De Blasio Counters Charters With His Own ‘Innovation’ Schools

Bill de Blasio at today's labor contract announcement. (Photo: Twitter/@NYCMayorsOffice)

Bill de Blasio at yesterday’s announcement. (Photo: Twitter/@NYCMayorsOffice)

Mayor Bill de Blasio seems to have finally found a way to hit back at charter schools: beat them at their own game.

Among the many proposals in the new contract, unveiled yesterday between the city and the powerful teacher’s union, is a plan to create up to 200 “reform” or “innovation” schools that would be allowed to operate outside of the usual Department of Education and union rules. The plan, officials said, would allow the city to experiment with longer school years, different school day hours and other changes–including shaking up hard-fought hiring and seniority rules.

The vision, however, also struck some as surprisingly similar to charter schools, which have proven politically problematic for Mr. de Blasio during the early months of his first term. Today, during an interview with WNYC’s Brian Lehrer, Mr. de Blasio made clear that’s exactly the point.

“This is different because this is the traditional public school system now squarely going down the road of innovation, but on our terms, in our way,” said the mayor when asked how the schools would compare to charters. “And what I’m committed to is changing the foundations of the New York City public schools and doing it within our own rubric. So now our schools, our teachers, our principals will decide on the path of innovation school-by-school and explicitly be charged with sharing what works with their fellow traditional public school principals and teachers.”

“The dynamics of charter schools will continue and we’ll continue to push to make those work well and continue to push for real integration in the sense of the good ideas coming out of charters being spread across public schools,” he added. “But meanwhile, back at the ranch, this to me is a purer way to do it. Because this means the traditional public school are fostering innovation themselves and spreading it to their colleague schools.”

Mr. de Blasio has had a difficult time navigating the politics of the charter movement in his first months at City Hall. During his campaign, he criticized the privately-run public schools relentlessly, accusing them of hogging prime school space and cherry-picking students, aiming particular hostility at Success Academy Charter Schools founder Eva Moskowitz. But just as he was in the homestretch of fighting to get his signature pre-K plan through Albany, the charter movement mobilized, staging rallies and flooding the airwaves with commercials filled with the faces of cute minority students asking the city to save their schools.

In the end, Mr. de Blasio was forced to give a mea culpa and shift away from his administration’s more aggressive previous stance.

In the interview today, Mr. de Blasio stressed his concern that many charters have not delivered on their promise to experiment with new approaches and then share what works with traditional public schools, and said this new class of schools would better achieve that mission.

“Let’s just start with the theory and the case here. The origins of charter schools were in response–this means decades ago–in response to the notion that unfortunately a lot of public schools were not serving our children effectively, particularly in underprivileged neighborhoods–a problem we’re still grappling with,” he said. “Charters were supposed to be places where innovation occurred and then were spread to the larger, traditional public school system. And charters were supposed to reach, in many cases, the hardest to serve kids. And in some cases that has happened, in other cases it has not.”

“The fact is that the innovations that have been achieved in some charters haven’t unfortunately spread the way that was originally intended because there hasn’t been the atmosphere of cooperation that we need in this city and there wasn’t even the structural context for which to do it,” he said.