Michael Bloomberg Says He May Run for President: Why He Won’t Be my Choice

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.

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School Closure: A Tragic Turnaround Strategy

Chicago’s Dyett High School, which had been phased out by the school district beginning in 2012, will be re-opened as an open-enrollment, arts-focused high school for 550 students.  The school was slated for closure following the graduation of 13 students last June at the end of the phase-out process. A dozen protesters, led by Jitu Brown of Chicago’s Kenwood Oakland Community Association, are responsible for the re-opening of Dyett as a neighborhood high school.  Since August 17, the protesters have conducted a hunger strike to protest the school’s closure.

As the Chicago Public Schools capitulated by agreeing to re-open the school, Jitu Brown commented: “We are happy the school is opening as a neighborhood CPS-run school.  All is not lost.  But what we want is what the community demanded.”  Earlier this year, when the school district had issued a request for proposals (RFP), citizens of the neighborhood had submitted a proposal for a school with a focus on green energy and global leadership, with support from the University of Illinois at Chicago’s School of Education and the Chicago Botanical Gardens, which Chicago Catalyst reports “had agreed to partner with Dyett under the proposal submitted by activists.”

CPS has declared that the school will have an arts, not a science, focus, in honor of the school’s namesake, Walter Henri Dyett, a DuSable High School music teacher known for educating a number of Chicago’s great jazz musicians.  Although the school district described its agreement to re-open Dyett as a high school with an arts focus as “a compromise” (intended to end the hunger strike), the protesters continue to declare that their hunger strike is about something much larger—the autocratic, top-down management of a school district that has persistently disdained the Chicago neighborhood communities the public schools are said to serve. While Dyett High School will re-open to serve the neighborhood, the District’s leaders ignored the wishes the community has been expressing through the hunger strike and that they framed several months ago in a formal proposal.

School closure is one of the four approved, top-down “turnaround” plans prescribed by the federal No Child Left Behind Act for schools unable to raise test scores after several years. The implication of the “turnaround” language, of course, implies that somehow closure will inspire rebirth, but too often school closure has meant not only the death of the school but also the demise of the neighborhood for which the school was the institutional anchor.

School closure was a favorite plan of New York’s mayor Michael Bloomberg and his chancellor, Joel Klein, writes Jelani Cobb in an extraordinary New Yorker profile of New York’s Jamaica High School, closed last June.  Over the years Bloomberg and Klein closed 74 schools.  In 2010, Chicago’s mayor Rahm Emmanuel and his public schools CEO Barbara Byrd Bennett closed 50 schools.  Adrian Fenty, Washington, D.C.’s mayor, and his superintendent Michelle Rhee closed two dozen schools—one of the factors that is said to have precipitated his defeat in a subsequent election.  Quoting the phraseology used by Joel Klein to justify New York City’s school closures and the co-location of a number of small high schools into the buildings that had housed the comprehensive high schools, Cobb explains: “The real problem was that the schools had ‘started getting many kids who were low-performing and entering high school a couple of years behind.’  The solution was to create ‘a much more intimate and personalized setting for them’—a phrase at odds with the disruption and the discord that often greet the end of a long-established community institution.”

Carol Burris, a former high school principal in New York City and now the director of the Network for Public Education, recently reflected on school closures in the context of the Dyett hunger strike, quoting Jitu Brown: “We’re tired of our children and our communities being demonized and being blamed for being underserved.”  Burris describes the demographics at a number of New York City schools closed in 2011: “A 2011 report by the New York City Independent Budget Office (IBO) recognized that the demographics of the 14 schools slated for closure served a disproportionate number of homeless students, black students, special education students, low income students, and students who were overage for their grade.  Ironically, one third of the schools on the list had replaced another school that had been closed before it—repeating a cycle of disruption for neighborhood kids.”

The problem with the No Child Left Behind Act is that it set out to punish the teachers and schools thought not to be working hard enough, but it has failed to address the concentrated family poverty that is frequently found in the neighborhoods whose schools are persistently said to be “failing.”  Jelani Cobb’s piercing analysis of the demise of New York’s storied Jamaica High School—and the accompanying critique of today’s school reform strategy, pursued with zeal by both the Bush and Obama administrations and the big-city mayors who run their school districts through appointed school boards, is worth reading and re-reading. Cobb understands how top-down management undercuts democracy and how today’s technocratic school policies destroy the very communities that are supposed to be turned around through strategies like closing neighborhood high schools and firing teachers and principals.

Here is Cobb’s analysis:  “Like ‘busing’ and ‘integration,’ the language of today’s reformers often serves as a euphemism for poverty mitigation, the implicit goal that American education has fitfully attempted to achieve since Brown v. Board of Education.  Both busing and school closure recognize the educational obstacles that concentrated poverty creates.  But busing recognized a combination of unjust history and policy as complicit in educational failure.  In the ideology of school closure, though. the lines of responsibility—of blame, really—run inward  It’s not society that has failed, in this perspective.  It’s the schools.  In 1954, Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s arguments about the pernicious effects of racism on black children implicated white society.  Sixty years later, arguments that black students associated studiousness with ‘acting white’ were seen not as evidence of the negative effects of internalized racism but as indicators of pathological self-defeat among African Americans.  The onus shifted, and public policy followed.  The current language of educational reform emphasizes racial ‘achievement gaps’ and ‘underperforming schools’ but also tends to approach education as if history had never happened.  Integration was a flawed strategy, but it recognized the ties between racial history and educational outcomes.”