corporation counsel, was an appointee of President Bill Clinton as the United States attorney in Brooklyn and led the prosecution of police officers in the beating of Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant.
The article goes on to say that “at least a few appointees have been less ideological and more managerial,” naming Deputy Mayor Anthony E. Shorris and Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg.
Oddly, NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton—one of de Blasio’s first and most important appointments and the one that earned him raised eyebrows from some leftists and street protests from others—is not mentioned. Maybe that’s because Bratton was an outspoken critic of his predecessor Ray Kelly and therefore, while no left-wing nut, not sufficiently managerial.
Indeed, you could enter into evidence many names that run counter to the idea that de Blasio has stacked his administration with progressive activists. His deputy mayor for human services, Economic Development Corporation head, NYCHA general manager, homeless services commissioner and youth services commissioner all come directly from the Bloomberg administration. His deputy mayor for economic development comes from Goldman Sachs, and his deputy mayor for strategic initiatives comes from an organization that gave Mayor Bloomberg an award for his anti-poverty crusade. The planning chief has deep roots in the midtown business community, the budget boss is a career adviser to the state legislature and the child welfare chief is moving from the Cuomo administration. A developer heads the Housing Development Corporation. I could go on. You can bet your favorite pair of Sansabelt slacks that none of these people have The Anarchist’s Cookbook on their bookshelves.
Now, it is true that some of de Blasio’s more recent appointments, namely Banks and Wiley, are very vocal advocates for a very different way of governing than Bloomberg practiced. And, yes, some appointments are more important and influential than others, so lefties could be outnumbered in de Blasio’s cabinet without being outgunned. I’ll also admit that some lefty handwringing about the composition of the de Blasio team—in which I have been a sweaty-palmed participant—missed the forest for the trees. And the questions about de Blasio’s ability to communicate and to manage the city (as long as they are questions and not, two months into his term, conclusions) are fair game.
But what is definitely off-target is the notion, which the Times repeated Saturday but certainly didn’t invent, that “more managerial” appointees are somehow ideologically neutral.
This misconception underlay a lot of the skewed analysis of the Bloomberg administration, which was seen as apolitical, as merely interested in unimpeachable goals like efficiency and transparency. Observers were apparently thrown by the fact that Bloomberg combined liberal social beliefs with a devotion to market forces, and wed a comfort with activist policy to a $26 billion-wide blind-spot to the perils of plutocracy. It was a complex ideology—and hard to categorize because we have so few classic liberal Republicans these days—but it was an ideology nonetheless. Calling it otherwise gave many of Bloomberg’s ideas a nonpartisan sheen they didn’t deserve. (“What’s wrong, man: Are you against efficiency?”) Ideology is not like a beard, that some people have and some people don’t. It’s like skin color: even white guys have it.
This misconception threatens to get de Blasio compared to Bloomberg not as a progressive taking over from a centrist but as an ideologue seizing power from a technocrat. And that means that de Blasio’s policies could be debated not on their merits or the critique behind them but merely on the fact that they reflect a strong belief. That’s something de Blasio’s cabinet will have to resist, even if “working from within” is new to some of them.
Read Next: Jarrett Murphy on de Blasio’s latest appointment—a liberal veteran of the Legal Aid Society.
If I were reporting a story about social welfare programs in the city and wanted to talk to a source who could cite chapter and verse on how the de Blasio administration was or wasn’t fulfilling its moral and legal commitment to the poor, I’d call Steve Banks, the Legal Aid big-wig who for my entire career has been a monitor and critic of the Giuliani and Bloomberg administration’s approach to welfare, food stamps, homeless shelters and other threads of the safety net.
That phone call will be awkward now, because Banks will be running that policy for de Blasio, who on Friday named him the head of the Human Resources Administration.
A cynic might dismiss the move as shrewd politics: neutralize your most likely critic by making him your right-hand man. But there are plenty of other very vocal advocates in the city who will seamlessly continue their watchdog duties without Banks at their side. A more fair reading of the move is that this is de Blasio understanding that while some agencies are prepared to follow his more progressive marching orders—and therefore can be led by the kind of veteran insiders the mayor has appointed to lead them—HRA needs a deeper reorientation.
As Banks put it yesterday, “The impact that HRA has on the lives of very vulnerable children and adults in this city is really limitless. It’s there to be a helping hand and it should be a helping hand. Unfortunately, over the years it hasn’t been a helping hand for people that desperately need help…”
Under Mayor Bloomberg, HRA kept finger-imaging food-stamp applicants even after the federal agency that oversees the nutrition program, USDA, asked it to stop. Bloomberg refused to apply for a waiver to let more jobless adults without disabilities or kids get food stamps. The waiver was open to all counties with high unemployment, and New York easily qualified, but the mayor refused—even when his own aides wanted to do it, and, later, even when the post-recession stimulus bill made the waiver open to every city. Welfare rolls were static or even fell during the economic crisis, as lines at pantries grew and homeless shelter populations swelled, but the previous administration took the shrinking beneficiary population as a feather in its cap. And when the Bloomberg administration launched its much-ballyhooed effort to reduce poverty, HRA—the city’s welfare agency—bizarrely was not at the table.
As City Limits’s Neil de Mause reported three years ago, it’s hard for those of us who live comfortably to understand the outsize role HRA plays in the lives of the city’s 1.6 million poor people. HRA appointments and paperwork requirements can dominate poor people’s schedules, and its decisions on benefits and penalties are of extraordinary consequence.
If the city is serious about reducing inequality, and understands that government’s best tools for doing so are those that affect the low end of the population’s income distribution, HRA has to be part of the picture. The appointment of Banks suggests it will be. Said Banks:
we need to understand who it is that the agency is serving. The agency is serving people that are cycling in and out of low-wage work and are coming to the agency to get one-shot rent arrears [assistance] and things of that nature to keep a roof over their heads and keep them out of the shelter system. To an extent we have bureaucratic obstacles that were from another era, when the population was different and the ideologies were different, we have to look at all those barriers and see which one should be taken down in order to have proper policies that are aligned with the mayor’s values and the mayor’s goals.
Banks also put it this way: “We have to make sure that people are treated as human beings.”
Read Next: Jarrett Murphy on how de Blasio is making life better for homeless kids