August 7, 2012
Not satisfied with simply railing against the Bloomberg administration’s education policies in the lead-up to the 2013 mayoral election, more than 20 community and advocacy groups have formed a coalition to urge a different path.
And if the coalition, called A+ NYC, is successful, that path will be lined with education research.
A+ NYC is the latest entrant into a crowded field of education advocates aiming to influence the mayoral election. It is driven by many of the same advocacy groups that just four months ago signed on to New Yorkers for Great Public Schools, which aims to oppose Mayor Bloomberg’s schools policies.
But organizers of both coalitions say they have very different strategies. Participants in A+ NYC say their coalition doesn’t share the blanket opposition to his education policies that New Yorkers for Great Public Schools proclaimed when it announced itself in May. Instead, they say, the new coalition is about policy, not politics.
“I think that this coalition is not focused on Bloomberg at all,” said Megan Hester, a coordinator for the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, which supports the Coalition for Educational Justice. ”It’s focused on what we want from the next mayor.”
Hester said A+ NYC, which convened for the first time last week, would focus on compiling education research to share with candidates as they develop their platforms. Eventually, she said, A+ NYC would establish its own policy recommendations and push candidates to adopt similar positions.
Education platforms have been hard to come by from the candidates so far. Bill Thompson has called for an end to school closures; Bill de Blasio said he’d cede some mayoral control to the Panel for Educational Policy; and Christine Quinn has said she’s a supporter of Bloomberg’s rent-free charter school co-location policies.
But put together, the six Democratic mayoral candidates have offered little indication about how they will ultimately govern the public school system if they are elected.
That’s because it has been a politically safe bet for candidates to spend more time bashing Bloomberg, whose popularity on education has withered in recent years, than talking about what they support.
And that’s largely the approach that the union-backed New Yorkers for Great Public Schools adopted when it launched as a direct response to the formation of StudentsFirstNY, a group that supports many policies that the teachers union typically opposes. To make sure that those policies — which include tenure reform, school closures, and more charter schools — do not pick up momentum in the next administration, New Yorkers for Great Public Schools plans to focus on political operations, such as voter registration drives and advertisements.
“We’re going to make sure the StudentsFirst New York agenda won’t become the agenda of New York City,” said Jon Kest, executive director of New York Communities for Change and a head organizer for the coalition. “We’re not advocating a specific policy agenda other than that the last 10 years have been an abject failure.”
The attitude has isolated some education advocates who hoped for a more proactive, forward-looking approach.
“There was no substance,” said Noah Gotbaum, a parent leader and candidate for public advocate who was briefed on New Yorkers for Great Public Schools’ plans earlier this year. Gotbaum said he considered himself part of the coalition and supported its goals, but declined to sign its pledge. “There wasn’t really a discussion about what people wanted the coalition to stand for.”
Indeed, New Yorkers for Great Public Schools hasn’t gained steam since its arrival on the scene. Its social media pages have been dormant for months, and its online pledge list has attracted only about 100 signatures, a far cry from the 100,000 that its website says is the group’s goal. Kest said he expected more pledges to come as a result of union organizing efforts.
And even education leaders on the other side of the aisle have agreed that the conversation is growing old. Last month, Success Academy Charter Schools CEO Eva Moskowitz derided some candidates for not speaking with conviction on education.
Mark Winston Griffith, of the Brooklyn Movement Center, said he shared Gotbaum’s and Moskowitz’s concerns.
“I don’t want to be defined by what we’re against,” said Winston-Griffith, who is a member of the A+ coalition. “I want to be defined about what we’re for.”
That’s where organizers for A+ NYC believe they fit in.
Many of the coalition’s members are traditional opponents of Bloomberg and his education policies. The Alliance for Quality Education, New York Communities for Change, and New York’s chapter of the NAACP have received financial support from the teachers union and been a regular presence at school closure and charter school co-location protests in recent years.
But Hester said the policy recommendations that ultimately come out of the A+ NYC coalition won’t necessarily reflect an anti-Bloomberg line or a pro-union line.
“We’re really just trying to focus the conversation on research on what actually works,” she said.
But a hint of ideology can be found in early recruiting fliers that were sent out by A+ NYC to advocacy groups this summer. A one-page fact sheet describing the coalition uses much of the same language employed by New Yorkers for Great Public Schools to denounce StudentsFirstNY.
“Already a handful of wealthy individuals have joined together to pledge $50 million to stay the current course, dominate the public debate, and define the politics of education in our city,” reads the sheet, which Hester said was sent out in error.
The A+ coalition has laid out an ambitious agenda for the next six months. Reporters weren’t invited to attend last week’s meeting, but organizers and meeting attendees shared planning documents with GothamSchools that provided more insight about their activities.
The group plans to create a “policy clearinghouse” website where it will publish research summaries on more than 20 education topics. Hester said mayoral control would not be among the topics.
Eventually the coalition will begin meeting with candidates’ staff, host dozens of town halls across the city, and train parents to spread the word about its policy recommendations in local communities.
And even if its means are different from that of New Yorkers for Great Public Schools, the end goal for A+ NYC is still the same, according to its fact sheet, which was sent to advocacy groups recruiting them to join: ”By election season, A+NYC will have the power to influence the education agenda of all major mayoral candidates.”