The five Democrats and one independent running for mayor all sought to distance themselves, to varying degrees, from Mayor Michael Bloomberg's education reforms during a forum before hundreds of educators organized by the United Federation of Teachers.
Sitting on plush, pale-colored chairs with matching floral arrangements, the stage at the Hilton hotel on Saturday morning looked more like a television talk show than a campaign event in the sharp-elbowed world of New York politics. And the candidates smiled often as they cheerfully took questions from UFT president Michael Mulgrew and the union's vice president for elementary education, Karen Alford.
They also threw plenty of zingers at Bloomberg's policies as each promised a more inclusive approach to parents and teachers who have complained about being marginalized.
City Comptroller John Liu compared the Department of Education to a corporation with public schools "treated like business divisions." His predecessor, former Comptroller Bill Thompson, accused the Bloomberg administration of "union busting" when he referred to the recent school bus strike over job protections. Public advocate Bill de Blasio compared the D.O.E.'s reliance on test scores to the worship of "false idols."
But City Council Speaker Christine Quinn got a chillier reception. When asked point-blank if the next chancellor should be an educator, unlike the three leaders chosen by Bloomberg, all of the candidates said yes, except for Quinn. "Not necessarily," she said, to boos. A few minutes later, she appeared to dig herself in even deeper.
"I don't want to rule out today all the good advocates we know out there who may have dedicated their life to education, but not necessarily taught in the classroom," she said. "Or look at somebody like Arne Duncan, now our Secretary of Education."
As the audience booed again, Quinn hung in and stated that she would not appoint anyone currently at the D.O.E.'s headquarters in the Tweed Courthouse. "Nobody in Tweed right now," she said, adding that there might be good educators in the rest of the system.
As council speaker, Quinn is viewed with skepticism by many teachers who believe she has been too cozy with a mayor whose reforms they oppose, namely the reliance on test scores for grading schools and teachers, the closing of about 140 struggling schools and the opening new charter schools that often share the same buildings as district schools. Quinn also supported doing away with term limits for locally elected politicians, which allowed both her and the mayor to serve a third term.
De Blasio, who opposed ending term limits when he was a Brooklyn member of the City Council, took Quinn to task over this at several occasions.
"So I simply say to anybody that doesn't want to talk about the history of the last four years, the last 12 years," he stated. "Don't look at what they're saying now. Look at what they did. Did they challenge - when the mayor and the chancellor were doing the wrong thing - did they stand up?"
On other matters, all of the candidates except for Quinn said they would support a moratorium on placing several schools in one building (known as co-locations). Quinn said she might allow for it in "some cases."
All said the mayor's policy of closing struggling schools has not worked.
When Mulgrew asked them how they would reorganize the Department of Education, which he dubbed "the Frankenstein Castle," Thompson said he would start by changing the Panel for Educational Policy. He said the mayor should no longer have a majority of appointees, "Because if it's not sound educational policy and I can't convince one other person to join us, then something's wrong to begin with." He also said he would do away with the A-F grading system for schools.
Liu, Quinn and de Blasio called for returning to community school districts, so schools can be organized once again by geographic neighborhood. De Blasio also said he would enact one new reorganization and stick with it for a full eight years, though Quinn said she would give a new structure four years and then reevaluate whether it works.
Former Brooklyn Council member Sal Albanese and Adolfo Carrion, the former Bronx borough president and Housing and Urban Development official now running as an independent, said they would pay more attention to the role of poverty and education and the need for health clinics in schools.
None of the Republican candidates for mayor attended the forum.
The United Federation of teachers is considered one of the most powerful unions in the city, with about 200,000 active and retired members and a well-organized get-out-the-vote drive. The union is expected to make its endorsement in June.
It did not endorse a candidate in 2009, when Thompson ran against Bloomberg, nor in Bloomberg's first re-election campaign in 2005.
But this year is different. The next mayor will have to negotiate new contracts with the teachers and other municipal unions. When asked by Mulgrew how they would deal with that, Quinn praised unions for coming to the table before to prevent layoffs through negotiations and promised "fair contracts." Liu criticized Bloomberg for relying on outside consultants instead of focusing on city workers.
Each candidate sought to impress the union with his or her bona fides. Liu reminded the audience that his son attends public schools, and that his family immigrated from Taiwan where there is a national holiday to celebrate teachers. De Blasio emphasized his years as a school board member in Brooklyn's District 15. Albanese cited his years as a public school teacher, and so did Carrion. Quinn emphasized her role in working with the city on a middle school initiative.
Those in the audience, who were attending the union's annual spring conference, seemed pleased to have so many candidates who want to break away from Bloomberg's approach. Mavis Yon, who teaches fifth grade at PS 631 in Brooklyn, said, "As a teacher I'm more looking forward to just someone who respects us, who understands us."
But she and others also said they did not want education to become just another campaign mantra. Art teacher Karen Urruttiamore, who works at PS 38 in Manhattan, said she wants to hear more about how they would handle important issues.
"Like the teacher evaluation, and what is an education mayor and how would they restructure the Department of Education and actually what would they do? Instead of telling me what Bloomberg has done, tell me what they're going to do."