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Dolman: Mayoral candidates need to talk about education more

File photo of children on a school bus

File photo of children on a school bus in New York City. (Jan. 6, 2010) Credit: Getty Images

The No. 1 issue on the minds of likely voters in New York City’s upcoming elections is not the stop-and-frisk imbroglio. It’s not the tough, elusive struggle for better outcomes in programs for the homeless and mentally ill. It’s not the shockingly sorry status of more than a few city parks.

It is education, said a speaker at a Manhattan Institute forum this morning, citing a recent Zogby poll the organization commissioned. Forty percent of likely city voters say elementary and secondary education are a top issue facing the city when Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration turns out the lights on Dec. 31.

Two things about this:

--There's great news to report. Since 2005 high school graduation rates have jumped 39 percent, city figures show. Dropout rates have tumbled by half. A promising process for teacher evaluations is ready to roll. Genuine accountability for students has been ratcheted up. And now the waiting list for charter schools has hit an astounding 53,000 in the city, according to Chancellor Dennis Walcott at this morning’s forum. “Parents want successful schools,” he said.

--Yet there’s a weird disconnect between these numbers and the political dialogue. Three mayoral candidates—Bill de Blasio, John Liu and Bill Thompson— would impose a moratorium on charter school co-locations, severely restricting their expansion. No one except Republican Joseph Lhota has mounted a strong defense of Bloomberg’s record on education.

Meanwhile, the United Federation of Teachers is waiting in the tall grass for the election-year smoke to blow over and for the clock to tick down on the Bloomberg. The union hasn’t exactly been coy about its agenda. It wants to limit mayoral control of the system and it wants to limit a teacher evaluation system that can now result in—relatively—swift firings terminations for teachers who repeatedly fail to make the grade.

The current system could stand some serious tinkering. In a $24 billion a year system of 1.1 million students, 75,000 teachers and 1,700 schools, it’s time to find a way to give parents a genuine voice. As with the old system, parental wishes still get lost in the roar of union politics and bureaucratic infighting.

But what the city needs instantly is for someone to one-up Lhota in his support for the school reforms we've already seen. Yesterday’s progress needs a defense. Tomorrow’s progress needs a powerful push.