Test for City Council candidates: What to do on education?

UPDATED July 26, to add statement from Councilmember Robert Jackson.

Under mayoral control, the City Council hasn’t had much influence on education, but you wouldn’t know it on the Upper West Side.

In speeches and in interviews, Noah Gotbaum, who is seeking to succeed term-limited Councilmember Gale Brewer in District 6, is quick to remind his audience of one distinction above all between himself and his six opponents.

“Our system is being run by technocrats and businesspeople — not educators, not parents who have kids in the system. I know. I have three,” said Gotbaum. “I’m the only candidate that sends my kids to public schools.”

Gotbaum is betting that West Side residents are so fired up about education that it will be a deciding issue in the District 6 race. And he is not alone.

Helen Rosenthal, running for City Council on the Upper West Side, wants to raise taxes on the wealthy to pay for education. Photo courtesy Helen Rosenthal campaign

Helen Rosenthal, running for City Council on the Upper West Side, vows to use the city budget as leverage to improve education. Photo courtesy Helen Rosenthal campaign

Last month, the Jewish Community Center of Manhattan hosted an education forum for the District 6 city council candidates. The moderator, Rabbi Joy Levitt, asked the candidates to “be as specific as you can about what you as a member of the City Council has the capacity, the responsibility, and the authority to actually accomplish.”

All seven of the candidates chose to talk about education, and all contended that the New York City Department of Education was unresponsive to the concerns of New York City parents and communities, from co-locations of charter schools in public school buildings to high-stakes testing for kids.

Their proposed solutions included bringing the concerns of their community to department officials and lobbying Albany to either eliminate or reduce the mayor’s influence over schools.

The city budget, one candidate vowed, would be another front in the fight.

“I’m going to be a pit bull with the Department of Education as to how they allocate their resources,” offered candidate Helen Rosenthal. “I would not pass the city’s budget as it is.”

While passions may flare particularly hot on the West Side, education has come to dominate debate in many City Council races around the city, with many candidates calling adjusting Bloomberg’s education policies their top priority.

Candidate Debra Cooper, also in Manhattan’s District 6, has proposed increasing taxes on the rich to better fund city schools. Education is such a crowd-pleasing issue that even the Green Party candidate for another West Side council seat, Christina Gonzalez, says that her first environmental priority is educating children.

Polls in the mayor’s race suggest why running on education might not be a bad idea. In a June Wall Street Journal/NBC New York/Marist Poll, 20 percent of registered voters said education should be the next mayor’s top priority, second only to jobs at 23 percent.

Jeffrey Henig, a professor of Political Science and Education at Columbia University’s Teachers College, says he is not surprised that so many council candidates are running on education. Yet taking on Bloomberg’s education record, he says, is not without its perils.

“It’s a low-risk strategy to lead on broadening parental involvement and paternal engagement,” reasoned Henig. “It’s more risky to run on challenging the recent reforms.”

With the mayor firmly in control over city schools, it isn’t clear what council members can do to influence the city’s public education system, but that hasn’t stopped Council candidates from making big promises.

City Council candidate Noah Gotbaum, center left, celebrates a ribbon cutting at an Upper West Side elementary school. Photo courtesy Gotbaum campaign.

City Council candidate Noah Gotbaum, center left, celebrates the reopening of the school yard at an Upper West Side elementary school. Photo courtesy Gotbaum campaign.

Joseph Hayon, a Republican running for the District 44, which includes the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Midwood, Kensington, and Borough Park, says he hopes to create a private school voucher program.

“In my district more than half of the families send their children to private schools, whether it be Catholic or Jewish,” said Hayon, who is also the vice chair of the School Choice Party, a party that has been using its independent ballot line to back candidates since 2000 — most heavily in Brooklyn’s Orthodox Jewish communities. “The council can create a property tax credit. Anybody who sends their kids to private school gets a credit. This could work for renters too because part of their rent goes to paying for property taxes.”

State Sen. Simcha Felder, a previous holder of the seat Hayon is seeking, unsuccessfully sponsored four resolutions calling on the New York State Legislature to enact a voucher system. If elected, Hayon acknowledges, he would face the same Democratically controlled chamber reliably opposed to school vouchers, in line with the city teachers’ union. Hayon’s proposal, like Cooper’s, would require enabling legislation from Albany.

Henig says influence over budgets could be key in shaping education.

“There will be complex bargaining across issue arenas,” said Henig. “Councilmembers can say, ‘Trade me schools for housing.’”

Added Henig: “The next mayor will not have the same financial and political resources that let Bloomberg stick to his guns.”

The United Federation of Teachers, which opposes many of the mayor’s reforms, has endorsed council candidates in dozens of races – though not in District 6.

Candidates looking to change education policy appear to be banking on a less powerful mayor — or at least one more sympathetic to their views. (See where the candidates stand on charter school co-locations.)

Gotbaum points to the experience of term-limited Councilmember Robert Jackson, in the district just to the north. Jackson ran for office in 2001 based on his record as a plaintiff in a successful lawsuit seeking fair distribution of state schools funding. But once in the council, says Gotbaum, Jackson’s influence was muted.

“Robert has been terrific, but between Bloomberg and Quinn, they have emaciated the council,” said Gotbaum. “I want to help the council to reassert its rightful position as stewards of our budget and as stewards of our school system.”

Jackson disputes the idea that councilmembers have little power on education. “With hard work, passion and determination, a Councilmember absolutely can make a big difference for our children,” he said in an emailed statement. “And that’s what I’ve done. I’ve worked to make sure every child has the best education that we have to offer, helped  create more than 4,000 new pre-k openings, led the fight to prevent thousands of teacher layoffs and helped start the Drop-Out Prevention Initiative.”

No mayoral candidate has called for bringing an end to mayoral control, though Comptroller John Liu’s office released a report in January recommending an external nominating process for the city Panel on Educational Policy. Under that plan, the final say on who is on the board would still be the mayor’s.

Gotbaum says mayoral control should be no obstacle to council influence on education. “Hearings on these subjects need to happen,” he said. “We need much more transparency on the budget, testing and on efforts to address overcrowding.”

Still, warns Heinig, new council members can expect to be frustrated, especially if they’ve been around long enough to remember when councilmembers would get their phone calls returned. Members feel like they are responsible for addressing neighborhood education concerns, said Henig, “But they are accused of micromanaging when they call the Department of Education with concern about a certain principal or a child who didn’t get into a school.”

Some candidates say that limited influence isn’t unique to education – it’s a fact of life for council members in a city with a strong-mayor political system.

“The Council’s power is limited in education reform,” said Jon Torodash, a candidate for District 29, which includes Rego Park and Forest Hills in Queens. “I might add that this extends to all city governance, aside from passing veto-proof legislation.”

Torosdash said he hoped to use the office to “bring greater civic awareness to my district in general about why there is so much dysfunction in New York City schools.”

Said Torosdash, “Perhaps they would demand more of the mayor’s office, and vote with better informed opinions at the polls in elections at all levels.”

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