This morning the New York Post carried a tough op-ed by Mona Davids, the president of the New York City Parents Union, calling on Mayor Bill de Blasio to put a fully fleshed education plan on the table. It read, in part:
Pre-K may be important, Mayor de Blasio, but then what? Too many elementary and middle schools are performing at a low level. It follows, therefore, that any gains that may result from the pre-K experience are likely to be lost by the third grade—and certainly by middle school. So, the question must be reiterated: Where’s the plan, Mr. Bill?
Davids is not the first to suggest that de Blasio would do well to talk more extensively about his vision for schools and detail the policies he will implement to reach it.
In last month’s damaging fight over charter relocations, de Blasio’s enemies capitalized on the fact that while the mayor, as a candidate, had made clear his skepticism about charters, he had not explained whether he wanted to phase them out altogether, change the role they played in the system, or what. De Blasio staunched the bleeding over charter schools with his speech at Riverside Church in late March, where he clarified his concerns and cooled the rhetoric about charters. But that talk still left a lot of policy questions open.
Don’t get me wrong: progressive advocates I’ve talked with are very pleased at the dramatic change in tone, approach and priority from the Bloomberg years. “Low-income people with HIV who got sick in city shelters are meeting with Lilliam,” says VOCAL-NY’s Sean Barry, referring to Deputy Mayor Lilliam Barrios-Paoli. Barry, whose organization claimed a huge victory in the city-state deal over HIV/AIDS housing, isn’t the only advocate who is still enjoying the novelty of having—at least for now—a consultive rather than combative relationship with City Hall.
Zakiyah Ansari, the advocacy director at the Alliance for Quality Education (AQE), says her group actually was able, at times, to work with rather than against the Bloomberg team. But de Blasio has still been a breath of fresh air: the mayor’s prioritizing pre-K and advocating vocally for the state to make good on the fiscal obligations it accepted under the Campaign for Fiscal Equity settlement were, Ansari says, “historic moments.” But it’d be good to hear more. “What we need him to do is put out a clear, robust and progressive vision for education and really articulate that,” she says. (Update: Mere hours after this post went up, the city school department made a major announcement about promotion policy that AQE’s Biull Easton hailed: “Mayor de Blasio’s administration is setting the right approach in motion by prioritizing real improvements in teaching and learning.”)
Nor is education the only issue where people want to learn more. “He has to stop saying he’s going to build 200,000 units and start saying how he’s going to do it,” says one community organizer of the mayor’s housing plan.
Some of this impatience has nothing to do with de Blasio. Mayors don’t typically reveal all the details of all of their policies in their first 100 days in power, because they need to stagger the publicity, politicking and actual governing behind each initiative in order to avoid overloading the system. And mayoral campaigns, despite their exhausting length and enormous expense, do a poor job of teasing fine-grained details out of candidates—in part because of the fixation with sound-bites, and in part because most candidates are running with incomplete information and only grasp the fiscal and legal constraints on policymaking when they are behind the big desk.
However, some of the thirst for details has everything to do with de Blasio, or at least with what he represents. De Blasio’s slowness to make appointments means the administration simply hasn’t had the people in the room to make big policy decisions. His decision to make pre-K his absolute top priority over the first three months, while successful, naturally meant other topics got less attention.
Beyond that, de Blasio’s election encompassed a deep yearning for real change and his inauguration triggered a shift in the governing approach that has dominated the city for (depending on how you look at it) twelve to twenty years. That means there are very steep expectations and a long, long to-do list. De Blasio has made real progress in fulfilling promises—ending the FDNY suit, getting paid sick-leave expanded, achieving UPK funding. Now the targets get tougher.