Thompson Proposes Mid-Course Correction to Bloomberg's School Policies

Democratic mayoral hopeful Bill Thompson outlined a vision for the city's school system on Wednesday that would modify reforms initiated by the Bloomberg administration, proposing to reduce the emphasis on student test scores and give parents more of a voice in policy decisions.

But many of his other proposals were first introduced or supported by the current mayor and Department of Education: an expansion of early childhood education or extending the school day. The former city comptroller, speaking to reporters in a meeting room at New York University, said he wanted to bridge differences among the education stakeholders, many of whom have waged bruising fights over the last decade.

"I'll work with parents, teachers, principals labor leaders, education reformers, business leaders and everybody else who has a stake in the future of the city," he stated.

Thompson, who unsuccessfully challenged Michael Bloomberg in 2009 and headed the old Board of Education before the legislature granted the city mayor control in 2002, has already picked up the support of one high-profile educator. Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch is chairing his campaign.

Thompson said he supports mayoral control. But he said this legislation is in danger of not being renewed in 2015 without some "tweaks" because, "right now parents, legislators and others are disgusted. They feel shut out and ignored."

But while Thompson criticized Bloomberg for substituting "statistical analysis for success" with his reliance on test scores, he said the mayor's A-F progress reports were a "step in the right direction," because they give parents standards for evaluating schools. It's the "mystery math" behind their calculations, he explained, that often led to unfair results.

He pledged to make the grading systems "transparent" and to evaluate privately-managed charter schools by the same standards as district schools.

Thompson also criticized the mayor for closing more than 150 schools based on "questionable accountability standards," adding, "As mayor, I will stop school closures and introduce a comprehensive system to support struggling schools."

But he gave Bloomberg credit for adding career and technical education schools with software and technology themes. He said he would build on that model.

Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott brushed off the criticisms when reporters asked about Thompson's remarks. Saying he did not want to single out any candidates by name, he referred to last weekend's forum with the teachers union where the Democrats -- including Thompson -- took aim at Bloomberg's education legacy.

"I didn't hear a vision," he said. "I heard people trying to turn the clock back and I think that's unacceptable. I think we've made tremendous progress."

Among Thompson's other proposals:

—Making sure there's a gifted and talented program in every community. "Every child who qualifies should have a seat," he said.

—A shift away from Bloomberg's reliance on test scores. "Clearly, test scores alone are not cutting it," he said, noting nearly 80 percent of New York City high school graduates who attend CUNY's community colleges need remedial classes. Thompson said he would emphasize the new Common Core learning standards as a way for teachers to deepen their lessons without being "shackled to test prep."

—A career ladder for teachers that expands the Master Teacher program, which placed senior-level teachers in troubled schools.

—Thompson repeated his call to change the Panel for Educational Policy so that the mayor no longer appoints a majority of its members. He said this would give parents a greater role in making decisions.

Overall, the candidate's speech was light on details. When reporters asked him how he would fund some of his initiatives, he noted: "the federal government is providing additional dollars to turn schools around these days."

He also said he would eliminate the city's reliance on outside contractors in order to save money. Democratic rival, and current comptroller, John Liu has made a similar pledge.

Nor is Thompson the only Democrat to propose expanding early childhood education and after-school programs; Public Advocate Bill de Blasio has also called for this, and has said he would tax those making $500,000 and more to pay for these programs.

Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, applauded Thompson’s policy speech.

“Whether it is expanding the Community Schools model so more schools provide students the support they need to succeed," he said in a statement. "Or front-loading services to children age five and under so they are ready to learn once they get to school, Bill Thompson is focused on getting kids what they need to achieve - in school and in life.”