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De Blasio's Win Not a Slap at Bloomberg Ed Policy, Schools Chief Says

By Colby Hamilton on December 24, 2013 10:03am 

 Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott.
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Flickr/Courtesty of the Mayors office

CIVIC CENTER — Bill de Blasio was elected on a promise to bring parent and teacher voices back into the education decision-making process, promising to undo or roll back many of the Bloomberg administration’s signature policies.

But Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott, whose role at the helm of the city's school system ends Dec. 31, doesn't see that as a slap to Mayor Michael Bloomberg's 12-year tenure as the first New York City mayor to have control over the city Education Department.

“I don’t view it as a repudiation or anything,” Walcott said of de Blasio’s victory with 71 percent of the vote, during an interview in his office in Tweed Courthouse last week.

On de Blasio’s signature campaign promise of delivering universal pre-K and expanded after-school programs for middle school students, Walcott said the incoming administration and the current one were fundamentally in “alignment” on the importance of the issue.

“We're full believers in the benefit of full-day pre-K, as well as expanding — as we did as well — after-school services,” Walcott said.

“How one goes about funding it, that's up to the mayor-elect.”

The Bloomberg administration repeatedly threatened to cut funding for the city's free after-school programs, prompting protests from students, parents and teachers.

Even as de Blasio campaigned on promises of fewer charter schools, less reliance on standardized testing and a better working relationship with teachers, Walcott said candidates often change their positions once they take office. 

“I think there's a reality of when one is running and when one is governing and we'll see what happens when that reality kicks in," Walcott said of de Blasio.

One of the biggest outstanding questions for the next administration has been who will replace Walcott as schools chancellor. The mayor-elect has promised an exhaustive search that will yield an announcement soon, but the current chancellor said he found it interesting just how many of the names floated in the press served in Bloomberg’s DOE administration — perhaps most notably, the current front-runner for the DOE chancellor job, former Deputy Chancellor Carmen Fariña.

Regardless of who gets picked, Walcott said the biggest challenge facing the next chancellor will be taking over a school system midyear.

“This is the first time a transition has taken place as the result of an open election in the middle of a school year. The last time there was an actual open election was when Mayor Bloomberg came in, and there was still the old Board of Ed then,” he said.

As the new administration takes over, the current schedule for teacher evaluation and Common Core preparations and testing will likely remain in place. Walcott said his team remains focused ensuring the smoothest transition possible.

“I've known the mayor-elect in a number of different ways over the years. There’s a relationship that exists so we're not forcing a relationship,” he said. “The tone has been extremely constructive.”

Even as critics have lambasted the Bloomberg administration over its focus on high-stakes testing, the number of school closings, the proliferation of charters — or any number of other issues — Walcott felt that was ultimately a sign that the mayor’s reforms of the school system had been largely successful.

“People may disagree around certain things, but it’s disagreeing around education and how it benefits our students,” he said.

Gone are the days when the political battles in the Board of Education or corruption in the school system dominated the conversation, Walcott said.

“When we fought for — when the mayor fought for — school governance, it was the ability for the mayor to be in charge. And the mayor’s in charge,” Walcott said.

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