How Organized Citizens Helped de Blasio Sieze Equity-Driven Public Education as Core Issue

In the spring 2014 issue of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform’s VUE (Voices in Urban Education Reform), Oona Chaterjee, associate director for New York City organizing at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, introduces a set of articles about how it came to be that mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio, “elevated a comprehensive vision for improving the city’s more than 1,800 public schools”… including “many of the signature reforms fought for by advocates throughout the twelve preceding years of the Bloomberg administration: the creation of 100 community schools in his first rerm; supports for struggling schools, rather than school closings; reduced reliance on disciplinary measures that remove students from classrooms; and an accountability system that relies on measures other than standardized tests.”

It is easy to imagine that de Blasio, who became mayor in January 2014 after a stunning victory last November, might have created his public education agenda as a response to his years as a parent in Brooklyn or to his experiences while serving as public advocate, but in fact Annenberg’s spring VUE is a collection of articles about strategic and extended community organizing that pressured New York City’s mayoral candidates to react to a community-driven platform and to embrace or reject it.  In the spring 2014 VUE, it is very much worth reading pieces by two of New York City’s best community organizers—Zakiyah Ansari of the Alliance for Quality Education and Ocynthia Williams of the Coalition for Educational Justice—and to read Oona Chateree’s interview with New York University sociologist Pedro Noguera.

But most fascinating is Billy Easton’s, Changing Course on School Reform: Strategic Organizing around the New York City Mayoral Election. Easton is the executive director of New York’s statewide Alliance for Quality Education, which, beginning in 2011, worked with the New York City Coalition for Educational Justice, Make the Road New York, New York Communities for Change, and the Urban Youth Collaborative, to develop a strategy to create momentum for the overwhelming rejection of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s educational philosophy.  The two year campaign was designed to culminate in the 2013 mayoral race.

The goal, according to Easton, was to establish a positive agenda to counter the corporate school reform that had become Bloomberg’s signature issue: “Bloomberg used the bully pulpit of his office, his virtually unchecked authority over schools through perhaps the nation’s most absolute form of mayoral control, and his own personal wealth to aggressively promote his education agenda… Bloomberg wanted a skilled manager to run the schools like a corporation, not a professional educator—hence three non-educators as chancellors… Central management staff included many non-educators with backgrounds as investment bankers, management consultants, and corporate lawyers.  Management authority was devolved to building principals with a sink-or-swim philosophy similar to that of corporate restructurings.  The entire system was aligned to drive up the test score bottom line… As one principal described it, ‘The profit margin in this business is test scores.  That’s all they measure you by now.'”

Easton traces the agenda organizers framed as a rejection of Bloomberg’s philosophy that school districts are run for the adults they employ, not for the students.  A new, and contrasting, student-centered counter-narrative explained that those running the schools under Bloomberg had utterly failed to focus on the concerns of the students—quality curriculum, arts and music, guidance counseling, supporting teachers, programs for English language learners—and had instead emphasized adult issues—“who runs schools, who works in schools, and what the rules are for employment.”

Two large  coalitions were established with a shared purpose and different tactics—one campaign that engaged the community around policy development and a second campaign that engaged the candidates and mobilized the grassroots.  The goal of the two-pronged effort “was to see the next mayor, no matter who won, implement policies that replaced the market-reform agenda with a student-centered opportunity agenda.  A secondary goal was that the next mayor should help drive a new direction in school reform nationally by using New York city’s bully pulpit to articulate a successful vision for reform….”

Organizers posted twenty policy briefs authored by experts, took them on the road for discussion, and invited hundreds of parents and community members to “vote for the recommendations that most reflected their visions for the schools.”  At events across the city, parents and community participants then pressed the mayoral candidates to “commit to pieces of it, so that the candidates themselves would be the most effective public advocates of the agenda—thus capturing considerable media attention and framing the political debate… We identified a few key wedge issues where the candidates had to take a yes or no stand, making it difficult for them to equivocate.  In January 2013, we called for a moratorium on school closings and co-locations… The wedge issue strategy was working by creating divide lines among the candidates and between the candidates and the Bloomberg administration.  Our issues, and thus the direction of school reform were emerging as central issues in the mayoral campaign.”

The coalitions that framed an agenda to expand opportunity in the public schools have pledged to continue using their platform to press the new mayor to continue focusing on public education:  “The real challenge is to continue supporting and pressuring Mayor de Basio to provide leadership on education reform that is as assertive as Bloomberg’s but with a wholly different agenda and one that is much more successful for New York city students.”

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