De Blasio Education Speech Offers Incrementalism, Not Urgency

Yesterday New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio gave  an education speech that managed to offend everyone, from economic hawks to anti-reform lobbyists to charter school advocates.  There were a few good ideas imbedded in his proposal for improving failing schools for poor kids: more social services, technology instruction upgrades, higher expectations for math proficiency. But these proposals are hardly enough to placate a bitterly divided school environment where 43,000 children sit on charter school waiting lists and the UFT continues to oppose increasing public school options for families.

Today’s New York Times reports that “the cost of Mr. de Blasio’s programs is high and the political costs are great.”  Indeed, the city has already budgeted $113.5 million a year to augment social services programs and de Blasio’s new proposal adds another $186 million. What do New Yorkers get for another $300 million added to a $23.8 billion annual budget? Mandated computer science instruction for all students, more reading specialists, five A.P. classes in each high school, and a commitment to increase participation in 8th grade algebra. (Also see coverage from the Wall St. Journal.)

Said de Blasio, “there is a tale of two cities in our schools, and we simply don’t accept it. Each and every child, in each and every classroom, deserves a future that isn’t limited by their ZIP code.”

Enter the critics. Leonie Haimson, who never strays much further than her obsession with class size (although she's also on the board of Diane Ravitch's anti-reform lobbying group called  Network for Public Education) said,
Where is the research that shows that these initiatives would narrow the achievement gap, as class size reduction has been proven to do?” she said. “De Blasio made many promises during his campaign to parents and other voters to lower class size that he now appears to have forgotten completely.”
Jeremiah Kittredge of Families for Excellent Schools said in a press release,
At the current rate, all New York City students won’t be able to read at grade level until 2051. The incremental change proposed today won’t fix New York City’s education inequality.
The Mayor’s proposals, as well as Haimson and Kittredge's responses, highlight a key point of dissension among education policy makers, whether the backdrop is New York City, Newark, New Orleans, or Philadelphia. Is the road to educational equity best addressed incrementally or urgently? Is systemic change really needed or will more computers and smaller class sizes  do the job?

Incrementalism is easier, more palatable to politicians and union officials. Urgency is hard and often disruptive to communities. But right now New York City students, at least those 200,000 black and Hispanic students who can't do math or read at grade level, need less pablum and more action.

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