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Can Bill de Blasio Implement a Broader, Bolder Approach to New York City Education?

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This blog is co-authored by Michael Rebell, Professor of Law and Educational Practice at Teachers College, Columbia University; Executive Director of the Campaign for Educational Equity, and a member of the BBA Advisory Council.

Much has been made of the emphasis that New York City's new mayor, Bill de Blasio, has put on the poverty and inequality that plague the city, and how that contrasts with the position of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Perhaps the biggest difference is that, although both list education as a top priority, de Blasio has made it clear that he recognizes the role that poverty and inequality play in achievement gaps. While Bloomberg enacted some changes aimed at boosting the prospects of disadvantaged students, he also played down the role of poverty and marginalized education policies' capacity to address it. In contrast, de Blasio has emphasized poverty's effect on educational attainment and proposed policies that would directly weaken that link.

De Blasio's selection of Carmen Fariňa as chancellor is the most recent evidence of that difference. Fariňa, a 40-year veteran educator in the city's schools who has been a teacher, principal, and regional superintendent, brings to the position very different perspectives from those of her predecessors. She has experienced firsthand the impacts of poverty on individual students and schools, and sees parent and community engagement as core to school improvement. In contrast, Bloomberg's first chancellor, antitrust attorney Joel Klein, believed that school districts work like markets, and that increasing choice and efficiency and weakening the power of unions are the best means of boosting "under-performing" schools. Fariňa worked under Klein as Deputy Schools Chancellor for Teaching and Learning but quit and has since criticized many aspects of his and the Bloomberg administration's reforms.

De Blasio's emphasis on early childhood education signals his understanding that achievement gaps have their roots in opportunity gaps, and that those disparities in opportunity begin long before children enter kindergarten. His suggestion to expand access to high-quality pre-kindergarten by increasing the number of full-day slots the city funded under Bloomberg is backed by decades of solid evidence.

Similarly, de Blasio's plan to substantially expand access to after-school and summer programs for middle-school students would go a long way toward closing one of the city's biggest opportunity gaps. Numerous studies document the tremendous ground lost by low-income students in the hours after school and between June and September, when they lack access to the arts, music, organized sports, and travel opportunities that benefit their higher-income peers. In fact, one Johns Hopkins study finds that much of the ninth-grade rich-poor test score gap is attributable to elementary school summer learning loss. As de Blasio understands, high-quality enrichment opportunities aligned with the school day and year can narrow that gap.

Moreover, de Blasio's education policy agenda is rooted in, and supports, his overarching goal of narrowing the city's huge and growing inequalities across race and income lines. Indeed, he proposes slightly increasing taxes on the wealthiest New Yorkers -- who have benefitted mightily from policies under the outgoing mayor, while others have stagnated or lost ground -- in order to pay for high-quality pre-kindergarten for any child whose parents want it. That new money would also provide more low-income students with access to the after-school chess, robotics, and foreign-language enrichment that already help their wealthier peers compete in the 21st century economy.

Mayor Bloomberg pushed hard to persuade the state legislature to give him control over the city's schools. Unfortunately, while he invested in pre-kindergarten, small high schools, and other individual programs that benefitted low-income and minority students, his administration did not use its mayoral power to integrate a broad range of services with education. Mayor de Blasio has already begun to leverage that power to close opportunity gaps. He has voiced his support for the full-service community schools model of wraparound supports, and intends to make them a more central part of his education policies.

For the past decade, New York City has been at the forefront of education reform strategies favored by business and philanthropists but increasingly opposed by teachers, parents, and community leaders. The question now is whether the city will be at the forefront of the growing momentum to advance a more comprehensive, community-led approach to educational improvement? Mayor de Blasio's choices so far suggest that he and his new chancellor understand the importance of a Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, and that the answer is yes. If this administration succeeds, it can show the many other districts looking our way how diversity can be an asset, how parents and community leaders can play key roles in improving schools, and how a more equitable approach to education can improve economic prospects for all. Fingers crossed.