New York City’s former three-term mayor, Michael Bloomberg, a multi-billionaire businessman, is exploring whether to join other Democrats running for President in 2020. It is said that he would be a Democratic centrist, and we know that he has contributed positively to the national conversation promoting gun control and an aggressive response to climate change. But, as usual in this political season, his record on public education has been neglected by the press.
Michael Bloomberg does have a long education record. Bloomberg served as New York City’s mayor from January of 2002 until December of 2013. In 2002, to accommodate his education agenda, Bloomberg got the state legislature to create mayoral governance of NYC’s public schools. In this role, Michael Bloomberg and his appointed schools chancellor, Joel Klein were among the fathers of what has become a national wave of corporate, accountability-based school reform. Bloomberg is a businessman, and Joel Klein was a very successful attorney. Neither had any experience as an educator. They took aggressive steps to run the NYC school district, with 1.1 million students, like a business. Their innovations included district-wide school choice, rapid expansion of charter schools, co-location of a bunch of small charter and traditional schools into what used to be comprehensive high schools, the phase out and closure of low-scoring schools, evaluation of schools by high stakes standardized test scores, the assignment of letter grades to schools based on their test scores, and a sort of merit pay bonus plan for teachers.
In her 2018 book, After the Education Wars, Andrea Gabor, the New York business journalist and journalism professor, comments on Bloomberg’s educational experiment: “The Bloomberg administration embraced the full panoply of education-reform remedies. It worshiped at the altar of standardized tests and all manner of quantitative analysis. The Bloomberg administration also had a penchant for reorganizations that seemed to create more disruption than continuous improvement among its 1.1 million students and 1,800 schools.” ( After the Education Wars, p. 75)
Gabor describes Bloomberg’s expansion of charter schools: “Harlem, in particular, has become the center of an unintentional educational experiment—one that has been replicated in neighborhoods and cities around the country. During the Bloomberg years, when close to a quarter of students in the area were enrolled in charter schools, segregation increased, as did sizable across-the-board demographic disparities among the students who attended each type of school. An analysis of Bloomberg-era education department data revealed that public open-enrollment elementary and middle schools have double—and several have triple—the proportion of special needs kids of nearby charter schools. The children in New York’s traditional public schools are much poorer than their counterparts in charter schools. And public schools have far higher numbers of English language learners… In backing charter schools Bloomberg and other advocates pointed to one clear benefit: charters, it was widely accepted, would increase standardized test scores. However, years of studies showed little difference between the test-score performance of students in charter schools and those in public schools.” After the Education Wars, p. 95)
A Leadership Academy for school administrators taught business management principles. Gabor explains: “The Leadership Academy, launched in January 2003, was a cornerstone of the new Bloomberg administration’s education-reform strategy for public schools, one focused on breaking up both the central bureaucracy and New York City’s large, factory-style high schools… The Leadership Academy’s mission was to recruit and train six hundred new entrepreneurial principals by the end of Bloomberg’s first term, in 2006, to help run the many new mostly small schools that the new administration hoped to establish. Like many of the Bloomberg-era reforms, there was much that was controversial about the Leadership Academy. For one thing, the academy boasted the ideal of a public-private partnership and the promise of helping to run both schools and the education bureaucracy more like businesses….” (After the Education Wars, p. 76)
Perhaps Gabor’s most abiding criticism is that Bloomberg and Klein distrusted experienced educators. And this attitude has been part of the corporate reform movement they helped launch across America’s big cities during the past two decades: “The business reformers came to the education table with their truths: a belief in market competition and quantitative measures. They came with their prejudices—favoring ideas and expertise forged in corporate boardrooms over the knowledge and experience gleaned in the messy trenches of inner-city classrooms. They came with distrust of an education culture that values social justice over more practical considerations like wealth and position. They came with the arrogance that elevated polished, but often mediocre (or worse), technocrats over scruffy but knowledgeable educators. And, most of all, they came with their suspicion—even their hatred—of organized labor and their contempt for ordinary public school teachers.” (After the Education Wars, p. 4)
In her 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch examined all this while it was an ongoing experiment: “In the first decade of the new century, New York City became the national testing ground for market based reforms. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his chancellor, Joel Klein, applied business principles to overhaul the nation’s largest school system, which enrolled 1.1 million children… They reorganized the management of the schools, battled the teachers’ union, granted large pay increases to teachers and principals, pressed for merit pay, opened scores of charter schools, broke up large high schools into small ones, emphasized frequent practice for state tests, gave every school a letter grade, closed dozens of low-performing schools, and institutionalized the ideas of choice and competition (albeit without vouchers). (The Death and Life of the Great American School System, p. 69)
School closures were among the most problematic of Bloomberg’s reforms. Ravitch explains: “As it elevated the concept of school choice, the Department of Education destroyed the concept of neighborhood high schools. Getting into the high school of one’s choice became as stressful as getting into the college of one’s choice… Students were expected to list their top twelve preferences. Most got into one of the twelve, but thousands got into none at all. Neighborhoods were once knitted together by a familiar local high school that served all the children of the community, a school with distinctive traditions and teams and history. After the neighborhood high school closed, children scattered across the city in response to the lure of new, unknown small schools with catchy names or were assigned to schools far from home… As a high school for 3,000 students was closed down, it would be replaced by four or five small schools for 500 students. What happened to the missing students? Invariably, they were the lowest-performing, least motivated students who were somehow passed over by the new schools… These troublesome students were relegated to another large high school, where their enrollment instigated a spiral of failure, dissolution, and closing.” (The Death and Life of the Great American School System, p. 84)
In a stunning 2013 report, Over the Counter, Under the Radar, the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University tracked what happened to students who arrived in the district too late for that year’s school choice competition. Others did not speak English, or for some reason did not participate in the choice process. These students who just showed up at school trying to register were dubbed in NYC, “over the counter students”: “Every year, some 16,000 students who enroll in New York City high schools without participating in the high school choice process are labeled as ‘over-the-counter’ or OTC students and are assigned a school by the New York City Department of Education. These young people are among the school system’s highest-needs students—new immigrants, special needs students, previously incarcerated teens, poor or transient or homeless youth, students over age for grade… OTC students are disproportionately assigned to high schools with higher percentages of low-performing students… OTC students are disproportionately assigned to high schools that are subsequently targeted for closure or that are undergoing the closure process.”
Under Bloomberg’s watch, several large comprehensive high schools, deemed failing for low test scores, were phased out one grade per year. New ninth graders stopped being enrolled; then tenth grade was eliminated, then eleventh, and finally the school closed. Ravitch quotes education sociologist Pedro Noguera: “Pedro Noguera of New York University observed that the Department of Education failed to provide the large schools with the support and guidance they needed to improve. ‘They don’t have a school-change strategy… They have a school-shutdown strategy'”(The Death and Life of the Great American School System, p. 87)
In a stunning 2015, New Yorker magazine profile of Jamaica High School, in Queens, Jalani Cobb recounts the story of his own alma mater, its demise brought on by increasing residential segregation, poverty, and Bloomberg school reform: “Jamaica High School, in Queens, was once the largest high school in the United States… One evening in June of last year, Jamaica students wearing red and blue gowns gathered with their families and teachers and with members of the school staff at Antun’s, a catering hall in Queens Village, for the senior-class commencement ceremony, but it carried a particular significance on this occasion, because it was as applicable to the faculty and the staff, some of whom had been at the school for nearly three decades, as it was to the students. After a hundred and twenty-two years, Jamaica High School was closing; the class of 2014, which had just twenty-four members, would be the last. The New York City Department of Education had announced the closure three years earlier, citing persistent violence and a graduation rate of around fifty percent. Accordingly, the department had begun to ‘co-locate’ four newly created ‘small schools’ in the old building… The schools tended to operate like siblings competing for bathroom time. Access to the building’s communal spaces was at a premium. Unable to secure the auditorium for a graduating class of two dozen, Jamaica High School found itself both figuratively and literally, pushed out.”
Cobb explains how the Bloomberg-Klein New York Department of Education phased out the school: “In 2004, in the name of greater choice, the Bloomberg administration revised the districting rules to allow students to attend any high school in the city. Given the realities of residential segregation and of school quality as a determinant of real-estate values, there was something almost radical in that idea.” But the universal high school choice plan didn’t desegregate New York City’s public schools. “The demographic balance that characterized Jamaica during my years became impossible to maintain. In 2011, the year that the city formally decided to close the school, fourteen percent of the student population had disabilities and twenty-nine percent had limited English proficiency. In the year before the school closed, it was ninety-nine percent minority, a demographic that would not in itself be a concern were it not also the case that sixty-three percent of the students qualified as poor… The tacit belief that large schools were unreformable meant that Jamaica’s sliding numbers looked to some experts like predictable educational failure; to the faculty, those numbers looked like what happens when a school is asked to educate a challenging population without the necessary tools.”
Among the Democrats running for President in 2020, I’ll be looking for a candidate who respects professional educators and who understands the importance of supporting the public schools, designed to serve the needs and protect the rights of all children. Public schools need our ongoing attention and support. My choice for President couldn’t possibly be Michael Bloomberg.