Mayoral Hopefuls Begin to Define Their Education Policies

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Three of the likely candidates for mayor condemned Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's school closing policies on Tuesday, saying that if they had control of the city's more than 1,700 schools, closing would be a last-resort, used only after schools had been offered many attempts to improve.

The comments by William C. Thompson Jr., the only candidate who has has formally declared his candidacy, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, and Manhattan Borough President Scott M. Stringer, both of whom are likely mayoral candidates, gave the clearest indication yet of what education policies they might support in a mayoral race, and just how much distance they would put between themselves and Mayor Bloomberg's policies.

Speaking at a panel on Tuesday arranged by the Working Group on School Transformation, a coalition of education advocates, the three men agreed that while they supported mayoral control in principle, they believed Mr. Bloomberg had wielded that power almost cavalierly by closing schools with little input from parents or teachers.

Missing from the group was Speaker Christine C. Quinn, who also is believed to be seeking the mayoralty, but has not weighed in on the major education policy issues that will confront the next mayor. In a phone interview she refrained from criticizing the mayor, and said she would like to keep the practice of closing failing schools in the Education Department's "toolbox."

Mr. Thompson, who ran against Mr. Bloomberg in 2009 and shocked seasoned politicos with how close he came to winning, took the most aggressive stance. He called for a moratorium on school closings for next year, warning of "rumors" the city might try to shutter dozens of struggling schools without giving them a chance to improve.

"The strategies are there, the Bloomberg administration has failed to use those strategies," he said, adding that the city did a better job of supporting schools in the 1990s under the Board of Education, which he presided over for several years. The board was dissolved in 2003 and replaced with mayoral control.

This year alone, the Panel for Educational Policy, a board controlled by the mayor, has approved 26 school closings. And on April 26, the board will vote on 23 more, bringing the total up to a possible 49, more than the Bloomberg administration has closed in a single year.

A spokesman for the city's Education Department would not comment on Mr. Thompson's statement that the city plans to close 75 schools next year.

The idea of a ban on school closings held little appeal for the other likely mayoral candidates. Mr. de Blasio called the city "closure-happy," but said he would not support a moratorium.

"I've never said there's no such thing as a school that needs to be closed and reworked, but I think we've reached the opposite reality, where closure is the tool of preference," he said.

Ms. Quinn said in a phone interview that she would not be joining Mr. Thompson's call for a reprieve on closings, either.

"I think any call for a moratorium is a mistake," she said. "Closing schools is a tool and it's a tool that should stay in the D.O.E.'s toolbox. That said, it should be a tool of last resort."

Another issue that is likely to rear its head during the election is the question of how much power local groups of parents ought to have. Many parents have grown increasingly frustrated with the system of community education councils -- relics of the city's former local school districts -- which under mayoral control lost the ability to influence hiring and curriculum decisions. Today, the votes they take and the positions they hold are purely advisory.

Last June, Mr. Stringer released a report on the councils, calling for more training for the parent representatives and changes to state law that would establish a relationship between the councils and the network leaders who oversee schools.

On Tuesday, Mr. de Blasio went a step further, saying that the councils should have a role in deciding which schools in their districts are closed or opened. He did not say whether the councils' votes would be advisory or decisive.

Ms. Quinn said that the parent councils should remain advisory, but that those in city government should give more weight to their recommendations.

"Community boards are advisory and they have an enormous impact," she said. "That's the model we should be embracing for C.E.C.s."

Ms. Quinn said that she decided not to attend the panel because she opposed one of the recommendations in the report, which called for the city to form a group of struggling schools that would receive additional support.

This idea, she said, is a throwback to the Chancellor's District, a special network of schools that were directly controlled by the city's schools chancellor. The district was created by Chancellor Rudy Crew in 1996 and operated through the 2002-03 school year.

While one study found that the special arrangement benefited the schools, some education advocates have disputed its success and some of the original schools are still performing below standards today.