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How Could Michael Bloomberg’s Education Record Play on the Democratic Debate Stage?

By Evie Blad — February 18, 2020 9 min read
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Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg will appear for the first time on the presidential debate stage Wednesday night, bringing with him a hands-on education record stemming from three terms as mayor—but also many positions that run counter to those of his opponents in the Democratic primary.

For example, Bloomberg, who helped steer the nation’s largest school district as mayor, notably has a record of enthusiastically supporting charter schools and policies that incorporate them into school improvement efforts. That may put him at odds with fellow debaters like Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and billionaire philanthropist Tom Steyer, who’ve pledged to rein in federal support for charters.

A former Republican who switch his party affiliation back to Democrat in 2018, Bloomberg has pitched himself as a pragmatic, moderate alternative to progressive candidates like Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, using his vast personal wealth as a business information and media magnate to finance an unconventional campaign that bypassed the early primary states in favor of a heavy focus on the 14 states that will cast their ballots in the March 3 Super Tuesday contests. He qualified for the debate after a national poll released Tuesday by NPR, PBS NewsHour, and Marist found that 19 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents supported Bloomberg, putting him second behind Sanders, who won support from 31 percent of those respondents.

Education has played a key role in some of the eight previous debates as candidates had sometimes contentious exchanges about school segregation, school shootings, charter schools, and funding for special education. If it comes up again Wednesday night, here are a few key parts of Bloomberg’s education and policy record to keep an eye on:

New York’s Schools

The successes and struggles of Big Apple schools can be closely tied to Bloomberg during his tenure as mayor, which spanned from 2002 to 2013. As a candidate, Bloomberg pushed for mayoral control over the school system, giving him much more of a say in day-to-day decisions and strategies. The state legislature granted him that control in 2002, and he made big changes by restructuring the school system.

After building his name in the private sector on sharing and analyzing business information, Bloomberg took a similar approach to city schools. His approach, called Children First, led to new reading and math curriculum, revamped high school admissions, and A-F grading for all schools.

That focus on accountability may separate him from some other 2020 candidates, who’ve largely focused on giving more resources to public schools through expanding federal grant programs for special education and low-income students. Bloomberg also addressed funding as mayor, through a weighted formula that provided additional resources to schools with high enrollments of students living in poverty and students with disabilities.

In 2002, Bloomberg appointed Joel Klein, a media CEO and former antitrust leader in the U.S. Department of Justice under President Bill Clinton, to help lead those efforts as city schools chancellor for his first eight years. Bloomberg’s willingness to tap someone from outside of the education world for that leadership role may contrast with candidates like Warren and former Vice President Joe Biden, who’ve said they would replace U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos with a current or former public school teacher.

Klein faced criticism from teachers unions, who fought with him over issues like teacher evaluations. In 2015, after Bloomberg was out of office, the American Federation of Teachers made a “panicked” call to then-Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign to check out a rumor that Klein was serving as an advisor. (It turned out he was not.)

However, Bloomberg’s tenure, and Klein’s work, also won praise from some supporters of his approach to education reform, including Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Discussion of such efforts has been largely absent from the presidential debates so far.

Charter Schools

Under Bloomberg’s watch, the number of New York City charter schools grew from just 22 in 2003 to nearly 200 in the 2012-13 school year. By the end of his final term, they served 70,000 students—a little more than 5 percent of the district’s students, Education Week reported. Debates over charters during that time included disputes over building sharing agreements with traditional public schools.

In a 2019 speech to the NAACP, Bloomberg reiterated his support for charter schools and said they should be held to high standards:

Some of the top-performing schools in New York City are public charter schools. Charters around the country often receive less money than traditional public schools, but in New York, at least, they often performed at the very highest levels. And that’s why we created 173 of them, to go along with the hundreds of non-charter public schools we created.
Now that is not to say that charter schools are the end-all and be-all. Some states have done a poor job holding charters accountable for their performance. One of the weakest charter laws is here in Michigan, because conservatives—including Betsy DeVos—have allowed failing charter schools to continue to operate. And that is wrong and it hurts children, and we should not tolerate it. So I share the NAACP’s criticism of these practices, but we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water.
In New York, we showed that when charters are granted carefully, and overseen rigorously, the results can be incredibly impressive among millions of kids, giving them the opportunity to succeed in life and pursue their dreams. And that model can work nationally.
Unfortunately, however, the political discussion in America around education has shifted from when President Obama was leading it. Today, most Democrats running for president are avoiding talking about President Obama, and they are also avoiding talking about charter schools, or actually opposing them.
They want to take options away from our kids, and I don’t think we should do that. You can’t let them do that.”

Bloomberg has not yet released a K-12 education plan, but supporters and critics both expect him to take a softer stance on charters than some of his competitors. And supporters of charter schools plan to protest outside of the Wednesday debate in Las Vegas, as they have at several previous Democratic party events.


Bloomberg’s positions on teacher-related issues led New York City’s union, the United Federation of Teachers, to become one of his fiercest critics.

While he helped raise teacher pay, he also pushed for low-performing teachers to be laid off, and championed merit pay for teachers and principals.

Bloomberg’s views on teachers resurfaced over the weekend, as critics shared video from a 2011 speech in which the former mayor said that, if he had the ability, he would “cut the number of teachers in half, but you would double the compensation of them, and you would weed out all the bad ones and just have good teachers. And double the class size with a better teacher is a good deal for the students.”

After Obama-era debates over teacher evaluation and teacher placement, 2020 candidates have largely shied away from those issues, calling instead for ambitious federal efforts to raise educator pay around the country. Without a K-12 education plan, it’s unclear how Bloomberg’s history with teachers, and with unions, will shape his approach in the national race.

Civil Rights

Bloomberg’s record on civil rights has dominated the conversation as his opponents seek to win approval from black and Latino voters, who play a key role in the next few primary races. And those debates come as many Democratic candidates have sought to draw contrasts with the Trump administration’s approach to education civil rights.

Bloomberg has faced the most heat for stop and frisk, a policy under which New York police officers stopped and detained residents in certain neighborhoods, raising concerns about racial profiling and due process violations. At the time, Bloomberg justified the policy as a way to address crime in the city, but he has since apologized. How will his approach to civil rights affect his views on the disproportionately high school discipline rates for black students, the rights of transgender children at school, and other policies under the U.S. Department of Education’s control?

School Safety

One of Bloomberg’s core issues is his call for more expansive gun laws. His organization, Everytown for Gun Safety, and a partner group, Moms Demand Action, have dominated the gun-control debate since the 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

After two high-profile school shootings in 2018—in Parkland, Fla., and Santa Fe, Texas—Democratic candidates have called for measures like expanded background checks and red flag laws to stem gun violence.

But candidates’ plans have extended beyond gun laws to address school safety more broadly, with calls for more counselors, trauma-informed practices, and resources for student supports. How will Bloomberg address those concerns?

Campaign Contributions

Bloomberg’s personal and corporate philanthropy and political contributions have given him influence in contentious education policy debates well outside of New York. His donations to school board and legislative candidates around the country have helped advance his vision to education reform.

The New York Times detailed how Bloomberg’s giving has given him influence in a variety of sectors, including education.

“A champion of charter schools, Mr. Bloomberg has used his wealth in numerous ways to sway education policy in Louisiana,” the Times reports. “As mayor, he began giving relatively small donations, several thousand dollars each, to candidates in Louisiana school board races. But that investment sharply increased after a former New York City deputy schools chancellor, John White, became Louisiana’s state education chief in 2012.

“Mr. Bloomberg has made more than $5 million in political donations in the state, including $3.6 million to Empower Louisiana, an education-focused political committee chaired by a powerful Republican donor, and also backed Mitch Landrieu, the former Democratic mayor of New Orleans. Over the same period, Mr. Bloomberg gave nearly $15 million to the Baton Rouge Area Foundation to promote charter schools, and his foundation gave nearly $3 million to the City of New Orleans. Two former senior aides to Mr. Landrieu are now helping lead Mr. Bloomberg’s political strategy in the South and his national outreach to African-American voters.”

As Education Week as reported, Bloomberg also contributed to campaigns for state laws to restrict teachers’ collective bargaining power, and to Los Angeles school board candidates who were at odds with the city’s teachers union.

Will those candidates and policies, and the debates that have developed since, follow Bloomberg on the campaign trail?

Photo: Democratic presidential candidate and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg speaks at a campaign event in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

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