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Reaching Every Child: Mayor de Blasio Lays Out Education Vision For New York City

March 23, 2014

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In Remarks at the Riverside Church, Mayor Promises to Bring People Together to Focus on Solutions that Reach Every Child and Change the Entire School System

New York City Stands Poised for First-Time to Secure Funding for Universal, High-Quality Pre-Kindergarten and After-School Programs

De Blasio Assails a ‘Failing Status Quo’ and Rhetoric that Divide School Communities

NEW YORK – In remarks Sunday before the congregants of the Riverside Church, Mayor Bill de Blasio laid out his vision for New York City’s schools and pledged a new approach that brings parents and school communities together. The Mayor assailed the failures and inequities of the current system, and pledged a new approach that fosters fairness and progress across the entire school system. The Mayor also urged an end to overheated, divisive rhetoric that too often distracts from an honest dialogue about making every New York City child career and college ready.

Mayor de Blasio’s remarks focused on a number of specific policy ideas to improve every school and trigger real opportunity for every student – from universal pre-kindergarten and after-school programs, to improving parental engagement, to bolstering teacher retention and support.

“My vision focuses on solutions that address the root cause of challenges in our schools – with early childhood education and supervised after-school programs chief among them,” said Mayor de Blasio. “We cannot continue a system predicated on the false choice between giving opportunity to a lucky few children, or to none at all. We are turning a page of the era of zero sum games. It’s time for big, bold changes that reach every child, that take innovations and share them, and that recognize we have no greater responsibility than preparing every child, in every borough, for college and career.”

Mayor de Blasio’s remarks zeroed in on the core principles that will guide his administration’s educational policy, including equity and fairness; refusing to tolerate the pervasive failures of the current educational status quo that leaves too many students behind; and uniting stakeholders and policymakers with a shared commitment to making the change that will lift up every student, instead of dividing school communities and pitting one family against another.

Remarks as Delivered

First, I want to give honor to God, without Him this day would not be possible.

I want to thank your extraordinary pastor. Pastor Forbes, you’re a light to so many of us, you’re a conscience to this city and this nation. Chirlane and I are humbled to be with you and with this great congregation. And I’m humbled to have a few moments just to share some thoughts and we all worship together.

I want to thank the Chair of this great organization, this great church, Len Leach. And all of the elected officials who are here. All the leaders of this administration who are here. And, you should know, they are working day and night, not only for the public good writ large, but they are working day and night for our children. To make sure that soon, there will be full-day pre-K for every child in this city.


Soon there will be after-school programs for every middle school student in this city.


And we honor these great public servants for what they’re doing.

This stunning church – this extraordinary place – has defined the progressive vision for so long. It has fueled and energized progressive movements here and around the world. It’s a reminder to us of what can be done. I think it’s fair to say pastor, in this church, things that were deemed impossible become possible.

Now last week this whole city, was moved, was humbled, was shocked, was saddened by the tragedy in East Harlem. We all had a sense of pulling together – we came together, it didn’t matter where we were from, who we were, we came together trying to help those in need.

But somehow when we consider the education of our children, when we as a society engage in discourse about the needs of our children, somehow we too easily pull apart. It becomes routine, it becomes even unknowing. We disconnect, we don’t communicate the way we cold.

And we have a crisis when it comes to education. It’s a tragedy of a different kind – too many children being left behind too frequently.

You know, only less than two thirds of our children graduate high school on time. And among those who graduate, less than a quarter are college-ready. And when you think about Latino and African American students, it’s only 11% who are college-ready.

When you think about that crucial third grade level, that make or break year, if you’re on grade level by third grade so many things can happen, and if you’re not, you can fall behind permanently. In this city today, among children of color, fewer than 20% are on grade level by third grade.

That is a crisis – that is a status quo that cannot be accepted.

And I want to refer to a great theologian, Paul Tillich, who spent time at Union Theological Seminary, walked the streets of our city. He wrote a book called The Shaking of the Foundations. And in it he said:

“The noise of these shallow waters prevents us from listening to the sounds out of the depth, to the sounds of what really happens in the ground of our social structure, in the longing hearts of the masses, and in the struggling minds of those who are sensitive to historical changes.”

And those most sensitive to historical changes are those who are being left out time and time again. And too often that is our children.

And so we have to shake the foundations. And this may be something that can unite us. Because I know people of every ideology who want to shake the foundations. I know teachers in traditional public schools who want to shake the foundations. I know people in the charter school movement who want to shake the foundations. And what can unify us is that sense of urgency that we can’t accept this status quo.

Now, the answer is not to save a few of our children only. The answer is not to find an escape route that some can follow and others can’t. The answer is to fix the entire system.


So many good people are laboring every day in traditional public schools, in charter schools, in religious schools, to uplift all our children, who will be the future of this city together. It doesn’t matter what school they went to – they will be our future together.

And despite those great efforts, a system that is broken fights against those efforts every day.

And so we have to approach systematic change – we have to go to root causes. And some of those are what people in this church have talked about so long – the true root causes of the challenges in our society – poverty, hunger, a lack of affordable housing. All of the things I talked about last year when I acknowledged this Tale of Two Cities that we’re living.

But even within the education system itself, we aren’t approaching the root causes and the systematic changes we need to.

We have to work from the assumption that we will save every child, that we will reach every child, that no system is actually working unless every child has opportunity.


And we need to be able to say, that despite the good efforts of so many, the school system is still broken in so many ways. Our brothers and sisters in the charter movement point to this reality. And I acknowledge that many people of good will in that movement are trying to shake the foundation. And we will work with them in good faith.

But we need to work on solutions for the whole.


The original notion of the charter movement was to innovate, to create laboratories for new and better ideas that then they could be brought into the whole traditional public school system. That’s a positive vision that we have to reengage.

The idea is not to create separation – the kind of competition that works for some and leaves others out. The idea is to create a fullness, a totality, a completeness in which our charter schools help to uplift our traditional public schools.

Six percent of our children in the charters – they are our children. We need them to succeed.

94% of our children are in traditional public schools – they are our children. We need them to succeed.


The notion that some children may be lucky enough – quote unquote lucky enough – to escape from the traditional public school in their neighborhood speaks volumes. Because so many parents feel that way right now. So many parents are simply looking for the best for their children. And sadly they don't see it enough in their neighborhood schools.

That’s a reality I won’t accept.

I want the parents to know that we will not accept a neighborhood school that fails them. I know Chancellor Farina feels the same urgency I do. Our mission is to create a city in which, regardless of zip code, your neighborhood public school is a great option for your child.


There has been failure – we should not look away from it. We shouldn’t sweep it under the rug. But the failure hasn’t been on the part of our children. The failure hasn’t been on the part of our hardworking and struggling parents. It’s all of us in public life who haven’t measured up. And by the way it’s been for decades, and it’s been bipartisan, a sad universal reality of not reaching out and fixing those root causes.

Well I say we today, as I start my mayoralty, I am devoted to each and every child of this city. It is my responsibility to fix the problem. And I won’t choose between our children in this city any more than any parent can choose between children of their family. I will reach out to all of the children, in traditional public schools, in charter schools, in religious schools. They are all our children, they all deserve a solution.


We made some decisions in the last weeks, striving for fairness. But I have to tell you I didn’t measure up when it came to explaining those decisions to the people of this city. So let me start to right the ship now. We want children to have good options. But good options have to serve both the children they are intended for while not displacing or harming other children in the schools to which they may go.

There’s a charter school with 194 children. It’s a good school doing good work, and we are going to make sure those 194 children have a good home this year. But we will not do it at the expense of our special education children.


And that false choice has been set up as part of a broken system and a broken dialogue. And it’s time to start ending that kind of dysfunction. Not pitting one against the other. Not somehow allowing the education discourse to be the place where we’re least civil, least sane, least generous.

So we’ll protect the children who need our help, while not pitting one against another. Now, we have to get to the root causes, and I’ll finish quickly on this.

The root causes are that we reach our children too late, that we don’t keep them in school long enough each day. That we don’t make sure that the very best teachers stay in the teaching profession, that we don’t engage our parents in a systematic way to help uplift their children.

Those are all foundational problems.

You won’t read a lot about some of those problems and some of those solutions on the front pages of our papers. You won’t see them on the evening news because where there’s conflict, that’s where the energy goes.

But nothing would help our children more than reaching them earlier with full day pre-k.

Nothing would help our children more than extending the school day for after-school, so they’re learning more, they’re safe and secure, and they’re getting tutoring and homework help enrichment.

Nothing would help our children more than making sure every great teacher is supported, and constantly improving and remains a teacher for their whole career here in New York City.

And nothing would help a child more than recognizing, and I say this as a parent, a public school parent, a proud one, that our parents are the first and last teachers of our children.


And that means systematically supporting parents in their efforts to help their own children, showing them how, reaching out to them, bringing them in, because that’s the greatest value added when the parents are at the table, as part of making our schools work better.


We don’t talk about how to do that enough. And we don’t talk about how to retain great teachers enough. Until recently, we didn’t talk about early childhood education enough. We didn’t talk about afterschool enough. But now we are, and I’ll finish on this hopeful note, pastor.

In Albany now, a lot of good people are working to make sure we will do better by our children. They’re working to make sure we will break through that dysfunction finally. They’re working for a reset – very good people of all different parties working together.

You know what they’re talking about a lot these days? They’re talking about pre-K, They’re talking about after-school.

And again, despite the partisan differences, and the way the political debate unfolds, I thank all the leaders in Albany. I thank all the members of the Legislature because they’re talking about this. They’re focusing on this.

I know Governor Cuomo wants us to have pre-K for all of our children. And I honor him for that. And this is one of those sea change moments.

Maybe despite ourselves, we’re finding our way to a common understanding that it’s time to actually invest in our children.

And when we do, when we do, because I know we will, I know a victory is upon us. I know it’s been a long journey, but I know a moment of change is about to happen. I know in the next few days the world will change before our very eyes. The way we think about education, the way we approach education is about to change.

And it’s not primarily because of anyone elected official in office, myself included.

It’s because of everyone in this congregation. It’s because the people of this city demanded it, it’s because they cared so much, they believed we could do something better. They would not accept the dysfunction; they would not accept a history that had let them down.

They wanted to shake the foundations. And now leaders are following the people.

Thank you, and God bless you.