Ferrer is talking here about the graduation rate, his signature theme on the signature issue of the campaign. Although the former Bronx borough president does speak about what he perceives as the other shortcomings of the Bloomberg-Klein regime—the lack of transparency, the micromanagement of teachers, the “bungled” private-sector initiatives—the dropout rate is, for him, the big kahuna. “The point of a public-school system is to produce graduates with all the tools they need to be economically and civically self-sufficient,” he says. “If that’s the case, then with a 50 percent or more dropout rate, we have a serious problem.”
On the face of it, Ferrer’s argument seems plausible enough. As Klein readily allows, the graduation rate is “the most important metric” in assessing the long-term progress of the schools. And, no doubt, New York’s is alarmingly low; the national average is 71 percent. But beneath the surface—and not far beneath it—Ferrer’s case has some problems.
To start with, Ferrer tends to refer to the graduation rate and the dropout rate as if they were the same. In fact, according to the DOE, the four-year graduation rate is 54.3 percent. But the dropout rate is just 16.3 percent, with the other 29.4 percent of students remaining in high school for a fifth year. And the graduation rate has risen since Bloomberg took office—albeit slowly; in 2002, it was 50.8 percent—to the highest it’s been in nearly two decades.
The deeper problem is that Ferrer’s position ignores demographic reality. As Klein points out, “Every kid who’s graduated since I started was in high school when I began.” And the harsh truth is that the effects of any reform on them were going to be limited. With that in mind, Klein and Bloomberg have sequenced their initiatives from the bottom up, focusing first on the lower grades before moving on to the higher ones. “If you increase the number of kids who go to middle school prepared,” Klein argues, “you improve graduation rates down the line.”
Ferrer’s line of attack has proved even weaker politically. For weeks, his campaign has quibbled over statistics and methodology, a tactic that tends to induce severe-onset narcolepsy. Bloomberg, meanwhile, has parried in a way that reinforces Ferrer’s image as a static figure, wedded to the past. “The thing Freddy has to dance around,” says Deputy Mayor for Policy Dennis Walcott, “is that, in 2001, the mayor said, ‘I want control of the schools,’ and never backed away from it . . . Whereas Freddy wanted to maintain the status quo: He’s on record saying he wanted to keep the old Board of Education.”
Later, I raise the matter with Ferrer: “The mayor says, ‘He was against mayoral control.’ True or false?” Ferrer stares blankly back and says, “I don’t accept that dopey question”—then offers an answer lifted from John Kerry’s “I voted for it before I voted against it” greatest-hits anthology. (For the record, Ferrer, during his 2001 campaign, referred to mayoral control as a “facile political gimmick.”)
But hapless as Ferrer may be, he’s right about one thing: New Yorkers remain distressed about public education. After three years of tumult and revolutionary rhetoric, to many parents and students the schools seem much the same. Assuming Bloomberg and Klein get another term, when might that start to change?
One morning in October, Klein pays a visit to P.S./I.S. 33 in Chelsea, which sits on Ninth Avenue, across from a housing project. The principal 1there, Linore Lindy, is a woman Klein describes as a “phenomenal dynamo. She says their approach is ‘90-90-90’—90 percent poverty, 90 percent minority, 90 percent on grade.” And while the school remains some ways off from achieving the last figure, the recent improvements have been marked: A year ago, only about 30 percent of the students were performing at grade level in reading; now the number is over 60 percent. “The parents at that school,” Klein tells me later, “say it’s a totally different place.”
For Klein, P.S. 33 is a way of addressing the question of when transformation will come. His answer, boiled down, is that it’s already happening—just in certain places and not others. “Our goal is not a great school system; our goal is a system of great schools,” he says. “We’re in the process of transforming schools one at a time.”
Carmen Fariña, his deputy for teaching and learning, elaborates with more precision—and with a touch of heresy. Asked about Bloomberg’s contention that when he took office, as he put it to me, “the school system was broken,” Fariña replies, “The system wasn’t totally broken, but it was totally inequitable. Where it was good, it was very good, and where it was bad, it was horrible, and nobody was doing anything about it . . . In the schools that were doing good work already, you’re not going to see a major transformation. Where the transformation is happening is in places that were inequitably treated.”