Barrett: Bill DeBlasio, Public Advocate or Teachers Union Patsy? (UPDATED)

Bill deBlasio may have set a record with his first-day-on-the-job thumping by the New York Post last week. Under the headline "ACORN's City Hall branch," a Post editorial, posted at 1:40 on the morning of deBlasio's second day as public advocate, blasted his announcement that he was forming a new Community Organizing and Constituent Services Department in his office.

The Post mocked deBlasio's "community partners" as "the same lefty grabbers who've been picking the city dry in the first place," and assured us that the liberal Democrat would not be organizing citizens for "tax relief," its approved form of tea party protest. What was odd was that the Post never mentioned an aspect of the deBlasio innovation that actually is troubling, assuming that using the charter-created post of Public Advocate to organize advocacy dumbfounds few New Yorkers other than those charged with manufacturing right wing umbrage at the Post.

When deBlasio leaked his new organizing plan to the Times, his only example of the good works it would do was "mobilizing parents" against Department of Education efforts to turn over space in a public school "to a new charter school." The Post, Daily News and Times editorial boards all champion charters, and who can blame them, since 40,000 parents lined up last year to try to get their kids into one, many of them stymied by the roadblocks thrown in their way by deBlasio's friends at the United Federation of Teachers, which has donated almost $12,000 to him.

Though de Blasio has never said a public word supporting the tens of thousands of parents who can't get their kids into charters because of union-legislated caps on the number of them and a myriad of other UFT-engineered restrictions, he did tell the Voice that his office "will be providing information and strategies to all New Yorkers who request it, including charter school parents" and "parents who have applied" for placement and been "unable" to attain it. That statement may be hard to square with his vow to the Times that he will "fight to reverse" efforts to create space for charters, yet he rejects any notion that he gets these charter-stomping tips from the UFT, saying it would be "absolutely unfair" to suggest that he views schools "through a UFT prism."

De Blasio might, however, have to be a bit more aggressive than simply waiting for a request if he really wants to help charter parents and wannabe charter parents. Last August, he responded to a questionnaire developed by Gotham Schools and, when asked if he supported efforts "to stop the growth of charters schools," he said: "Yes, with reservations." What followed was mumble jumble about how charters, which are strongly advocated by the Obama administration, "can be a valuable piece of our school system" so long as communities "play a more active role in the siting process" and "employees are able to freely organize." Using the "siting process" to block charters is straight out of the UFT playbook, and employees already decide whether they want to work in a charter school that is or isn't covered by the UFT contract (D.O.E. tells me that nine of the city's 99 chose to be covered).

During his Voice interview, de Blasio referred repeatedly to public schools and charter schools, a false dichotomy perpetrated by the UFT, which tries to depict charters as examples of privatization when they are in fact public schools, just not traditional ones. He ducked questions about whether he thought charter schools were outperforming traditional schools generally -- which is a research-supported axiom in New York -- and threw disparaging comments like some being "their own little fiefdoms" and "I don't believe in holy grails" at them.

A longtime chair of the Park Slope community school board, and a public school parent of two, de Blasio sees himself as the education public advocate, and he clearly intends to make schools a centerpiece of his tenure. But he concedes he's only visited one charter, and while he believes he's "seen some improvement" associated with some charters, he "can't say which ones" work. While his desire to help build a parent movement in the city is admirable, his Parent Bill of Rights makes no reference to any role parents might play in principal selection or teacher evaluation or curriculum development, which has been the focus of parent action in New York for decades. Instead he's focused on bus routes, siting and cell phone use. He told us that he didn't know what role parents should play, if any, in "personnel" matters, though his bill of rights does believe they should be a factor in evaluating one group of school professionals -- namely "the central administration."

His Bill of Rights reads like it was vetted by the teachers union.

Though he declined last year to answer the Gotham Schools question about what would be "an appropriate cap for charter schools," he is saying now that the state legislature "should raise the cap" in order to qualify for hundreds of millions in Obama aid that will not come to New York if it continues to restrict the growth of charter schools. The state has until January 19 to take action on the cap or forfeit federal funding and the UFT is trying to add restrictions on the bill now under consideration in Albany.

UPDATE: GothamSchools, a previously reliable source, concedes that it got Bill de Blasio's answer wrong on the August 2009 questionnaire cited above. The site says he did not check any of the alternative boxes provided on the stop-charters questions and that it erroneously reported that he'd checked "yes, with reservations." Oddly, I read that answer to de Blasio when I interviewed him for this story last Thursday and he didn't recall that he had not checked "yes with reservations;" indeed most of the interview was consumed with a discussion of that answer and his feelings about charters. At the end of the interview, I asked about another question on the GothamSchools quiz, one that sought to determine if he believed test scores "should be a factor" in the granting of teacher tenure, and that's when he suggested that his no" answer might not have been accurately reported. So we emailed and talked to GothamSchools nine times in two days, trying to figure out if any of de Blasio's answers might have been mis-reported. "We didn't add or subtract anything from the responses," we were assured. Then, last night the site called my office and left a message, still not indicating that there was anything wrong with their questionnaire. Finally, today, they compared the original questionnaire with the one they posted and discovered that they'd put words in de Blasio's mouth, words that I repeated. I do not believe that this error alters the thrust of the piece, since everything else he told Gotham and me remains the same, and adds up to a largely negative take on these schools.

Research Assistance from: Alana Horowitz, Simon McCormack & T.J. Raphael

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