Justice Democrats-backed House candidate Jamaal Bowman has said, "Congress should be a piece of cake" given his experience as a Bronx principal. But 9 out of 10 students in his school have flunked state tests, according to New York City Department of Education data.
Bowman is challenging Rep. Eliot Engel (D., N.Y.) in New York's 16th Congressional District with support from Justice Democrats, the same group that championed Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's congressional bid. Bowman has centered his campaign on his 15-year experience as an educator. But the children who study under Bowman at Cornerstone Academy for Social Action (CASA) Middle School have drastically underperformed in recent years. About 90 percent of his pupils failed to meet standards on the state math exam in the 2017-18 academic year, according to the latest annual data available from the city's Department of Education. That rate represented a precipitous decline from the 2016-17 academic year, during which 74 percent of the student population failed the math test.
Bowman's students performed far worse than their peers: 38 percent of city students and 27 percent of those located in the same school district passed the math test as opposed to the 11 percent in Bowman's school. Close to one-fifth of CASA students who failed the exam would have passed if they went to a different school, according to statistics compiled by the city.
CASA students performed better in state English examinations. More than 30 percent of the student population passed the test, but those results still fell short of their peers across the city and school district.
Neither the Bowman campaign nor the school responded to requests for comment.
While a variety of factors contribute to a school's academic performance, Bowman has exhibited a hostile attitude toward standardized testing. He called standardized tests "modern day slavery" and compared education assessments to crack cocaine, as the New York Post first reported.
"America was born of horror for black people and that horror continues today for brown and poor people as well. Slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, crack cocaine, and now standardized testing were all sanctioned by the American government," Bowman wrote in a now-deleted 2015 blog post. "All designed to destroy the mind body and souls of black and brown people; All within our so-called democracy."
This opposition to standardized testing is not only an opinion held by Bowman, but also CASA middle school. The school website, which quotes Bowman's "modern day slavery" denunciations, claims that "the state exam is not a focus of our learning environment."
"State exams only measure a narrow view of intelligence," the school's website says. "Because of this, it is even more damaging when schools align their curriculum and pedagogy to the narrow focus of the state exams."
The city has acknowledged a decline at CASA. The school's student achievement score slid from three to two stars on a four-point scale, according to the department website. That performance marks a reversal of fortune for Bowman, who was once praised for making the largest gains in test scores in the city back in 2015.
Bowman has spearheaded an "opt-out" movement in recent years as his students' performance fell. He has advised parents to excuse their children from any standardized testing as an act of civil disobedience against the "poverty, war, pain and suffering of today."
"Whenever government becomes destructive of its people, it is time for the people to alter or abolish the government," Bowman wrote in the 2015 blog post. "When parents choose to opt out of the state tests, they are using civil disobedience to alter the government for its destructive high stakes standardized testing practices."
Jonathan Butcher, an education expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said that while "standardized testing is not perfect," there are "significant risks to not letting students take tests."
"These tests are important, because they help us measure student knowledge," he said. "We want to be able to know whether a school is helping a child learn to read and handle basic numeracy skills. That's an important thing for the public to know and it's certainly an important thing for the parents to know."
Bowman has cited his background as an educator to justify his opposition to charter schools, which he criticizes as "privately funded, anti-union, test prep factories with draconian behavioral policies" that struggle to accommodate students of color. City charter schools have outperformed public schools by a margin of more than 10 points, according to recent statistics. They also disproportionately educate poor and nonwhite children; 80 percent of charter school students come from low-income backgrounds and 91 percent are African American or Hispanic.
Bowman's progressive stance on education and other issues—such as his backing of the Green New Deal—earned him numerous endorsements from progressive Democrats, including Justice Democrats and Cynthia Nixon, a former gubernatorial candidate and actress.
Despite the big-ticket endorsements, Bowman has struggled to make inroads with his constituents. He has only raised 10 percent of his campaign dollars from local residents, well below the average for House candidates, as the Washington Free Beacon previously reported. A recent poll by the liberal think tank Data for Progress found that Engel, the Democratic incumbent, has a 29-10 advantage over Bowman among district residents.