GREENWICH VILLAGE — Contenders to succeed Mayor Michael Bloomberg slammed the city's school closure program Tuesday, just as Bloomberg touted the opening of dozens of new facilities in their place.
Bloomberg has closed 140 struggling schools since taking charge of the education system in 2003, drawing the ire of critics including mayoral candidate Bill Thompson, the former City Comptroller, who called for a legal moratorium on closures this year.
“They've helped to destroy successful schools across the city of New York,” Thompson said during a panel discussion on education policy at NYU, hosted by the New York City Working Group on School Transformation, which also featured Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio who are presumptive candidates for mayor.
“We almost need to be protected against the DOE,” Thompson said, adding that he is currently in discussion with several legislators in Albany to introduce legislation that would put the ban in place.
The comments came as the three hopefuls worked to one-up each others' criticism of Bloomberg's record on education, which they said had alienated parents and punished kids.
Front and center was the administration's policy of closing chronically struggling schools, which they slammed as bad policy and harmful to kids. The Department of Education, they argued, should be investing additional funds and resources to help turn schools around instead.
Both Stringer and de Blasio, however, stopped short of endorsing a total moratorium on closures, which they said should only serve as a last resort.
Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott have long defended the school closure policy, arguing that it is irresponsible to keep kids trapped in failing schools.
“We spend $22 billion on the New York City public school system, so to say we aren't devoting resources is ridiculous," Bloomberg said at a press conference at Washington Irving High School later Tuesday, where he celebrated the opening of 54 new schools in the coming school year, 19 of which will replace schools that have been closed.
The DOE is also moving forward with plans to close and re-open 26 additional schools, which could bring the total number of new schools as high as 80.
“The success of these new schools... is clear,” Bloomberg said, arguing that they have higher graduation rates, state test scores and parent satisfaction survey scores than the schools they replaced.
He also said parents and students now have greater school choice than ever, with more than 1,700 public schools citywide, including nearly 600 new ones.
“We are the role model for the rest of the country, and yet we keep whipping ourselves and saying, 'Oh, isn't it terrible.' I think it's enough,” he said.
The candidates' comments also accompanied the release of a new report by the working group that accused the city of concentrating high-needs students in struggling schools.
The report found that, beginning five years prior to a closure announcement, the percentage of high-needs students, including special education and English language learners, at a school begins to swell
“Five years prior, they funnel in students that need additional resources and support without giving them additional resources and support,” said Maria Fernandez, senior coordinator of the NYC Urban Youth Collective and a member of the group.
“The DOE has set up these schools to fail."
But Walcott and other officials questioned the report's math, arguing that the new schools, on average, serve as many or more minority students and students with disabilities than the schools they replaced.
Officials blamed changes in student populations in the years prior to closure announcements on the fact that high-performing students tend not to choose to enroll in struggling schools.
“They're wrong,” Walcott said.