At Bloomberg’s CityLab Summit, Mayoral Nominees Offer Few Innovative Ideas

Written by Nick Powell on . Posted in Blog, Campaigns/Elections, Daily, Economic Development, Education, Environment, Features, Labor/Unions, Latest, News, News & Features, Technology.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s CityLab summit on “Urban Solutions to Global Challenges” was designed to get city leaders, planners, scholars, architects and artists from all over the world in one room for a symposium on urban ideas. Tuesday’s closing session showcased the two men hoping to replace Bloomberg, Democrat Bill de Blasio and Republican Joe Lhota, giving the candidates a platform to offer an “innovative” vision for the city.

Instead, both de Blasio and Lhota largely hewed closely to the policy ideas and talking points from their campaign, with de Blasio driving home the need for the city to invest in early childhood education and Lhota remaining steadfast in his support for charter schools and the New York Police Department’s efforts in keeping crime down.

While these positions may have been new to the ears of such a global audience, both candidates passed up the opportunity to diversify their policy platforms, and misfired on their chances to offer substantive ideas on certain questions.

Specifically, Lhota was evasive when asked if the city should play a role in decreasing income inequality, saying only that “there are things you can do” within city government and emphasizing the importance of having a diverse economy.

De Blasio, on the other hand, appeared to stumble on a question about how he would break up the cable and Internet monopoly in New York City and attract and foster new competitors, saying he would look at using the city’s transportation system as a “physical platform” for companies to utilize to help wire the city. While adding wireless access on subways and buses is an ongoing goal of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, it’s unclear how that would help attract a company hoping to deliver cable and Internet to people’s homes.

One topic that seemed especially relevant in wake of today’s rally in support of the city’s charter schools–which reportedly drew thousands of people–de Blasio and Lhota spent portions of their time on stage discussing their contrasting views on the role of charters in public education.

Lhota, who took the stage first after being introduced by Bloomberg, said definitively that “charter schools are public schools,” and, borrowing the buzzword that de Blasio has used to define himself, called them “the single most progressive thing going on in public education today.”

Taking his cues from Bloomberg’s often combative stance with the United Federation of Teachers, the city’s teachers union, Lhota managed to get some shots in at the union while also praising charter schools for mandating 3 to 5 hours of professional development time each week for their teachers, as opposed to 2 hours per semester for public school teachers.

“Unfortunately, and the mayor can explain this probably better than I can, I’m going to have to work with the UFT, the teachers union,” Lhota said. “Quite honestly, I want to spend more time with the teachers than with their union leadership, because I believe the solution is with the teachers.”

During Lhota’s Q&A portion with author Walter Isaacson, however, he made it clear that his strong feelings about the UFT did not necessarily extend to the city’s other unions, at one point noting that he went to college on a scholarship from the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, the city’s largest police union.

“There is absolutely a role for unions in this city, but they also have to understand that we need to be able to move this city forward,” Lhota said. To that end, in reference to the city spending millions on rubber rooms–reassignment centers for teachers awaiting disciplinary hearings–he warned the UFT that “in the process of education, we need to make sure we’re not spending money on something other than in the classroom.”

De Blasio spent much of his allotted speaking time on his plan for universal preschool, though he also praised Bloomberg for initiatives such as the smoking ban and expanding bicycle lanes and access in the city as examples of urban solutions to larger challenges. On his preschool plan, de Blasio circled back to his oft-repeated stance that it was a fundamental solution for addressing the city’s growing inequality, citing national studies that reflect the importance of early childhood education.

“With the right commitment to this mission, in a few years, we’d begin to see the first signs of increased achievement in reading and comprehension in our elementary schools,” de Blasio said. He added that if his plan is enacted, within a decade, the city would see drastic changes in its graduation rate, college readiness and workforce preparedness, and reductions in racial achievement disparities.

De Blasio also waded into the charter school conversation. Isaacson asked him why he would scale back charters if they are drivers of innovation, to which de Blasio responded that there is a lot of innovation going on in the city’s public schools as well.

“I caution that today in New York City, charter schools account for 5 percent of our public school kids, the other 95 percent are in traditional public schools,” de Blasio said. “That other 95 percent is how we live or die.”


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