Home Politics John Aronno: On Politics New York City’s Education Reforms Should Cause Caution in Alaska

New York City’s Education Reforms Should Cause Caution in Alaska

Photo courtesy of David Shankbone, used under Creative Commons License.
Photo courtesy of David Shankbone, used under Creative Commons License.

This refusing-to-die “Education Session” could easily be recognized by a much more recognizable name: “The Anti-Regulation Session.” Most all of right-led politics hinges upon an underlying theme of anti-regulation rhetoric. The term “overreach” has been bandied about like an uncensored Miley Cyrus video.

Sometimes, lawmakers are absolutely justified in their cries against overreach. Universal vilification of Interior Secretary Sally Jewell’s decision to bar a road connecting King Cove to Cold Bay is a prime example.

Other times, the same lawmakers objecting are overreaching themselves. SB49, a measure politically defining what constitutes a medically necessary abortion, restricts physicians’ ability to define what “medically necessary” means.

Of course, claiming abusive overreach is just another way to object to regulation. But by applying the more visceral label, it removes any claim to legitimacy that a regulation might have. Despite how absurd those defenses be, some regulations are needed in civil society.


The Bloomberg Objection.

After a summer-turned-fall-turned-winter of overreach hysteria: “overreach on steroids” press releases and overreach summits, a new term was introduced this session. With the same vigor and desk thumping that came with the “overreach” hype, behold: the Bloomberg Objection.

During myriad public hearings, every mention of a questionable regulation immediately gave way to someone reflexively decrying said regulation’s undeniably vampiric affects on liberty by simply shouting out the name of former New York City mayor, Michael Bloomberg.

A proposed statewide smoking ban was met by an offended e-cigarette store owner in the valley: “Who’s in charge here, Michael Bloomberg?” A law banning synthetic drugs met similar criticism. A law removing the requirement to post “No Trespassing” signs on private property was lambasted with the Bloomberg Objection. Surely, if we allow the government to tell us to notify people when they are happening upon our yard, the next logical step is a ban on Big Gulps. Which you can’t buy here anyway.

At every turn, the former mayor leapfrogged from noun to verb to fist-shaking exclamation: the government is Bloomberging! They’re pulling a Bloomberg!

Bloomberg, Bloomberg, Bloomberg!

And yet, strangely, the Bloomberg Objection, to my knowledge, was never raised during the extended conversation in which it should have found itself right at home: HB278, the omnibus education package still haunting the halls of Juneau.

The independent mayor is abhorred by the right for heavy-handed regulations aimed at reducing smoking, drinking, obesity, and his financing of pro-gun control candidates. The left (including, in this case, Libertarians) reviles him as an autocrat, implementing authoritarian policies, like “Stop and Frisk,” and turning the NYPD into his own personal army, just three helicarriers shy of Marvel’s S.H.I.E.L.D.

Obviously, the intricacies of governing in post-9/11 New York are (thankfully) a far cry from life in Alaska, but there is a distinct disdain by residents of the Last Frontier who shudder at the thought of his totalitarian interpretation of the executive branch.

And that perception should concern us when it comes to the similarities between Governor Parnell’s proposed changes to public education in Alaska, and what happened in New York City.


Bloomberging Public Education.

Michael Bloomberg was elected mayor in 2001, campaigning on market-based education reforms, including new testing schemes, merit pay, teacher accountability, and charter

Photo by Zach D Roberts
Photo by Zach D Roberts

school expansion. He consolidated power of the administration of public education by breaking up the independent Board of Education (a seven member board with five appointees made by the presidents of the city’s five boroughs) and instituting the Panel for Education Policy. A majority of those appointees served at the pleasure of the mayor.

“Mayoral control means mayoral control, thank you very much,” Bloomberg responded at the time to criticisms of overreach.

Possibly the largest facet of the reforms, warmly coined Children First, was the expansion of charter schools. New York City, pre-Bloomberg, had been resistant to charter schools out of the fear they would come at the direct expense of regular school funding. Under Bloomberg, however, charter schools would blossom to over 50 by the latter half of the last decade, and would enroll over 100,000 students by 2013.

The results, according to author and education professional Dianne Ravitch in her book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, seemed to back up the concerns that predated Bloomberg:

[The charter schools] received priority treatment. The chancellor placed many charter schools into regular public school buildings, taking classrooms and facilities away from the host schools and igniting bitter fights with the regular schools parent associations.

Students, chosen by lottery to attend the schools, somehow tilted a certain direction; toward more affluent families. Allegations of skewed enrollment, termed “creaming,” bore a disturbing discovery, articulated by Vanessa Witenko of the public watchdog group InsideSchools.org:

An analysis of student data involving some of the most challenging students to educate, students who are homeless, special education students, and English Language Learners (ELL), shows that charter schools don’t serve or enroll the same students as local public schools…. In New York City, 51,316 public school students are homeless, and only 111 of them attend a charter school[.]

As the success of the smaller charter schools — their halls lined with more affluent students — increased, everyone else was lumped into swelling class-sizes in deteriorating regular schools, which received less and less funding due to their declining test scores, and experienced higher rates of teacher turnover as a result. It was a feedback loop of diminishing returns and increased social stratification.

Or, as Governor Sean Parnell described it during this year’s State of the State speech:

The question of school choice is not about private schools or religious schools; it is about whether parents should have the freedom to say what school best meets their child’s education needs with their child’s share of public money – their money…. Expanding choice for parents and opportunity for our kids also means expanding charter schools and replicating successful models.

Successful models by what metrics?

“As it elevated the concept of school choice,” Ravitch concluded, “the Department of Education destroyed the concept of neighborhood high schools. Getting into the school of one’s choice became as stressful as getting into the college of one’s choice.”

She described a landscape where close-knit communities bound together by common schools were shattered by the new rush to get into the schools receiving more funding, traveling long distances in hopes to give their children a leg up and avoid throwing them into failing schools left destitute by the rush for school choice.

“Real change only comes with real reform,” Parnell told the legislature back in January.

That real reform, in its current form, is disturbingly Bloombergian. Similar to Children First, HB278 streamlines the process of establishing charter schools by taking the ultimate power of approval away from local school districts and handing it to the state’s Board of Education and Early Development. That board consists of seven members, four of which are appointed by and serve at the pleasure of, the Governor — meaning, in essence, gubernatorial control means gubernatorial control, thank you very much.

Even if a locally elected school board denies a charter school application, the state Board of Education’s commissioner can overrule it.

Since Senator Mike Dunleavy (R-Wasilla) couldn’t get the support he needed to push through a proposed constitutional amendment to allow public funding of religious and private schools, HB278 does so through the backdoor, by way of tax credits. Such tax credits and grants allowed philanthropic organizations in New York, most notably the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, to pour tens of millions of dollars into charter school funding. However, such outside funding in Alaska would likely come from groups who lobbied for Dunleavy’s SJR9 — religious fundamentalist groups like Alaska Family Action, or the Koch Brothers-funded Alaska Policy Forum.

Charter schools, obviously, aren’t inherently bad. (As evidence, I’d recommend meeting anyone who’s ever attended Steller Secondary School in Anchorage.) But it shouldn’t be a replacement scheme, and the empirical tendency toward the prioritization of charter schools over regular neighborhood schools is an evolution with a strong gravitational pull. As was seen in New York, that replacement scheme offered mixed results. Ravitch highlighted that test scores improved markedly (at least in the charter schools), but spending also sky-rocketed by an annual price tag of $12.7 billion in 2002 to $21.8 billion.

So, was the giant realignment toward charter schools the answer, or were improvements more the result of the overall increases in funding, as Alaska Democrats in the minority have repeatedly argued for?

HB278 contains plenty of good ideas spread across 56 sections of policy changes; increased internet access and a focus on language arts among them. But the cessation of local control and the consolidated power to the state, aggravated by the evidence in New York of neighborhood and economic destabilization, should cause a lot of concern.

We don’t want to end up a day late, dollar short, poorly educated, and thoroughly Bloomberged.


  1. John,

    ASD has eight charter schools. Stellar is not one of them. Stellar gets around 40% more funding per student than ASD charter schools that outperform Stellar.

    There is no link in HB 278 between tax credits and charter schools. I’m not aware of any religious organizations that have ever advocated for charter schools.

    Charter schools are the innovation engines of K-12 education according to the July 2013 Stanford CREDO study. Low income and minority students have benefited the most from charter schools across the US.

    A Charter Management Organization (CMO) known as Uncommon Schools won the Broad Prize for Urban Education this year with a network of 32 urban charter school campuses with a student body of 98% African-American and Hispanic students. Uncommon Schools requires 100% of their students to take the SAT in their senior year. Last year, the Uncommon schools SAT average was 20 point above college ready and 37 points above the ASD SAT average, even though only 40% of ASD high school students take the SAT.

    The rate of increase in spending in ASD schools is actually much higher than New York City since 2002. Especially when we consider ASD has 2,000 fewer kids today and 200 more employees than 2002.

    When poor families have more educational choices, public schools can’t take them for granted and are spurred to improve and become more attentive to poor parents.

  2. Bob,

    I suggest you re-read the bill and cozy up to the dozens of pages, hours of public hearings, and floor speeches where legislators deliberate the tax credits extended to religious and private schools, as well as funding from religious and private organizations. Are you really denying that?

    As to your last point, there are plenty of holes remaining in charter school evaluations, but offering that they benefit the same poor families who are generally left out of them is a bit laughable.