The election of Bill de Blasio as mayor of New York City raised the hopes and expectations of progressives throughout the country. This was especially the case among those who believed that he would develop a progressive vision and approach to managing the city’s public schools. After 12 years of corporate-style “reform” under his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg—an experiment that became the model for several other cities across the country—many in the five boroughs and elsewhere anxiously waited to see whether de Blasio could lead the way in creating a progressive alternative.
In some important respects, he has delivered. Within his first year in office, the mayor significantly expanded access to preschool for children in the city, creating more than 26,000 full-time pre-K slots. (Though many of the preschools are nowhere close to “high quality,” he still deserves credit for expanding access to such a considerable extent.) In his second year, he has pledged to enact a new approach to help struggling schools and to significantly expand the number of community schools—which provide a range of services, including health, nutrition, and case management—to relieve some of the burdens related to poverty. The mayor has dedicated $150 million to support this effort, and while some have questioned his ability to implement such an ambitious initiative quickly and effectively, few question whether it is needed. Finally, de Blasio has made peace and settled contracts with the city’s major labor unions, including the United Federation of Teachers, which he has embraced as a partner in most of the important decisions facing the school system.
But as he moves deeper into his term, de Blasio will no longer be able to lead by initiative alone. He needs to provide a well-articulated rationale for his different approach to managing schools, and he needs this so that he can mobilize his base—parents, teachers, and progressives generally—to support him in the fight to save public education. It will not be easy.
Over the last decade, a national coalition of education “reformers”—including the Gates, Walton Family, and Broad foundations; Democrats for Education Reform; hedge-fund leaders and business CEOs; and a bipartisan collection of prominent politicians (Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and Barack Obama, just to name a few)—has embraced a distinct agenda: expand the number of charter schools, use high-stakes testing to evaluate teachers, and embrace the standards known as Common Core. In New York, this coalition has already won victories against the mayor, thanks in part to the support of the state’s governor, Andrew Cuomo.
At the end of the state’s legislative session this past June, in a gesture that was widely seen as a slap in the face for de Blasio, the mayor was given only a year to continue his control of the city’s schools. (Under the current system, the mayor—rather than an elected school board—has the power to make decisions concerning the management of public schools.) While de Blasio may ultimately be granted more time, it has become increasingly clear that unless he is able to inspire his base to defend his education policies, he will continue to be thwarted. And the most effective way for the mayor to inspire his base is to put forward a coherent and compelling progressive vision for education.